In the former Soviet satellite state, the Bulgarian government was so divided on providing military aid to Ukraine that it almost collapsed. A solution came from Ukraine itself. But will the compromise last?

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Kiril Petkov in parliament. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was instrumental in making a deal for Ukraine

Should weapons and military aid be delivered to Ukraine or not? That’s the question that almost toppled the relatively new Bulgarian coalition government recently. That’s because here, in this southeastern European Union state, politicians are divided as to how they feel about Moscow.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, is traditionally friendly towards Russia and since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 this year, it threatened to leave the country’s coalition government if Sofia were to send weapons to Ukraine. The party’s departure would topple the current Bulgarian government.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has supported the BSP on this issue, warning that weapons deliveries would make Bulgaria a party to the war.

Thousands of people marched in Bulgarian capital during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Sofia,.Surveys of the Bulgarian public indicate support for Russian leaedership fell after the invasion of Ukraine

However, after a five-hour debate in Parliament last Wednesday, Bulgaria’s government was finally able to settle the matter and agree on a compromise. Bulgaria would not deliver weapons, it was decided. Instead, the country would provide military-technical support, which would include repairing and maintaining military equipment and weaponry.

Letter from Kyiv

It was actually Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who suggested such a compromise, in a letter addressed to the Bulgarian Parliament. What exactly will be repaired in Bulgaria, however, remains unclear for the time being.

Still, Gustav Gressel, a Berlin-based security expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is skeptical.

“It can really only involve the maintenance and repair of armored combat vehicles,” he said.

“I very much doubt it will involve anything that flies. That really only makes sense [to repair] in Ukraine. Transiting that to Bulgaria, then returning it to Ukraine involves more effort than its worth.”

European Council on Foreign Relations' security expert, Gustav Gressel.Gustav Gressel is a European Council on Foreign Relations’ security expert

Doubts over Bulgaria’s technology

Recently, Bulgaria’s Deputy Defense Minister Yordan Bozhilov announced on the state television channel BNT that Ukrainian specialists would be arriving in Bulgaria soon. Bozhilov said he planned to discuss which sort of equipment could be repaired in Bulgaria.

However, Aleksandar Mikhailov, the former head of the Bulgarian state-owned arms dealer Kintex — who was recently dismissed from the post — was more critical. Speaking to the Bulgarian television channel Nova, he described the terrible state of facilities at Avionams and Terem, which are the companies that would be responsible for such repairs.

For example, Avionams is dependent on Russian technology when it comes to the repair of old Soviet-made aircraft, Mikhailov said. Things are no better at Terem when it comes to armored vehicles, he added.

“Thanks to underfunding, a third of their equipment is defective,” Mikhailov said. “Other parts have disappeared, been stolen, or exported. These companies are working at about 40% of their capacity and they’ve been forced to maintain the Bulgarian army’s equipment with that,” he complained.

Bulgaria doesn’t produce its own spare parts either. It has mostly brought these into the country from either Russia or Ukraine.

“We’ve been maintaining old Soviet-era technology for 30 years,” the country’s deputy defense minister, Bozhilov, conceded. “We should have replaced it long ago.”

Bulgaria's coalition government is introduced late last year. Bulgaria’s coalition government was formed in December 2021

All of this is why the promise of military-technical support is limited in reality.

It is also only half the story.

European and NATO-member states are supplying weapons to Ukraine, albeit in a roundabout way. Mikhailov told television reporters that Bulgarian weapons were finding their way into Ukraine anyway, through secondary countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

“This is how Bulgaria will continue to sell weapons to Ukraine,” Angel Naydenov, a former Bulgarian defense minister, told state broadcaster BTV on Saturday. According to speculation in the local media, this doesn’t involve heavy weapons like tanks or planes. Instead, it includes the likes of small arms, grenades and other munitions.

Secret arms supplies and Russian influence

Covertly dealing arms was a Cold War specialty of Kintex, once owned by the Bulgarian secret service.

“The background on the government crisis over the arms deliveries has a domestic and a foreign policy dimension,” said Rumena Filipova, head of the Institute for Global Analytics based in Sofia. “Domestically, a rift between President Radev and the government’s reformist parties is becoming apparent. In the last two years, Radev mediated political change. But in terms of foreign policy he has pushed for a balanced — and even neutral stance — vis-à-vis Russia. And there, Russia is trying to break Bulgaria out of the Western alliance by stopping gas supplies, the dispute with North Macedonia, and the question of military aid for Kyiv,” she told DW.

All three of those issues — gas deliveries, North Macedonia and weapons for Ukraine — have seen Bulgaria’s President Radev and Economy Minister Korneliya Ninova, who’s also the head of the BSP, clash with their prime minister, Kiril Petkov.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Petkov (left) and the country's Russia-freindly President Radev.Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Petkov (left) and the country’s Russia-friendly President Radev

For now, it would appear that Petkov has outplayed them. The official decision not to provide weapons but to offer military-technical support instead, while still delivering weapons to Ukraine through back channels, was a cunning move that Petkov appears to have made in cooperation with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

“With that letter, Ukraine — which is struggling for its existence because of Russia’s imposition — managed to stabilize a friendly, nearby government despite Russian pressure,” Martin Kothe, who heads the Sofia office of Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation, said.

“Respect for this move by President Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Petkov.”

It is hard to know whether that calm can last, though. Only a day after the parliamentary debate and the decision on Ukraine, Bulgaria’s President Radev attacked the move again, describing the repair of Ukrainian military equipment as “a dangerous step.”

This article was originally written in German. 


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