Bulgaria’s Black Sea Dilemma: NATO Ally or Russian Gateway?

(Source: Sofia Globe)

Executive Summary

The Black Sea is the region most severely affected by the tensions between the Russian Federation and the Transatlantic alliance. An arc of conflicts, extending from Moldova through Ukraine to the South Caucasus and Central Asia, serves the Kremlin’s strategy of geopolitical control. Russia’s sharp aggression against Georgia and Ukraine turned the Black Sea from an area of potent cooperation into a potential battleground. For the littoral states, coping with the Russian military threat and its hybrid influence is an existential priority.

However, Bulgaria seems distanced and keeps a low profile in that Black Sea contest. Despite witnessing over a decade of growing tensions and Russia’s ongoing military buildup, Sofia has never recognized the Black Sea as a region with a unique identity and important security dimensions. As such, no Bulgarian government to date has developed a specific policy toward this region nor seen the need to play an active role, as a full-fledged European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, in drafting and implementing a common strategy for the Black Sea. Bulgaria’s regional interests and policy are, instead, primarily limited to energy, tourism and trade, preventing mass refugee flows, and averting domestic religious radicalization; Sofia views every regional security problem strictly through those lenses.

Importantly, Bulgaria hosts several key elements allied infrastructure and is active in regional security and defense cooperation through the South-East Defense Ministerial process, BlackSeaFor, the establishment of the Maritime Coordination Center, the B9 and the ‘Three Seas’ initiatives. Yet, it notably did not support the proposal to establish a permanent Black Sea “flotilla” to counter the Russian naval developments after the annexation of Crimea. In both of most recently adopted policy documents and in practice, Bulgaria is careful not to anger Russia. The Kremlin skillfully utilizes the Russian economic footprint in the country: namely, Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian natural gas, oil, and nuclear energy, as well as maintenance of the core combat capabilities of the Bulgarian military. Moscow promotes its influence through various “hybrid” tools, including propaganda, local proxies, assassination attempts and corruption.

After three rounds of parliamentary elections in 2021, Bulgaria has a new coalition government that declared “zero tolerance to corruption” as its primary goal. If achieved, the country will have the chance to free itself from the grip of Russian strategic corruption and overcome growing domestic democratic, governance and ethical deficits. But to truly become a net contributor to Black Sea security, Sofia will additionally need to rationally reassess its and NATO’s fundamental security interests and challenges in this difficult region.

 

Introduction

For the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States, the growing strategic importance of the wider Black Sea region—an area at the crossroads of the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia—stems in part from witnessing the aggressive actions of the Russian Federation there.[1] For three decades, by utilizing direct military operations and a wide range of tools, including economic coercion and corruption, the Kremlin has created an atmosphere of tension in the region, seeking to exploit vulnerabilities and frictions within and between neighboring countries. Moreover, in several parts of the wider Black Sea area, the smell of gunpowder is strong.

In its policy toward the region, NATO pursues three main objectives: 1) to prevent Russia from using the Black Sea as a platform to expand its influence in neighboring areas; 2) to provide direct political, economic, and military support to the regional member states and democratic partners; and 3) to help Black Sea nations resist Russian “hybrid” threats and strategic corruption.[2] Achieving these objectives requires decisive contributions from regional allies and partners.

Yet NATO ally Bulgaria’s focus seems to be away from the escalating tensions. The previous Bulgarian government’s [3] interests and policies were limited to providing uninterrupted import flows of natural gas, oil and tourists from across the Black Sea and exports in the opposite direction. Any regional problems were considered essential to deal with only if they impacted these flows. Even the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was not a strong enough signal to compel the Bulgarian leadership to reevaluate the country’s poisonous ties with Russia.

The following study outlines the critical security considerations of the Bulgarian leadership over the past ten years, Sofia’s policies in practice, as well as the consequent impact of those policies on strengthening Russia’s grip on crucial sectors of the Bulgarian economy. Then, it assesses Bulgaria’s latest strategic documents and policy acts, demonstrating how the Russian threat is underplayed in Sofia and illuminating the essential channels of Russian influence over the Bulgarian national security sector. The final section explains the importance of Bulgaria for regional, European and transatlantic security and outlines the challenges the country needs to overcome to live up to the role of a net security contributor.

 

The Black Sea in the Bulgarian Perspective

The Russian Federation poses a growing strategic threat to the countries in the Black Sea area. Its ambitions of reestablishing geopolitical control over the post-Soviet space are well-publicized and have been reiterated recently as President Vladimir Putin’s famous “red lines.”[4] However, diplomatic attempts consistently fail to resolve any of the protracted conflicts in Moldova, Ukraine and the South Caucasus that were sparked or exploited by Moscow. Meanwhile, energy resources originating from Russia and transiting those conflict areas are of significant importance for many European economies, several of which are trapped in strategic dependence on Russian supplies. The Kremlin qualified the pro-European social upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine and other regional countries as a Western conspiracy to weaken Russia and destabilize its neighborhood. And it remains openly opposed to any democratic and pro-European movements in what Russia considers its “near abroad,” striving to prevent these outcomes by weaponizing almost every tool at Moscow’s disposal—from gas and electricity to migration and vaccination. Gradually but decisively, using every opportunity, Russia has turned the land and maritime domains between the Western Balkans and Central Asia into a “hybrid warfare” battlefield.

Further complicating the situation for the Western alliance are the ambiguous future of Afghanistan and the expected new wave of mass migration bound for Europe, the unpredictable behavior of a critical ally, Turkey, as well as the uncertain perspectives of relations with Iran. All these factors raise the relative importance of the region, both as a knot of challenges and as a bridge to other strategic regions. Nevertheless, the outstretched wings of the Russian imperial double-headed eagle routinely tend to overshadow every serious discussion on wider Black Sea security.

Members of Bulgaria’s foreign and security policy establishment share many of their allies’ attitudes vis-à-vis the wider Black Sea, though with some intra-regional and country-specific considerations. Critically, Bulgaria never faced up to the problem of recognizing the Black Sea as a region with a unique identity and grave security dimensions. As such, it never developed a specific policy toward this region, nor did it see the need to play an active role as an EU and NATO member in drafting a Euro-Atlantic strategy for the Black Sea. Sofia’s regional interests and policy are primarily limited to energy, tourism and trade, and these are the lenses through which it tends to view any regional security problem. Its essential national security concerns have been limited to preventing mass migration from the territory of Turkey and averting domestic religious radicalization. Even Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and the consequent military buildup of the peninsula were not a strong enough signal to compel the Bulgarian leadership to take more seriously the military dimension of Black Sea security and Russia’s toxic role there.

Instead of a rational threat assessment, the central perspective of Bulgaria’s regional policy is the belief that the country sits at the intersection of three integration projects—European, Russian and Turkish. European (including NATO) integration provides everything essential for the country in political, economic and security terms. Whereas Russia advances its geopolitical control over the “near abroad” and beyond, applying systematic economic and political pressure and using direct or subtle military threats. The Turkish project, in turn, is based on “Neo-Ottomanism” and seeks to gain influence across the wider region’s Muslim and ethnic-Turkic communities and their political formations, using various soft power means.

