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Bulgarian FM says relations with Russia 'frozen,' yet military aid to Ukraine remains in limbo

by Asami Terajima April 11, 2023 8:21 PM 9 min read
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov holds a press conference before the Western Balkans Summit at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, Germany on Oct. 21, 2022. (Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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BRUSSELS – Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine has again exposed Russia's far-reaching influence over Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian energy sector is dominated by Russia. The defense minister was dismissed in March 2022 for echoing the Kremlin's war propaganda. The country has denied Ukraine's official requests for military aid in fear of pro-Russian parties toppling the already unstable government.

In an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Independent, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov said on April 4 that Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has accelerated his country's effort to eliminate Russia's lingering reach.

In November, following months of political turmoil, the country's parliament voted to send military aid to Ukraine.

"Practically, the relations between Bulgaria and Russia are frozen," Milkov said at the NATO Brussels headquarters. "We don't have anything that is part of what has been a cooperation between our two countries."

Despite earlier promises, Milkov said that Bulgaria has not delivered any military aid to Ukraine thus far.

It doesn’t help that Bulgaria is entangled in a two-year-old political crisis involving five parliamentary elections and three caretaker governments, which also included pro-Russian politicians.

With the fifth election on April 2 turning into another inconclusive one, the political deadlock has affected Bulgaria's assistance for Ukraine.

And until a government is established, a caretaker one – appointed by the country's President Rumen Radev, whom many see as Kremlin-friendly – is still in power.

According to Milkov, the country has "one big complex of problems that we have to solve," which includes the country's stance on Russia's war against Ukraine.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (R) welcomes Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (L) during a working visit in Sofia, Bulgaria, April 20, 2022. (Borislav Troshev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Russian influence

For Kyiv, Bulgaria’s support is important. Bulgaria is among Europe's top producers of ammunition for Soviet-made weapons – which Ukrainian soldiers desperately need amid a long-running shortage.

"The war in Ukraine and the attitude of the political parties towards the war in Ukraine became a kind of self-identification for the political parties," Milkov said.

"And it was a subject of many discussions during the pre-electoral campaign, the decisions about the help to Ukraine will not wait too long."

Some Bulgarian officials, like Radev, have kept Western allies on alert. The president was vocal in his desire not to send aid to Ukraine.

Another top official, former Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, was immediately dismissed by parliament in March 2022 after declining to describe Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a war.

Bulgaria's political landscape has also been affected by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and some Russia-leaning political projects, like the ultranationalist Revival party.

The two pro-Russian parties hold 60 out of 240 seats in the National Assembly, divided among six parties.

Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Milkov appeared rather optimistic about his country's possible change of mind about its military aid to Ukraine.

"I think that Bulgaria as a whole is a predominantly and consensual pro-European country, so I don't have any doubts that the parliament will take the respective decisions (regarding military aid)," Milkov said.

"Of course, this is a complicated issue for every country," he added.

"(The negotiations) are ongoing, and depending on the attitudes of different political parties, we will have a final result."

Energy trap

With Russia deeply dominating the Bulgarian energy sector, Milkov said during the interview that "some derogations" remain despite implementing "100% of the EU sanctions."

"There are only exceptions in some areas where we don't have any other means of supporting our economy," he said.

One major exemption that Bulgaria secured for itself during talks with Brussels is the Neftochim Burgas refinery, the biggest in the Balkans and owned by Lukoil – Russia's second-largest oil producer. The refinery is still operating under its current ownership.

This has helped Russia make substantial money from the energy sector, a significant revenue source for Moscow, even after the EU's blocking of seaborne imports of Russian-origin crude oil – on top of the bloc's $60 per barrel oil cap.

According to S&P Global's data, Bulgaria bought about 150,000 barrels of Russian oil per day in December 2022.

The Russian-controlled refinery in Bulgaria processed over 7 million tons of crude oil in 2022, nearly double the 4.2 million tons processed in 2021.

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But Milkov insisted that this exemption is crucial to keep the Bulgarian economy afloat and also because "40% of the production of this refinery goes to Ukraine," explaining further that "this is a kind of support to Ukraine."

Data by the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute has shown that Ukraine imported more than 825 million euro worth of fuel from Bulgaria in 2022, which is "a 1,000-fold increase" from the previous year.

The Russian-owned Neftochim Burgas is the only refinery in Bulgaria.

As a result, Ukraine went from being Bulgaria's eighth largest trading partner before the all-out war to third due to fuel purchases, according to the institute's data.

Despite Russia's continuing influence on Bulgaria's energy sector, Milkov said that his country is now "100% independent" from Russian gas, partly due to the launch of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) in 2022, a key gas route connecting several nearby countries.

Bulgaria's state-owned nuclear power plant Kozloduy, which still relies on nuclear fuel from Russia's Rosatom, is taking steps to "diversify" resources, according to the minister.

