Bulgaria has had to tread carefully in order to help Ukraine without offending Russia.
Moscow has historically impacted the Balkan state. Bulgarians' views on Ukraine are divided among its 6.7 million citizens, many of whom believe Kremlin propaganda, writes Kyiv Independent.
After two years of political impasse, Bulgaria's new coalition government, elected in June, is now redirecting the country's focus to Kyiv and the West. Sofia has covertly been delivering ammunition to Kyiv since 2022, but the most recent pledge of 100 armoured vehicles was the first to be made public.
Bulgarian Defence Minister Todor Tagarev told the Kyiv Independent that supporting Ukraine is in Bulgaria's strategic interest for various reasons. Russia's actions "broke all international norms" and it is "destroying the international security architecture."
"First, this is a moral obligation to help the victim of aggression," he stated. "However, it is also in our strategic interest that Ukraine resists Russian aggression and regains its sovereignty and territorial integrity." This is critical for European stability, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region."
Todor Tagarev, Bulgarian Defence Minister, will attend the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting on June 15, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. (Getty Images/Omar Havana))
However, it will be difficult to separate from Russia, whose propaganda is influential in Bulgarian politics and among the general public. Rumen Radev, the current president, is pro-Russian.
Tagarev stated that there are politicians that oppose arming Ukraine, stating that they are trying to establish peace sooner, despite the fact that this argument is illogical.
Bulgaria too relies significantly on Russian oil.
Some Bulgarians still consider Russia to be the power that freed their country from the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s. Despite the fact that Kremlin narratives are "accepted quite favourably by a significant portion of the population," this is changing.
According to him, an increasing proportion of Bulgarians favour Ukraine. Russia's conflict in Ukraine appeared to be the wake-up call his country required.
Bulgarian Defence Minister: 'Pro-Russian disinformation is undermining the Bulgarian army'
Pro-Russian disinformation directed at Bulgaria has begun to "seriously affect the army's ability to fight," Bulgarian Defence Minister Todor Tagarev stated during a parliamentary discussion.
Bulgaria, with its enormous Soviet military stockpiles and large defence industry, is a wonderful buddy to have.
President Volodymyr Zelensky chastised Radev during his first public visit to Bulgaria in July for his opposition to equipping Ukraine for what he called a "conflict."
Radev responded in July by telling journalists that Kiev "insists on waging war" while "Europe pays for everything."
The Ukrainian Embassy in Sofia pounced on Radev's remark, accusing him of replicating Russian propaganda. Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov condemned it as well, saying it does not reflect the attitude of the EU or NATO, both of which Bulgaria is a member of both.
Tagarev stated that the president's words will have no effect on Bulgaria's support, which is a parliamentary republic. That is, the government, not the president, is in charge of defence, security, and foreign policy.
"That's all in our hands - the cabinet, and now the cabinet differs significantly from the president's position," Tagarev said, adding that the government does "not really" discuss military aid with President Radev.
Obtaining Bulgaria's assistance is critical, especially at this time. A stalemate in the House threatens American backing, and pro-Russian prime ministers in Slovakia and Hungary veto EU support for Ukraine.
The Black Sea has long been an important staging ground for Moscow's imperial aggression.
Russia has posed a significant threat to Ukraine's Black Sea neighbours, from polluting the sea with hundreds of mines at the start of the all-out war to conducting regular and unpredictable naval manoeuvres.
Bulgaria is currently concerned about two aspects of the Black Sea: Russia's continued shooting drills, which threaten the Balkan country's territorial integrity, and floating mines.
Since quitting the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July, Russia has utilised naval manoeuvres to obstruct Ukrainian grain exports. With Russia's continued training close, a portion of Bulgaria's Black Sea economic zone remains largely blocked.
"So it's one thing that it is practically blocking traffic because it communicates, 'it's dangerous, we do live fire here, so don't cross,'" he said.
"That's a common practise if it's only for a few days." But Russia has been shutting that section of the Black Sea for three months, which is clearly unacceptable."
In August, a Russian warship fired warning rounds at a cargo ship in the Black Sea's southwest, past Ukraine.
Bulgaria has stated that it is discussing with NATO allies Russia's prolonged partial blockade of its economic zone, but no solution has been offered. Despite the provocation, Tagarev stated that it is "not a direct threat to territory or for aggression against a member of the NATO alliance, but there are a variety of risks."
"All these are risks that may bring casualties, and we need to deal with that - these are significant risks," Tagarev went on to say. "As a result, we are less concerned that Russia will dare to attack a NATO ally." However, we are concerned that some of these dangers may manifest as material damage or casualties."
The Turkish Defence Ministry declared a trilateral cooperation with Bulgaria and Romania to combat mines in October, but provided no further details.
The goal, according to Tagarev, is to clear mines "on a systematic, more rigorous basis within the joining forces of the three countries." This is unlikely to have an impact on Ukraine's seas.
"We want to make navigation safer, but we don't want to give a reason for the conflict in the Black Sea to escalate," Tagarev said, adding that it would still benefit Ukraine's export prospects.
Despite Russia's withdrawal from the grain corridor, Kyiv continues to export, albeit in much reduced amounts.
According to a former defence minister, not supporting Ukraine is "disastrous for Slovak security."
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After ten years, Tagarev returned to his defence minister's office to find his neighbour at war and the Black Sea region in danger.
"Of course, it's much more difficult," said Tagarev, who held the position for two months in 2013 as part of then-Prime Minister Marin Raykov's caretaker administration.
Modernising the army is one of his top goals. The country underwent five elections in two years, resulting in a massive backlog of work.
Pro-Russian disinformation is also wreaking havoc in Bulgaria, according to Tagarev, who recently stated that it "seriously affects the army's ability to fight."
As the EU's poorest member, obtaining sufficient financing to modernise its armed forces to NATO standards has been challenging. According to the Dutch open-source defence analysis site Oryx, the country's inventory is very similar to what it had in 1980. Political unrest exacerbated the situation.
"Now the budget is being increased, we are getting more money, we need more armament, we need people, training, infrastructure, and all that," Tagarev explained, adding that there are greater opportunities and demand for Bulgaria's armed forces to be modernised quickly.
When asked about Bulgaria's plans for sending Soviet-era weaponry to Ukraine, the defence minister stated, "We are doing what's possible," mostly sourcing from its own defence sector, which has traditionally specialised in small arms, light weapons, and ammunition.
"As a matter of government policy, we provide opportunities for companies to sell, and it is up to the companies to sign contracts and find ways to deliver their products to Ukraine," the minister said, adding that the majority of Bulgaria's defence companies are privately owned.
Bulgaria's industrial production and exports rose or tripled last year, according to Tagarev, "for a billion or more euros." He went on to say "the assumption is that, in large part, that is due to the export of ammunition and material from Bulgarian companies."
According to a Guardian story quoting Bulgarian sources, Sofia supplied 30% of Ukraine's Soviet munitions needs last spring following a secret visit by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
"The defence industry is working 24/7, and that's the most important support that Ukraine gets," Tagarev went on to say. /BGNES