Three consequences derive from this perspective. First, Bulgarian economic interests overshadow political and security considerations to an unacceptably high level. Second, governments in Sofia may sacrifice important political values and principles to access energy resources and markets. And third, in an economic context, Russia and Turkey have opposite meanings for Bulgaria—Russia is a source of energy dependence and a high trade deficit, while Turkey is a comprehensive market and a gateway to other regions.

Bulgaria is one of the few portals through which Russian interests can easily access Europe. The problems for national security and Bulgaria’s role in the Black Sea come from economic relations with Russia that are not market-based. On the contrary, those interactions are highly politicized and implemented through strategic corruption. According to estimates presented in the 2016 “Kremlin Playbook” study, “Russia’s economic presence [in Bulgaria] averaged over 22 percent of the GDP between 2005 and 2014 [and] there are clear signs of both political and economic capture, suggesting that the country is at high risk of Russian influenced state capture.”[5]

One of Bulgaria’s most strategically important captured sectors is the delivery of natural gas. Imprudent Bulgarian authorities have provided Gazprom with a series of lucrative, decades-long contracts while blocking projects for alternative deliveries. Thus, for 30 years, Russia successfully gained control over the entire Bulgarian energy sector apart from one strategic asset—the ownership of gas pipelines. However, former prime minister Borissov ultimately also resolved this issue in favor of Gazprom: In 2020, Bulgaria paid $1.59 billion to build a length of pipe across its territory, extending Russia’s TurkStream all the way to the border with Serbia. The Bulgarian government built this pipeline, which will be used exclusively by Gazprom, to implement the widely advertised “Roadmap,” signed in 2017 by Bulgaria’s energy minister and Gazprom’s CEO. However, during parliamentary hearings in August 2021, the caretaker energy minister stated that “the roadmap cannot be found.”[6] At the time of writing this text, Bulgargaz was utilizing less than a quarter of its quota for the cheapest gas delivered to Europe, that coming from Azerbaijan, while increasing the import of Russian gas, at double the price.[7]

The Lukoil-owned refinery in Burgas has a similar monopoly position on the Bulgarian energy market. Knowingly overlooked by the Bulgarian authorities, the company has been importing oil through its unsupervised terminal for years. With billions of dollars in annual turnover, Lukoil nonetheless regularly reports a deficit to avoid taxes, while its international marketing and trading unit, LITASCO SA, realizes profits in Switzerland. Furthermore, the company does not hesitate to exploit its monopolistic position to the detriment of Bulgaria’s national security. In 2011, the state attempted to install monitoring devices in “Lukoil Bulgaria,” which immediately led to difficulties in supplying civilian airports with aviation fuel. The government had to release aviation kerosene from the state reserve to prevent serious air traffic problems.[8] Overall, Russia’s sponsorship of unprofitable energy contracts generates significant and chronic trade deficits for Bulgaria—between $1.5 billion and $4 billion a year, depending on energy prices.

Over the last two decades, Turkey has been among Bulgaria’s most important economic partners outside the EU, with a trade turnover of about $4 billion–5 billion and a positive trade balance. Direct relations between then–prime minister Borissov and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were instrumental for Bulgaria to avoid being affected by the mass migration crisis that hit Europe in 2015–2016. That said, Turkey is the only country that officially intervenes in Bulgaria’s domestic politics. In December 2020, Erdoğan delivered a video address to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms political party conference; and in June 2021, he hosted that faction’s leader in a meeting closed for the media. Boyko Borissov, the former prime minister, also visited President Erdoğan one week before the Bulgarian parliamentary elections in July 2021.[9]

The second consequence of Bulgaria’s aforementioned “intersections” understanding of its geopolitical position is that Sofia cannot separate the Black Sea from the Balkan area of interest. For about ten years, the former governing elite saw the country as a regional hub that combines the interests of various actors—Russia and Turkey from the East with the Western Balkans and further onward to the large Central European consumers of Russian gas. The self-generated illusion that Bulgaria will be entrusted with the privilege to manage gas flows via the “Southern Corridor” feeds the Sofia elite’s engagement in relationships of strategic corruption. Knowing the importance of “being a hub,” the Kremlin played to this desire in Bulgaria by infiltrating the country with political proxies, oligarchs and corrupt media. That strategic corruption encompasses crucial sectors such as Bulgaria’s second nuclear power plant project,[10] long-term gas contracts and transit taxes, crude oil delivery and processing, and the defense industry, creating a robust web from which it is difficult to extract any element. Corruption is worth the money for Moscow since having a foothold in the Balkans means having a say over European strategic matters of Russian interest.[11]

These two consequences have a combined impact on the Bulgarian elite’s inability to appropriately manage relations with Russia and Turkey, on one side, and with the EU, NATO and the United States, on the other. As a result, almost everything that Sofia does is viewed differently in Brussels and Washington. The former governing majority undermined and neglected policy cohesion with the Euro-Atlantic community and replaced it with former prime minister Borissov’s authoritative leadership and “black box” manual management. In their 2020 Foreign Affairs article on state-weaponized graft around the world, Philip Zelikow et al. specifically define this “black box” and authoritarian leadership as examples of “strategic corruption.”[12]

Similar contradictions influence Bulgarian official policy toward the Russian military buildup in Crimea and across the Black Sea area. From one side, Bulgaria contributes essentially to regional military cooperation in Southeastern Europe and the Black Sea. The US-inspired Southeastern Europe Defense Ministerial Process (SEDM),[13] launched in 1996, resulted in establishing an international mechanized brigade (SEEBRIG) [14] and a Black Sea Naval Force (BLACKSEAFOR).[15] Also, in 2020, Bulgaria inaugurated the Maritime Coordination Center in Varna to facilitate greater NATO and regional cooperation in the Black Sea region.[16] The Naval Forces of the Republic of Bulgaria regularly contribute to annual Sea Breeze exercises as well as NATO and EU operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Bulgaria-US 2006 Defense Cooperation Agreement was a major step for Sofia’s national strategic culture. The established joint-use military infrastructure at Bezmer Air Base, Novo Selo Range, Graf Ignatievo Air Base and Aytos Logistics Center is unique since the country had heretofore never hosted a long-term deployment of foreign forces. The strategic decision not only had a military value for the “ally in need,” but pro-Western experts and political and societal forces saw it as a point of no return for the country’s strategic orientation. Initially, the facilities were part of the redeployment of US forces from Central Europe to forward positions in the context of the Global War on Terror. Currently, they are used intensively for national, bilateral, and international combat exercises in the region and are seen as a strategic asset in any potential Black Sea military confrontation.