"So, we have been forced by the political situation and also by the realities to disrupt some links that we had with Russia," Milkov said.

"And this is very important," he added. "Now, we are more independent than we were," even though "of course, we were not ready for this."

This photograph taken on March 17, 2022, shows Bulgaria's sole oil refinery, Russian-owned Lukoil Neftochim Burgas near the city of Burgas on the Black Sea coast. (Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images)

Bulgaria's secret aid

Despite being publicly silent, several investigations have revealed that Sofia has been discretely supplying munitions to Kyiv through intermediaries.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and Finance Minister Assen Vassilev soon confirmed this, telling the Guardian in January that their country provided 30% of the Soviet-caliber ammunition and some 40% of the diesel that Ukraine needed in the first three crucial months of the full-scale war.

According to German newspaper Die Welt's January investigation, Sofia initiated "a procedure for comprehensive military aid to Ukraine" when Petkov traveled to Kyiv on April 28.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the paper that Petkov "decided to be on the right side of history and help us defend ourselves against a much stronger enemy."

Under the covert strategy, implemented in secrecy due to strong pro-Russian ties of some coalition members, Ukraine was reportedly able to receive a large amount of munition early on.

"We knew that the Bulgarian warehouses had a large amount of ammunition we needed, so President (Volodymyr) Zelensky sent me on a diplomatic mission to get the necessary materials," Kuleba told Die Welt about his April visit to Sofia.

Kuleba added that the negotiations were secretly held since it was "a matter of life and death" at the time because of the pace that the Russian forces were advancing last spring.

Milkov, however, said that he was not aware of any weapon or munition deliveries. But he added that he might not know some events that took place before he took office in August.

While Milkov says, Bulgarian Armed Forces are expecting to be rearmed with F-16 fighter jets and more infantry fighting vehicles, among others, everything concerning the aid depends on the parliament's decision.

"For me, it's difficult to say because I haven't seen how the new parliament will work and what would be on the top of its agenda," Milkov said. "So probably we have to wait a couple of weeks more for analyzing the attitudes of the political parties regarding this."

But the minister warned that "there are not many options" on how Bulgaria would be able to help Ukraine due to the limited capacity of its armed forces.

"I can assure you, and I very much regret to say this, but there are not many options for the Bulgarian Armed Forces to deliver support because their capability, their military capabilities are really limited," he added.

Milkov said that Bulgaria needs to increase its own defense spending first and focus on itself to be "ready for any possible development."

To this day, Bulgaria holds its Soviet weaponry – while its neighbors have been modernizing their stocks by sending off the old ones to Ukraine and receiving modern Western-made replacements.

The Bulgarian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in late March, quoting the country's president, that Sofia is not considering this due to what he described to be a long wait to receive a modern replacement and "we will have to pay for them."

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, and Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics are seen arriving to the Bucharest Nine ministerial meeting in Lodz, Poland on March 31, 2023. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

'Not to repeat our mistake'

Milkov emphasized during the interview that even without military aid, his country would still help Ukraine "the best we can" and for "as long as it takes."

Despite the internal fluctuation, Bulgaria is ranked sixth in terms of donations to Ukraine in relation to its GDP.

Milkov said Bulgaria's humanitarian aid focused on Ukrainians' "most urgent needs," including generators and winter equipment, and medical aid for the army – consisting of about 300 million euros.

But more than all, Milkov said, "the first thing that we can advise Ukraine or someone else who would like to join NATO and the European Union not to repeat our mistakes."

He acknowledged that Bulgaria has "made a lot of mistakes" and "we are still making mistakes" down the road – especially regarding judicial reforms.

"There is some reluctance also of the lawmakers to implement the decisions about increasing the budget spending for defense, and the plans are postponed many times now in times of crisis, we see that this is very dangerous," Milkov said.

"So the commitments that are made and the decisions that are taken must be implemented without delay, without a dubious attitude of the politicians."

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev casts his vote during an early parliamentary elections at a polling station, in Sofia, Bulgaria, on April 2, 2023. (Georgi Paleykov/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The foreign minister, however, doesn't think he has a long time left in his position.

With the new parliament now working to establish a functioning government, Milkov acknowledged that the caretaker government would be dismissed at any moment.

Currently, there is a motion on the table to appoint Milkov as the Bulgarian ambassador to NATO, which he seems interested in.

"If we are able to make our modest contribution to bringing back peace on the continent, I do believe that our job will be done," he said.

"Every attempt to restore and rebuild Russian imperialism is unacceptable for all of us."


Note from the author:

Hi, this is Asami Terajima, the author of this article.

Thank you for reading my story. I've arrived in Brussels just a few days after leaving the Donbas, and it was quite surreal to go from Ukrainian soldiers telling me how crucial it is for them to receive more advanced tanks – to seeing the reluctance from the Western side to provide what they really need. To help the Kyiv Independent's reporting on the ground and elsewhere, please consider supporting us by becoming our patron.

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