By Georgi A. Angelov and Tony Wesolowsky
(RFE/RL) — With its stockpile of Soviet-era weapons, Bulgaria, home to a thriving arms industry, could be a key ally of Ukraine, which is trained on and equipped with such arms, in its war against invading Russian forces.
But with parliament now dissolved ahead of elections on April 2, the fifth snap poll in two years amid political uncertainty, the caretaking government is in no mood to provide lethal aid to Kyiv, appointed as it was by President Rumen Radev, who is known for his pro-Kremlin leanings.
Radev, a former air force pilot, doubled down on his hard-line stance on March 21, balking at joining a dozen EU states to supply Ukraine with at least 1 million artillery shells over the next year.
“Bulgaria does not support and is not part of the general order for the supply of shells to Ukraine,” Radev said. “Our country will support European diplomatic efforts to restore peace.”
Radev also added that Bulgaria will not provide fighter jets, missile defense systems, or tanks to Ukraine as long as the present caretaker government is in power.
Radev, along with Dimitar Stoyanov, the caretaker Bulgarian defense minister, have stated recently that transferring some of the country’s military stockpiles, including Soviet-era tanks and jets, or S-300 air defense systems, would leave the country’s own defenses weakened, claims analysts said are dubious.
Sofia also appears to be balking at an offer from Washington: Donate your Soviet-era hardware to Ukraine and the United States will replace them with modern systems or money. Slovakia and Greece are two NATO states to take Washington up on that offer.
The benefits of that deal were apparent on March 22 when Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad announced that the United States has offered to sell Slovakia 12 new Bell AH-1Z Viper helicopters at a two-thirds discount after Bratislava sent its retired MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.
And Bulgaria certainly needs to modernize its armed forces, argues Atanas Zapryanov, a former Bulgarian deputy defense minister, claiming much of its stockpile is close to being decommissioned anyway. “I guarantee you that in five years, mark my words, that it will be said that this scrap metal is useless, and we have to throw them away and buy new ones,” Zapryanov told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service.
In parliament, opposition to aiding Ukraine’s military has come specifically from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the far-right Revival party. Even the pro-Western government led by Kiril Petkov — in office from December 2021 to July 2022 — was unable with its coalition partners to overcome that opposition.
In May 2022, parliament only voted in favor of repairing Ukrainian military equipment at plants in Bulgaria, rejecting a government proposal to send an arms package to Kyiv.
However, by December 2022, the pro-Western faction was able to get approval for the first weapons package for Ukraine, albeit not heavy hardware. The list of arms in that package was classified, but government officials had said Sofia would mainly send light weaponry and ammunition.
Up till then, Bulgaria, along with Hungary led by Kremlin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban, had been the only two nations in the EU to reject Ukrainian pleas for lethal military help.
Secretive Military Aid
However, behind the scenes Bulgaria was likely doing much more. Petkov recently said that his country had secretly supplied Ukraine with ammunition and much-needed diesel fuel in the first months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. Last June, Aleksandar Mihaylov, then-director of Kintex, a state-owned arms and ammunition trading company, said Bulgaria had sent 4,200 tons of weapons to Ukraine via Poland.
Those military aid efforts to Ukraine may explain in part a series of explosions at munition depots in Bulgaria in recent years amid suspicions of Russian espionage, an RFE/RL special investigation has uncovered.
But officially, according to Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which has been tracking various forms of outside aid to Ukraine, the Bulgarian Defense Ministry had supplied Ukraine with helmets, vests, first aid kits, winter clothing, and boots in military equipment before parliament approved weapons shipments in December 2022.
That December vote may point to a possible pivot by Sofia, but with parliament dissolved and Radev –who won a second presidential term in November 2021 with the backing of the BSP — firmly in charge for now, that seems unlikely.
Bulgaria has a thriving arms industry, the sixth largest in Europe, and specializes in the producing and upgrading of Soviet-era weapons systems. In 2021, domestic arms production generated more than 1 billion levs (nearly $550 million), with much of that output destined for other NATO countries, as well as states in Africa and Asia.
Reuters reported in November 2022 that arms factories in Eastern and Central Europe have been “churning out guns, ammunition, and other military supplies at a pace not [seen] since the Cold War “to assist aid against invading Russian forces.
U.S. Offers A Helping Hand
On January 6, Washington announced fresh military aid of $682 million for “European partners and allies to help incentivize and backfill donations of military equipment to Ukraine.”
Not only could Bulgaria tap into that fund to modernize its military in exchange for transferring some of its older systems to Ukraine, but earlier in October 2022 the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria announced nearly $40 million under a similar scheme just for the Balkan country.
In December 2022, a U.S. delegation arrived in Sofia for talks about possible Bulgarian weapons deliveries to Ukraine. In particular, the U.S. officials offered unspecified U.S. weapons systems in exchange for Bulgaria sending an S-300 air-defense system to Ukraine.
Such a U.S. request had reportedly been voiced by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when he visited Sofia on March 19, 2022, with no success.
This time, U.S. officials reportedly offered more than $240 million in financial incentives to convince their Bulgarian counterpart, sources — with knowledge of the talks — told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service.
The Bulgarian Defense Ministry did not respond to questions from RFE/RL on whether it had expressed interest in taking part in what is formally known as Washington’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program.
The U.S. State Department also declined to say whether Bulgarian officials had voiced an interest in the program.
Radev said if Bulgaria were to donate to Ukraine some of its Soviet-era missile systems such as its S-300 and S-200, as well as MiG-29 and Su-25 military jets and T-72 tanks, then it will need replacements.
“As the supreme commander of the armed forces, I am obliged to insist that the defense potential of the Bulgarian Army is not weakened in this complex situation, but on the contrary, it must be maintained and developed,” Radev vowed.
However, Bulgarian senior officials seem to be ignoring a golden opportunity to modernize their military with generous aid from Washington, said Zapryanov.
“From this billion [in U.S. dollars in military aid announced in September 2022 under the FMF], [the Bulgarian government] would be given money to buy whatever they want,” Zapryanov told RFE/RL.
Slovakia could serve as a template for Bulgaria, Zapryanov noted. On March 17, Slovakia announced it will send all 13 of its MiG-29 jets to Ukraine at an unspecified date. In return, the United States will compensate the transfer with $745 million in defense materiel, while the EU will provide 200 million euros.
If Bulgaria were to supply Ukraine with its S-300 system, it would receive not only funding for more modern weapons, but protection of its skies by Patriot missile battery systems under NATO’s air shielding mission as has been done in Slovakia, said Zapryanov, making it a win-win situation.
Plus, the ageing S-300 systems that Bulgaria now relies on will be decommissioned in two or three years, Zapryanov claimed. Its remaining MiG jets — reported to number 4 or 5 — could be taken out of service already by the end of this year.
- Georgi A. Angelov has been a journalist for RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service since 2022. He started his career 20 years ago at the Smolyan newspaper Otzvuk. He then worked for a number of national newspapers. He was a reporter at Dnevnik, an editor at OFFNews.bg, and a writer and correspondent at the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle
- Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.