On the other hand, prior to NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit, Romania, backed by Turkey, raised the idea of establishing a permanent Black Sea “flotilla” to counter Russian in-theater naval activities after the annexation of Crimea, but Bulgaria did not support that proposal. Then–prime minister Borissov demonstrated a risk-averse culture, stating that he would like to see “yachts, tourists and pipelines” in the Black Sea and not an arena of military confrontation. He added, “I do not need a war in the Black Sea.”[17] The Bulgarian prime minister’s words effectively illustrated how the Russian strategy works—through fear and corruption, equivalent to the carrot and stick approach. And clearly, it can work quite well.

In sum, due to strategic corruption combined with limited knowledge and leadership capacity, the outgoing political elite was unable and unwilling to orient the country’s security and defense policies toward the Black Sea area. In 2021, the NATO, EU, and US approaches differ significantly from Bulgaria’s. The country is losing influence in the Balkans and does not recognize the new realities across the Black Sea. The threat of Bulgaria becoming a weak link for NATO in the Black Sea is real.

 

The Russian Threat in Bulgaria’s Risk Assessment Versus Practice

Two contradictory practices complicate Bulgaria’s foreign and security policies. First, strategic documents and policy positions approved by the government and parliament are not treated as binding on the governing majority. Hence, in practice, they do not directly guide security and defense planning. Second, while Sofia openly supports NATO and EU decisions made in Brussels, it often pursues unannounced policies at home. Such confusion is particularly evident in de facto and de jure coalition governments—i.e., most of the Bulgarian governments of the past three decades.[18]

 

Demagogy of the Official Risk Assessment

Bulgaria’s two capstone security and defense documents, the National Security Strategy (revised in 2018) and the National Defense Strategy (2016), were adopted after the occupation of Crimea, the outbreak of the Donbas crisis, the downing of Malaysia Airlines’ MH17 passenger plane over Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal on British soil and other covert operations of the Russian special services in Bulgaria and the Balkans, the intensive Russian military buildup in Crimea, countless politically aimed cyberattacks originating from Russia, and other major developments. Nevertheless, the two documents do not reflect any of these threats.

The National Security Strategy builds on the assessment that “A full-scale military conflict against the Republic of Bulgaria is still unlikely, but the threat of hybrid actions and cyberattacks is growing.”[19] Meanwhile, the Black Sea region is interpreted in contradictory ways. On the one hand, the region is seen “in a broad European and Euro-Atlantic context,” permitting regional actors to “deepen the cooperation between countries in the fields of economy, trade and security.”[20] On the other hand, the Strategy acknowledges that “the crisis in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula are leading to a permanent disruption of the geostrategic and military balance in the Black Sea region.”[21] This neutral observation misses the point that Bulgaria contributes to the military balance and, if it is disrupted, the government should take adequate measures. Instead, the Strategy claims that “NATO’s increased presence in the Black Sea region demonstrates allied solidarity and determination to defend the Alliance’s territory in the event of aggression,”[22] without making it clear how Bulgaria shares the burden of that effort.

Rather than analyzing the essential changes in Bulgaria’s strategic environment, the National Defense Strategy notes that “the military aspects of the security environment are taking on new dimensions due to the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and the crisis in Ukraine and proliferating asymmetric and hybrid actions.”[23] In particular, the document assesses that “the importance of the Black Sea region for international security, including for the Republic of Bulgaria, is growing due to its role as a link between Europe, the Middle East and Asia.”[24] Such a role can, indeed, be discussed, but more from the United States’, NATO’s and the EU’s perspectives. For Bulgaria, the regional military context should be seen as more critical because it lowers the real threshold of conflict. Furthermore, “the long-term effects of the Ukrainian crisis and the deterioration of Russia’s relations with NATO have the potential to develop a trend toward a return to ‘power politics’ in Europe.”[25] Russia’s power politics are a continuation of the Soviet Union’s policies by the same means; but that fact is simply not recognized or noted by Sofia.

According to the 2020 Annual Report on the State of Defense and the Armed Forces, “the main destabilizing factors are the continuing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the militarization of illegally annexed Crimea, the regional strategic balance and the ‘frozen’ conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The potential for significant military confrontation has been preserved, which creates preconditions for growing regional instability.”[26]

Sofia does not dare to anger Russia, even on paper. And yet such eclectic documents have a detrimental impact in several directions:

  • They tell the people in Bulgaria that nothing of real import is happening in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Crimea and the Black Sea, and that Russian tourists are more important to them than missiles and submarines.
  • They tell Russia that Bulgaria accepts its military actions and preparations with “no comments” and has no intentions to react adequately.
  • They tell the NATO and EU allies that Bulgaria sees no serious reasons to support decisive joint countermeasures across the Black Sea area.
  • They do not provide necessary guidance for strategic security and defense planning.

Against this background, the Russian political, economic, information and intelligence forces seek to manipulate the Bulgarian security and defense decision-making process in a myriad ways.

 

Russian Penetration of the National Security System

Leadership

The Kremlin systematically influences the Bulgarian defense and security sector via political, economic and media engagements. Senior actors like the president, government ministers, military commanders, law enforcement officers, attorneys general and others are all high-value targets for Moscow. As some observers noted, President Rumen Radev has repeatedly taken positions aligned with the Kremlin’s interests.[27]

Bulgaria’s judicial branch is also not immune to Russian pressure. In 2015, then–defense minister Nikolay Nenchev turned to Poland to overhaul MiG-29 fighter planes so as to avoid dependence on Russia and to control costs. But two years later, he was accused by the prosecution[28] of “endangering Bulgaria’s air sovereignty.” He was acquitted of the charges by a decision of the Supreme Court of Cassation in 2019;[29] yet the earlier actions of the Bulgarian judicial branch sent a clear signal to anyone in the country who supported (and was willing to act on) eliminating Bulgaria’s military dependencies on Russia.

Russian sway among the Bulgarian elites further translates into policy statements, or the lack thereof, as well as negative resource allocation decisions that cascade down the security and defense organizations’ hierarchies, impacting their daily choices. These channels of Russian influence on Bulgaria’s leadership, main combat capabilities, defense industries and personnel come in a variety of forms.

For example, in 2014, the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense published its draft “Vision: Bulgaria in NATO and European Defense 2020.” The document specifically pointed to the Russian “hybrid warfare model” as a direct threat to Bulgaria’s security. Velizar Shalamanov, who then served as minister of defense, explained that all relevant agencies agreed on the text. However, upon pressure from the highest political levels, the document was further edited. The version adopted by the Council of Ministers[30] notably avoids the reference to Russia posing a direct threat to Bulgaria and sets the security challenges in a broader European and regional context.

Officially, Bulgaria supports the positions and declaration of NATO and the European Union on the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the introduction of sanctions against the Russian Federation, as well as the conduct of military exercises on NATO’s eastern flank and in the Black Sea. Yet in practice, Borissov’s “yachts, tourists and pipelines” policy prevails.

