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How Bulgaria secretly armed Ukraine

January 21, 2023

Bulgaria's former government quietly supplied Ukraine with weapons soon after Russia invaded last year, according to an investigation by the German daily Die Welt.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev in April 2022
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev in April 2022Image: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Did Bulgaria "secretly save Ukraine"? That's what conservative German daily Die Welt claimed in an article from January 18. After Russia invaded the country on February 24, 2022, the government in Sofia began a "secret strategy" as soon as four days later, when then pro-Western Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov visited the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

By the time he made the trip, the Bulgarian government had already initiated a procedure for comprehensive military aid to Ukraine, according to Die Welt.

"To avoid official arms deliveries, ammunition and armaments entered Ukraine indirectly. That's how Bulgaria intermittently covered a third of the Ukrainian army's needs," reported journalist Philip Volkmann-Schluck, who also published an adapted version of the piece in Die Welt's English-language sister publication Politico, both of which are owned by German publisher Axel Springer.

A map of Bulgaria and surrounding countries

Bulgaria also supplied diesel to Ukraine unnoticed, meeting up to 40% of the Ukrainian army's needs for tanks and vehicles between April and August, the article added.

Petkov was heading a four-party coalition at the time, and his Deputy Prime Minister Korneliya Ninova, who also leads the traditionally pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), was strictly against arms deliveries to Ukraine, as was President Rumen Radev.

While some members of the Bulgarian coalition had sided with Russia, Petkov decided to "be on the right side of history and help us defend ourselves against a much stronger enemy," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the paper.

Johanna Deimel
German Southeaster Europe expert Johanna DeimelImage: privat

Goal: Independence from Russia

Johanna Deimel, a regional expert who sits on the board of the Southeast Europe Association (SOG), underscores the complexity of Bulgaria's decision at a time when there are strong pro-Russian forces in the country. "Both the Socialists and the president are seen as Russia-friendly, though for both I would say their star is obviously sinking. To me, it's the same as what has Petkov said — that we have shown that a world is possible without dependence on Russia."

Martin Kothé, head of the Southeast and Eastern Europe regional office for Germany's liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Sofia, also praised Petkov's decisions. "Tiny Bulgaria has chosen the right side of history and took major risks. I think that is exemplary. Germany, under its new defense minister, should take a page out of that book in the future."

Aid via third-party countries

Bulgaria has not officially provided aid to Ukraine, but through arms sales via other NATO countries. This was confirmed by former Prime Minister Petkov on January 18 in Sofia.

Instead, partners from Poland, Romania, the US and England bought the weapons from Bulgarian industry, he said.

Asen Vasilev, Bulgaria's Finance Minister
Asen Vasilev, Bulgaria's Finance Minister at the time of the weapons deliveriesImage: BGNES

Petkov's finance minister at the time, Asen Vasilev, has also confirmed this. The relevant decision by the Bulgarian parliament not to supply arms to Ukraine was adhered to, he said. This decision had been taken under pressure from the public and the Socialists, which had otherwise threatened to leave the coalition.

‘It was clear to everyone'

Deputy Prime Minister and BSP leader Korneliya Ninova likely knew about the "secret strategy." That's because as Minister of Economy and Industry she was responsible for the arms trade. In response to a parliamentary question, Ninova even confirmed that arms exports from March 1 to June 30, 2022, had grown threefold compared to the previous year.

"Bulgaria has not supplied any weapons directly to Ukraine. Anyone who claims that is a liar. Bulgaria has not delivered a single cartridge to Ukraine," she told Die Welt.

 Korneliya Ninova, head of Bulgaria's traditionally pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)
Korneliya Ninova, head of Bulgaria's traditionally pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)Image: BGNES

This is true, said Vessela Tcherneva,deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Petkov's foreign policy adviser at the time. "Ukraine was not mentioned as a buyer," she told DW. "From my point of view, however, it was clear to everyone that these Soviet-designed munitions were ultimately intended for Ukraine."

Fear of Russia's response

Observers now fear retaliation by Moscow. Martin Kothé of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation sees a growing danger that Bulgarian democracy could be infiltrated by systematic Russian disinformation.

Johanna Deimel cited the possibility of more concrete action: "There is still a danger of Russian Federation sabotage against the country, including against the military and defense industries," she said.

Bulgaria has already experienced several cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

"This may even go further to instigating political unrest and targeted destabilization by Moscow and its supporters in Bulgaria," Deimel said. This is supported by the fact that the Interior Ministry in Moscow is searching for Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, who reports on Russian security for Bellingcat. He is accused of organizing the hijacking of Russian warplanes together with the Ukrainian secret service SBU.

Bulgarian investigative reporter Christo Grozev
Bulgarian investigative reporter Christo GrozevImage: Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

A clear choice at the polls

The news about the secret weapons supplies could influence the upcoming elections and put an end to the political stalemate in Bulgaria. Petkov's government was toppled by a vote of no confidence in the summer of 2022 and has not been replaced. Early parliamentary elections are likely to be held in late March or early April. Petkov and Vasilev's centrist, anti-corruption party, "We Continue the Change," and its partners "Democratic Bulgaria," a liberal conservative alliance made up of three parties, now have good chances of taking the helm in the EU member state again.

Johanna Deimel said that Bulgarians are "tired of political crises and corruption scandals surrounding Boiko Borissov," the long-term prime minister from the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party who inspired the vote of no confidence against Petrov.

Bulgarian voters will face a clear choice at the next ballot, Martin Kothé said. "Do they want to vote for freedom and the opportunities for personal development and prosperity that come with it? Or do they want to fall for the tricks of a brutal aggressor who oppresses and burns his own people to satisfy his imperial appetites?"

This article originally appeared in German.