This effect is visible in the post-2014 defense allocations. Notwithstanding Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture and investments in naval, anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD), and medium-range strike capabilities in the Black Sea and on the Crimean Peninsula, Bulgaria’s defense budget continued to decline until 2018. The government only then approved a plan to meet the NATO pledge to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. However, the ministers conspicuously left the steepest budget increases for the years beyond Borissov’s governmental term.

Likewise, in the Skripal case, although Sofia supported the declaration of the European Council, it decided, in a “balanced and moderate” position, not to expel Russian diplomats until it could be provided with “compelling evidence” of Russia’s involvement.[31]

Officers and associates of the former, Communist-era Bulgarian security services—which were practically subordinated to the Soviet KGB or defense ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) during the Cold War—provide another venue for influencing Bulgaria’s security sector today. At the end of 2006, the Bulgarian parliament adopted a law on making public the names and positions of Bulgarian citizens associated with the Communist-era state security and intelligence services. With the implementation of the law, it became clear that a considerable number of Bulgaria’s contemporary senior military officers, civilian staff and political appointees in the security sector were formerly officers or agents of the coercive apparatus of the Communist regime.

The scale of the phenomenon is massive, and it succeeds in perpetuating itself through the promotion and appointment of like-minded military and civilians. For example, two active-duty and three retired military officers were arrested in March 2021 for spying for Russia. A former military intelligence officer trained by the GRU coordinated the group. Some of the detained served in the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense, others had been clerks in the parliamentary office for classified information. According to the prosecution, the group succeeded in delivering classified documents to the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Sofia.[32]

On occasion, it does not become clear where the actual loyalties of such individuals lie until after they leave military service. In several cases, upon retirement, flag officers have joined parties running on anti-US/anti-NATO and pro-Russia agendas, or they otherwise actively spread anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments. Thus, for example, a former military intelligence officer, who had served as a director for defense planning and a defense advisor in the Bulgarian Mission to NATO, gave a series of interviews regarding the NATO exercises in the Black Sea. He claimed, among other things, that the Crimean Peninsula is Russian, and the British warship HMS Defender (while passing through internationally recognized Ukrainian territorial waters in June 2021) had “provoked” Russia. Hence, Russia had the right to fire warning shots, and that such skirmishes could lead to war.[33] While the cited interview was likely intended for the domestic audience, dozens of Russian media outlets picked it up, stating that NATO is preparing for war against Russia.[34]

Critical Defense Resources

Bulgaria’s defense is also vulnerable to Russian influence when it comes to maintaining major combat systems. Even while Bulgaria was part of the Warsaw Pact, the defense industry was not granted certificates and know-how for extending the life cycle of airframes and missiles. The problem became painfully clear at the turn of the 21st century, when the defense ministry announced an international tender for upgrading a squadron of MiG-29 fighters. Large Western companies prepared their bids. However, instead of developing the indigenous capacity or seeking reliable cooperation for certifying airworthiness, the Ministry of Defense added a requirement late in the procedure stipulating that any aircraft modifications need to be certified by the original designer or manufacturer. With this decision, the Bulgarian minister of defense eliminated all competitors to the Russian company RSK MiG. Thus, it solidified the dependence on Russia for any overhaul and life extension works, including the delivery of spare parts and components. For obvious reasons, RSK MiG never modernized the fighters to NATO standards, while Bulgaria remained dependent on Russia for a critical capability. The situation is similar when it comes to Bulgaria’s Soviet-made helicopters, guided missiles and air-defense units.

In 2018, the defense minister extended plans to use all Soviet-made airframes in service until the end of their anticipated life cycle.[35] To implement this decision, the Ministry of Defense will have to allocate a significant amount of money. On the one hand, this will make rearmament even more challenging. On the other hand, money will feed into the Russian military-industrial complex, despite it being under sanctions from Bulgaria’s major NATO and EU allies.

The situation with the country’s main naval platforms is not much different. In 2008, Bulgaria and France signed a “strategic partnership” agreement that included the delivery of two Gowind-class corvettes built by Armaris. However, during a visit to Paris in October 2009, then–prime minister Borissov canceled this part of the agreement.[36] The main reason given was the reduction in the defense budget due to the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, attention shifted to modernizing the two second-hand Wielingen-class frigates, acquired in 2005 from Belgium, potentially using French suppliers. Although it would have come at a much-reduced cost, that modernization also never materialized, and the Bulgarian navy continues to contribute to NATO missions and exercises “with limitations.”

The saga of upgrading the fleet endures. In June 2016, the parliament approved the navy’s top-priority project for acquiring two multi-purpose modular patrol ships at a cost of 820 million levs (just under $500 million). However, the Value Added Tax (VAT) law was amended during the competitive procedure. According to the interpretation of this amendment, the $500 million had to include 20 percent VAT. On this basis, the best bidder withdrew from the contract negotiations in December 2017. In July 2018, the parliament approved an amended investments project. At the end of 2020, the defense ministry signed a contract with a German shipbuilding company. However, after Borissov’s government stepped down, it became clear that the contract had not included delivery of the main combat systems and other critical capability components.[37] Curiously, over all these years, Bulgaria never officially discussed the opportunity for cooperative “smart defense” procurement with Romania, which is also acquiring frigates.

Defense Infrastructure

The defense industry is another priority area for Russian influence. Traditionally, Bulgaria has a mostly export-oriented defense industry. It could nevertheless provide critical support to the Armed Forces and other security services under duress. Albeit slowly, Bulgarian defense companies started to cooperate with European and North American partners, diversified their products, introduced new technologies and occasionally competed with Russian companies in third countries.

However, the Russian Federation regularly raises the issue of license-based defense production by Bulgarian companies. In addition, it requests remuneration and the authority to sanction deliveries to international markets. Bulgaria never recognized these demands, yet the pressure in recent years has been growing. According to former defense minister Boyko Noev, Borissov’s government was close to acknowledging at least some of the Russian claims,[38] which would have had a detrimental impact on Bulgaria’s defense industry.

In April 2015, an attempt was made to poison a defense company’s owner, Emil Gebrev, and two of his associates. The Bulgarian authorities ignored the case, and the investigation into the assassination attempt was quickly closed. New information in early 2019 linked the poison used to the weapons-grade Novichok-class chemical weapons deployed against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. Furthermore, “Fedotov”—likely a GRU officer, who visited England at the time the Skripals were poisoned—was also in Bulgaria when the attempt on Gebrev’s life was made.[39] Nevertheless, the prosecution and the security services hesitated to reopen the case or to link it to the Salisbury attack and GRU officers’ involvement.

Russia also tries to coerce Bulgarian defense companies through international propaganda. Russian media often disseminates “discoveries” that are later proven fake. Among the examples are the alleged use of a Bulgarian portable ground-to-air missile to shoot down a Russian Su-25 Frogfoot as well as the story of Bulgarian-made munitions found in Aleppo, Syria, and supposedly used to attack the civilian population. Additionally, there are indications of the involvement of Russian competitors in a series of recent accidents at Bulgarian defense production facilities or test ranges, some of them involving casualties.[40]

Personnel

The people working in the defense and security fields are particularly sought-out and, it turns out, vulnerable targets. Both Bulgaria’s “foot soldiers” and civilian experts are subject to pro-Russian influence established by institutional factors, propaganda and disinformation campaigns within traditional and electronic media, including social networks and, last but not least, manipulative elements in the specialized educational system. From one side, the Bulgarian leadership’ mixed messages regarding the national security environment, threats and responses create an environment that certainly impacts the security and defense personnel. Bureaucrats and lower-level officials follow the leadership’s messages more than the statements found within state strategic documents. Moreover, such messages are seen as guidance for promotions, especially for the senior military and civilian employees. It is clear that the president, who has the final say on general promotions across the security sector, is unlikely to back officers who disagree with his political views; this is not a legal consideration, but it is common practice.

On the other hand, Russian military-oriented propaganda, especially after the annexation of Crimea, has penetrated virtually all media in Bulgaria. The focus is on “historical justice” and the “right” to intervene militarily as well as on “ultra-advanced” new weapons, to which the West purportedly has no answer. The information disseminated is mostly historical or technical (rarely political) and is promptly reproduced by the Bulgarian media.

Another vehicle for perpetuating legacy dependencies and attitudes is Bulgaria’s unreformed military education system. Having long escaped political attention while exploiting academic freedom and protection, Bulgarian military academy faculty members from different generations routinely demonstrate in publications a commitment to theses from the Kremlin playbook.[41] They widely use Russian sources to argue that NATO and its member states are fighting a hybrid war against Russia. The annexation of Crimea is a “restoration of historical justice,” but sanctions against the Kremlin are illegal. The “color” revolutions, “Maidan,” peoples’ struggle for better democracy and honest governance, not to mention any partnership with NATO and EU, are seen through Moscow’s conspiracy prism.

Even Military Journal, the official publication of the Ministry of Defense (first published in 1888 in 2,000 copies), has lost its capacity to connect the political and command leadership with the officer corps. Bulgaria’s first civilian defense minister reestablished the magazine in 1991 as a symbol of new civil-military relations. It was to be the primary source of information, analysis, and ideas on the changing post–Cold War security environment, defense reform, and NATO membership for the military, security-sector organizations, and broader society as well. But in 2016, the G. S. Rakovski Defense and Staff College took over publishing authority from the Ministry of Defense, which led to a decline in the publication’s importance and popularity. Currently, the journal is printed in fewer than 300 copies per issue and delivered solely within the defense system or for commercial release. The magazine is not available to read online. Several specialized periodicals on naval, air and general military matters, together with the associated websites, discussion forums, and social network profiles, also actively promote anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments.

Ultra-Nationalists

Russian influence also occurs via ultra-nationalistic Bulgarian organizations, some with suspected links to and sponsored by Moscow. These organizations seek to cooperate with active military personnel to take on the trappings of an ostensibly influential paramilitary outfit. And such groups call for all kinds of anti-systemic actions: military coups, exiting NATO, discharging political parties and the parliament, as well as killing Bulgarian politicians, diplomats, journalists and academics.[42] Currently, the “ultras” are mobilized for propaganda against COVID-19 vaccinations, which they claim are an instrument for establishing mental control over people.[43]

The noisiest of these formations include the National Salvation Committee “Vasil Levski” and Soldiers Union–Bulgarian National Army of Volunteers (Opalchennie) BNO “Shipka.” These are not true paramilitary formations, but their members wear camouflage uniforms to be perceived as such. The groups use aggressive rhetoric on online social networks and undertook a couple of public marches in the streets and against institutions. They claim that the “democrats” sold Bulgaria to NATO and devastated the Army, thus destroying the nation’s ability to resist aggression. Moreover, they assert that the main disadvantages of modern Bulgaria are its multi-party system and the country’s distance from Russia. Their adherents’ brutal anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and cruelty to migrants mean that these formations much more closely resemble the Western European ultra-nationalist network known as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the Occident (PEGIDA)[44] than to any typical paramilitary group.

To sum up the risk assessment section, Bulgaria recognizes various threats to its security shared within NATO—cyber and terrorist attacks, mass refugee flows, nuclear arms proliferation, and others. However, even though these threats are duly considered within various strategy documents, they do not represent priority risks to Bulgaria. Official risk assessments by the government are sluggish and superficial, neither managing to appreciate the Black Sea security dynamics nor identify the domestic predisposing conditions that increase the likelihood of those threats reaching their goals and leading to significant losses. The major consequence of such poor risk awareness is unrealistic defense planning, exemplified by the wishful “Program for the Development of the Defense Capabilities of the Bulgarian Armed Forces” (adopted by Borissov’s government in February 2021). At the same time, it facilitates the demoralizing impact of Russian propaganda. Gradually, Bulgaria’s defense decision-making has turned into an impenetrable “black box,” in which shady political considerations or corrupting influence routinely substitute for important national security factors as well as afford space for authoritarian, manipulative securitization. The “black box” and authoritarian leadership are precisely what Zelikow et al. refer to as “strategic corruption.”

 

Bulgaria Matters but Is Undermined by Political Corruption

Several strategic issues reveal the value of Bulgaria to NATO, the United States and the EU in the context of Russia’s military Black Sea buildup. Being at the center of the wider Black Sea region, Bulgaria links the economic, political and security interests of Russia, Ukraine, the South Caucasus countries, Turkey, and Iran with those of the Balkans and Southern and Central Europe as well as, more generally, with NATO and the EU. Moreover, two strategic diagonals intersect in the country’s airspace. The first—a direct connection between Russia and the Western Balkans—was first highlighted during the NATO-led operation in Kosovo.[45] The other diagonal connects Central Europe (Germany) to Iran. It was operationalized by the US and NATO during the War on Terror, in 2001, at the Sarafovo airbase near Burgas: 200 US military personnel operated six tanker planes there daily, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Bulgaria is probably the only country that successfully maintains good relationships with all countries in the wider Black Sea area. To a large extend, this is determined by economic interests and is supported by the sizable Bulgarian diaspora in Turkey, Moldova and Ukraine (more than 200,000 in each country).

Bulgaria may be the poorest EU member state; yet it is in the top three in terms of the lowest budget deficit, public debt to gross domestic product, and bank capitalization ratios. Despite the remaining COVID-19-related effects on the economy, real GDP growth is expected to reach 4.6 percent (EU average is 4.8 percent) at the 2021 annual base. Inflation is set to accelerate to 1.9 percent in 2021 (EU average 2.2 percent), on the back of higher foreseen energy prices. The unemployment rate for 2021 is 4.8 percent (EU average 7.6 percent), with the perspective to decline to 3.9 percent in 2022. The budget balance is planned at minus 3.2 percent in 2021 (EU averages minus 7.5 percent), with the perspective to drop to 1.9 percent in 2022.[46] In terms of economic infrastructure, two mid-size international airports operate on the Bulgarian Black Sea shore in Varna and Burgas. The most important ferry lines in the Black Sea connect Bulgaria with Russia (Chernomorsk) and Georgia (Poti). Both ferry lines are part of the maritime multi-modal transportation corridor Europe–Caucasus–Central Asia (TRACECA).[47]

However, critical flaws in the political, moral and bureaucratic spheres compromise these trends. The heaviest deficits are in the quality of the democratic political system. Before reaching the quality of a consolidated democracy, the boundaries between the three divided powers were gradually blurred in favor of an authoritative government. Because of controlled grand political corruption and as a consequence of being captured by Russian-backed corruption schemes, Bulgaria’s political elite empowered selected oligarchy. The government and oligarchy jointly serve as proxies of the Kremlin’s most significant corporate instruments in this space—Gazprom, Lukoil, Rosatom, Rosoboronexport, VT Bank and others.

In the spring of 2021, US Senators Jim Risch and Robert Menendez issued a joint statement[48] in light of the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioning of three Bulgarian oligarchs “…for their extensive roles in corruption in Bulgaria, as well as their networks encompassing 64 entities.”[49] The senators sent a strong message: Bulgarian society and Bulgaria’s strategic allies will no longer tolerate grand corruption or suppression of the rule of law.

These deficits have the most devastating effects on society, bringing monopolization of the economy’s main sectors, obstacles to the development of medium- and small-sized businesses, the elimination of economic competition through controlled public procurement, as well as other forms of grand corruption. The tendency to favor an authoritarian style of government, and the Russian influence in the country logically go hand in hand and reinforce each other.

However, the political landscape in Bulgaria underwent significant changes in the period 2020–2021. Mass protests in 2020 against grand corruption and compromised democratic governance gave rise to the “protest” parties “Democratic Bulgaria” and “Stand up, BG!” and to the newly created populist, anti-systemic party “There Is Such a People.” After the July 2021 parliamentary elections, these political actors managed to position themselves as a viable alternative to the “status quo” parties (the governing GERB,[50] the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Liberties).

Moreover, before the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2021, two ministers from President Roumen Radev’s caretaker government (both Harvard alumni) formed their “We Continue the Change” party. Attracting the protest vote, they won most of the seats in the parliament (28 percent) and successfully negotiated with three other parties to establish a coalition government, approved on December 13. As a mentor of the new leading party, the president obtained massive direct support for his reelection.

An essential outcome of the parliamentary elections is the complete replacement of parties directly or indirectly sponsored by the Kremlin. The former nationalists (anti-EU/NATO/US and pro-Russian) remained below the electoral threshold. Moscow-backed parties failed to trigger a referendum on leaving NATO, and Russia itself was unable to offer “equal cooperation.” A new parliamentary party, “Vazrazhdane” (“Renaissance”), originating from Varna, will be the Kremlin’s latest “developing project” in Bulgarian politics (direct Russian support for this faction is an open secret). The party kicked off its campaign with negative energy, spreading doubts and dissatisfaction, using the ethnic issue, nationalism, xenophobia and coronavirus-denialism rhetoric. “Renaissance” received nearly 5 percent of the vote (13 seats) but has a significant capacity to absorb other elements of the protest electorate and to bolster destabilization, intrigue and division of society in the deepening political, post-pandemic and regional security crises.

Meanwhile, in a live televised debate with his opponent in the second presidential round (Sofia University rector and professor Anastas Gerdzhikov), President Radev revealed his positions vis-à-vis Russia and the Black Sea. According to the Bulgarian head of state, “Russia cannot be our enemy; the Bulgarians see it as a liberator. Only political losers emphasize the Russia theme. The most important thing is to seek dialogue. The EU-Russia dialogue is in critical condition. [US] President [Joseph] Biden has launched a dialogue with Putin over the head of the EU.” Asked by his opponent for a clear answer on Crimea, Radev said, “Crimea is Russian; whose is it supposed to be?” According to him, “the Black Sea is becoming a crossroads of geopolitical interests. We should not allow the over-militarization of the Black Sea.”[51] This shocking statement provoked an immediate critical reaction from the European Commission,[52] Ukraine[53] and the US embassy in Sofia.[54]

The interim lesson from Bulgaria’s failure to cope with the Russian challenges at home is that engaging with authoritarian kleptocracies, such as Russia, inevitably brings authoritarianism and grand political corruption home. It is arguably unrealistic to try to craft a workable security defense strategy that does not explicitly prohibit cooperation with undemocratic kleptocratic powers.

 

Conclusions

The Kremlin’s adherence to an archaic imperial model and its modern arsenal of conventional, nuclear and “hybrid” tools of coercion has been a game-changer for security in the wider Black Sea region. Notably, all of Russia’s open military or militarized conflicts are located on the southern arc from Moldova and Ukraine toward the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. The militarization of Crimea and the Black Sea since 2014 further strengthens the Kremlin’s political and economic leverage, thus forcing some countries in the region to consider accepting limited sovereignty and outside control. Consequently, Russia is more likely to continue to use military force in the wider Black Sea area than in other portions of its neighborhood.

Yet approximately half of the Black Sea is under NATO’s area of responsibility. The Alliance, the EU and the US are full-fledged regional actors. For the past decade, these Transatlantic allies have been searching for effective approaches to the Black Sea’s security problems, and they have already implemented many practical solutions. However, Bulgaria’s role in this process is marginal. The government and the military leadership have habitually been unable or unwilling to raise the issue of security in the Black Sea at NATO HQ and SHAPE.

Bulgaria was eager to host US military installations and NATO structures, but these expressed goals seem to be more for domestic consumption than a thought-through policy approach for tackling the challenges caused by Russia’s destabilizing activities in the region. The political debate on Russian aggressive actions has frequently been hushed up so as not to undermine the government’s noisy announcements of energy “triumphs.” The silence is not due to a lack of information or poor awareness. It consciously takes a back seat so as not to interfere with the multi-billion-dollar deals with the Kremlin’s agents, which grossly distort Bulgarian politics.

At the beginning of 2022, Bulgaria once again stands along the shores of the proverbial Rubicon—a Rubicon that separates the nation from the corrupted elite, good governance from pervasive populism, the oligarchy from business standards, the rule of law system from organized crime, and security policy from speculative securitization. Having held three general and one presidential election in one year, Bulgarians made a genuine march toward democratic renewal. Four parties formed a coalition government. In a telephone conversation with the new Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on December 16, 2021, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed the gratitude of the United States to Bulgaria as a reliable ally and partner. Blinken reaffirmed the US’s desire to expand its partnership with Bulgaria in new areas, such as the promotion of carbon-free energy sources, modernization of defense, security of 5G networks, and other regional issues.[55] After the prime minister met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, he stressed that Bulgaria would continue to modernize its armed forces to meet Alliance standards and stressed his government’s ambition to meet the goal of defense spending reaching 2 percent of GDP by 2024.[56]

Despite the apparent situational ambiguity and volatility, Bulgarians seem dedicated to making change happen. But to reflect this desire, the country will need to realistically address its fundamental national and allied security challenges. Only such a policy course can ultimately break Bulgaria free from the grip of Russian strategic corruption as well as overcome its growing democratic, governance and moral deficits.

 

Notes

[1] For a comprehensive explanation of the evolving Wider Black Sea concept, see Ian. O. Lesser, Global Trends, Regional Consequences: Wider Strategic Influences on the Black Sea (Athens, International Centre for Black Sea Studies, 2007), https://icbss.org/books/xenophon-paper-no-4/; Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, ed., The Security Context in the Black Sea Region (London and New York: Routledge, 2016); Marat Terterov, John van Pool, and Sergiy Nagornyy, “Russian Geopolitical Power in the Black and Caspian Seas Region: Implications for Turkey and the World,” Insight Turkey 12, no. 3 (2010): 191–203.

[2] The term “Strategic corruption” is used according to Philip Zelikow, Eric Edelman, Kristofer Harrison, and Celeste Ward Gventer, “The Rise of Strategic Corruption. How States Weaponize Graft.” Foreign Affairs July/August 2020, accessed August 25, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-09/rise-strategic-corruption.

[3] The government of then–prime minister Boyko Borissov. At the time of writing this article (November 2021), Bulgaria has a caretaker government and just held its third parliamentary election in one calendar year.

[4] “Putin Explained the ‘Red Lines’ in Relation to NATO,” Vedomosti, November 30, 2021, https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2021/11/30/898300-putin-rasskazal-o-krasnih-liniyah (in Russian).

[5] Heather A. Conley, James Mina, Ruslan Stefanov, and Martin Vladimirov, The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies and Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), https://www.csis.org/analysis/kremlin-playbook.

[6] “The roadmap for ‘Turkish Stream’ still undiscoverable in Bulgaria,” mediapool.bg, August 6, 2021, https://www.mediapool.bg/neotkrivaema-ostava-patnata-karta-za-turski-potok-u-nas-news324988.html – in Bulgarian.

[7] Ilian Vassilev, “How much ignoring the Azeri gas costs the Bulgarian users?” Analyses & Alternatives, August 1, 2021 – in Bulgarian. See also Ilian Vassilev, “Tsunami warning,” Analyses & Alternatives, August 9, 2021, https://altanalyses.org/en/2021/08/09/tsunami-warning/. Both sources were accessed on August 26, 2021.

[8] “The Government agrees on the delivery of aviation kerosine from the reserve for another 10 days,” BTV News, August 3, 2011, accessed August 26, 2021, https://btvnovinite.bg/508599512-Pravitelstvoto_otpuska_kerosin_ot_rezerva_za_oshte_deset_dni.html – in Bulgarian.

[9] Krassen Nikolov “Former Bulgarian PM Borissov meets Turkey’s Erdogan ahead of elections,” EURACTIV.bg, July 5, 2021, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/former-bulgarian-pm-borissov-meets-turkeys-erdogan-ahead-of-elections/.

[10] The current one, “Kozloduy,” was built during the Soviet era, and four of its six reactors have been closed down in the beginning of the century.

[11] Dimitar Bechev, Russia’s Strategic Interests and Tools of Influence in the Western Balkans (Riga: NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 2019), accessed August 26, 2021, https://stratcomcoe.org/publications/russias-strategic-interests-and-tools-of-influence-in-the-western-balkans/46.

[12] Zelikow, et al., “The Rise of Strategic Corruption. How States Weaponize Graft.”

[13] The South-East Europe Defense Ministerial (SEDM) Process began with a meeting of Ministers of Defense in Tirana in March 1996, followed by a series of meetings that brought together the Ministers of Defense, Deputy Ministers of Defense and senior militaries of the member states. For details, see https://www.sedmprocess.org/.

[14] The Multinational Peace Force South-Eastern Europe, called SEEBRIG, was established by the defense ministers of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, North Macedonia, Romania and Turkey in 1998 and activated in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in 1999. SEEBRIG conducted its first mission, as Kabul Multinational Brigade, under International Security Assistance Force Command. For details, see http://www.seebrig.org/.

[15] The Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group, or BLACKSEAFOR, was initiated by Turkey at the second Chiefs of the Black Sea Navies meeting in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1998, and operationalized in 2001, with the participation of the Russian Federation, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia. For additional information, visit https://www.mfa.gov.tr/blackseafor.en.mfa.

[16] “Official Inauguration of the Maritime Coordination Center in Varna,” US Embassy in Bulgaria, July 21, 2020, accessed August 26, 2021, https://bg.usembassy.gov/official-inauguration-of-the-maritime-coordination-center-in-varna/.

[17] “Borissov for the Black Sea: My dream was for boats, yachts and gas pipelines,” Interview for Darik Radio, February 20, 2017, https://dariknews.bg/novini/bylgariia/borisov-za-cherno-more-mechtata-mi-beshe-da-ima-platnohodki-lodki-tryba-za-gaz-2004899 – in Bulgarian. The statement was made one day after the Kremlin warned against the development of an enhanced NATO presence in the Black Sea.

[18] In April 2018, the leader of the parliamentary party “Attack” (on whose support the governing coalition depended in 2013–2014) and then–deputy speaker of the Bulgarian parliament, Volen Siderov, visited occupied Crimea. In an interview in Yalta, broadcast by major Russian media outlets with an audience of over 500 million, Siderov stated that Crimea has not been occupied and that Bulgaria should leave NATO. The parliament and the government did not react to his visit or his statements contradicting Bulgaria’s official position.

[19] Revised and amended National Security Strategy (March 23, 2018), art. 9. Available in the Bulgarian language at https://mod.bg/bg/doc/strategicheski/20180330 Aktualizirana SNSRB 2018.pdf.

[20] Ibid., art. 39.

[21] Ibid., art. 40.

[22] Ibid., art. 145.

[23] National Defense Strategy, adopted with Decision # 283 of the Council of Ministers, April 18, 2016, art. 14, accessed August 26, 2021, https://mod.bg/bg/doc/strategicheski/20160419_Natsioanalna_otbranitelna_strategia_RMS_283_18.04.2016.pdf, – in Bulgarian.

[24] Ibid., art. 23.

[25] Ibid., art. 30, italics added by authors.

[26] Ministry of Defense, Annual Report on Defense and Armed Forces 2020, April 2021, p.4, https://www.mod.bg/bg/doc/drugi/20210405_Doklad_otbrana_2020.pdf – in Bulgarian.

[27] Daniel Smilov, “Rumen Radev: Composition on a Painting by Reshetnikov,” Deutsche Welle, February 7, 2019 – in Bulgarian.

[28] In Bulgaria, the prosecution is considered part of the judicial branch.

[29] “The Supreme Court of Cassation finally acquits Nikolay Nenchev for the MiG-29 overhaul,” mediapool.bg, May 10, 2021, accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.mediapool.bg/vks-okonchatelno-opravda-nikolai-nenchev-za-remonta-na-mig-29-news321654.html – in Bulgarian.

[30] Bulgaria in NATO and in European Defence 2020, Sofia, September 2, 2014.

[31] “The Great Expulsion,” Information Centre of the Ministry of Defense, April 1, 2018 – in Bulgarian.

[32] “For pennies: Former and active military personnel arrested for spying for Russia,” Svobodna Evropa, March 19, 2021, accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.svobodnaevropa.bg/a/31159352.html – in Bulgarian. The court procedures started in November 2021. Public information on measures taken by the defense ministry or other agencies in response to this case is not available.

[33] “In the Black Sea, Russia and NATO train for war,” Interview with Brigadier General Valentin Tsankov, Dir.bg, July 6, 2021, accessed August 26, 2021, https://dnes.dir.bg/obshtestvo/brigaden-general-valentin-tsankov-pred-dir-bg-v-cherno-more-rusiya-i-nato-trenirat-za-voyna – in Bulgarian.

[34] See, for example, Victoria Starostina, “Bulgarian General declared that NATO is preparing for war with Russia,” Gazta.ru, July 8, 2021, accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/news/2021/07/08/16218704.shtml – in Russian.

[35] “The Council of Ministers Approved the Projects for Overhaul of the MiG-29 and Su-25 Airplanes,” News.bg, November 28, 2018, https://news.bg/politics/ms-odobri-proektite-za-remont-na-samoletite-mig-29-i-su-25.html – in Bulgarian.

[36] “Bulgaria Puzzled Anew by Arms Deal for French Corvettes,” novinite.com, November 29, 2010, accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.novinite.com/articles/122656/Bulgaria+Puzzled+Anew+by+Arms+Deal+for+French+Corvettes.

[37] Momchil Milev, “Are the armed forces buying ‘trip boats’ for 1+1 billion levs,” Capital, June 10, 2021, accessed August 27, 2021, https://www.capital.bg/politika_i_ikonomika/otbrana/2021/06/10/4219396_kupuva_li_si_armiiata_lodki_za_razhodki_za_11_mlrd_lv/ – in Bulgarian.

[38] “Boyko Noev: Russia’s Interests to Control Bulgaria’s Defence Industry are openly Stated,” FrogNews, February 13, 2019, accessed August 27, 2021, https://frognews.bg/novini/boiko-noev-interesite-rusiia-kontrolira-balgarskata-otbranitelna-industriia-otkprito-zaiaveni.html – in Bulgarian.

[39] Rossen Bossev, “A GRU Agent visited Bulgaria when Gebrev was poisoned,” Capital, February 8, 2019, https://www.capital.bg/politika_i_ikonomika/bulgaria/2019/02/08/3387392_agent_na_gru_e_bil_v_bulgariia_po_vreme_na_otravianeto/ – in Bulgarian.

[40] “Boyko Noev: Russia’s Interests to Control Bulgaria’s Defence Industry Are Openly Stated.”

[41] Bulgarian Science 117, Special National Security Issue (February 2019).

[42] “There is no Place in Bulgaria for Para-military Formations, Assassination Threats, and Russian Media Aggression,” Declaration of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria, November 14, 2017 – in Bulgarian.

[43] A Facebook group of the Military School for Artillery and Air Defense/Faculty of Artillery, Air Defense, and Communications and Information Systems, https://www.facebook.com/groups/170205543031802/ – in Bulgarian.

[44] Representatives of PEGIDA from Germany and the Netherlands participated in the persecution of illegal migrants on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, supporting another illegal volunteer “border patrol” organization. See https://sofiaglobe.com/2016/07/07/concern-grows-over-bulgarian-paramilitaries-and-border-patrols/, accessed November 20, 2021.

[45] After Russian troops unexpectedly and uncoordinatedly occupied airport “Slatina” near Kosovo’s capital Pristina and created a critical situation among the coalition, Bulgaria (as well as Romania and Hungary) refused overflight rights for six Russian airplanes to deliver supplies to the contingent. As later Zbignev Brzezinski testified before the Senate, “The attempt faltered because three small European countries had the gumption to defy Moscow.” See “The Lessons of Kosovo,” Testimony of Zbigniew Brzezinski to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 6, 1999, accessed August 27, 2021, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/attachments/ts991006_brzezinski.pdf.

[46] All data are according to the European Commission’s economic forecast for Bulgaria, available at https://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/forecasts/2021/summer/ecfin_forecast_summer_2021_bg_en.pdf.

[47] More information about TRACECA is available at https://www.euneighbours.eu/en/search/25?keys=traceca.

[48] Joint Statement from Ranking Member Risch and Chairman Menendez on U.S.-Bulgaria Bilateral Relationship, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/press/ranking/release/joint-statement-from-ranking-member-risch-and-chairman-menendez-on-us-bulgaria-bilateral-relationship.

[49] “Treasury Sanctions Influential Bulgarian Individuals and Their Expansive Networks for Engaging in Corruption,” US Department of Treasury, June 2, 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0208.

[50] GERB is the Bulgarian-language abbreviation of Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria.

[51] “Presidential Depate Radev – Gerdjikov (Video),” Bulgarian National Television, https://bnt.bg/news/prezidentskiyat-debat-radev-gerjikov-video-300435news.html, accessed November 20, 2021.

[52] “EU on Radev’s Words: Krimea is Ukraine,” ClubZ, November 19, 2021, https://www.clubz.bg/120983-es_za_dumite_na_radev_krim_e_ukrayna, accessed November 20, 2021.

[53] “Comment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine on the statements by President of Bulgaria Rumen Radev,” MFA of Ukraine, November 19, 2021, https://mfa.gov.ua/en/news/komentar-mzs-ukrayini-u-zvyazku-z-vislovlyuvannyami-prezidenta-bolgariyi-rumena-radeva, accessed November 20, 2021.

[54] “Statement by the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria,” November 22, 2021, https://bg.usembassy.gov/statement-by-the-us-embassy-in-bulgaria-22-11-2021/.

[55] “Prime Minister Kiril Petkov talks with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken,” Government Press Office, December 16, 2021, https://www.gov.bg/bg/prestsentar/novini/ministar-predsedatelyat-kiril-petkov-razgovarya-s-darzhavniya-sekretar-na-sasht-antani-blinken.

[56] “Bulgaria is highly praised for its contribution to NATO,” Government Press Office, December 17, 2021, https://www.gov.bg/en/Press-center/News/Bulgaria-is-highly-praised-for-its-contribution-to-NATO.