NATO’s “Weak Link” on the Black Sea and Counteracting Russia

Bulgaria Between Russia and the West

 

Roman Kot

The dynamics of developments in the Black Sea basin indicates that the region is becoming quite dangerous due to the aggressiveness of the Russian Federation. After the two acts of aggression — illegal annexation of Crimea and restriction of navigation in the Kerch Strait — the next such stage will most likely be Russians’ destructive actions in the northwestern sector of the Black Sea basin, in particular, taking control of Zmiinyi Island and restricting access to Odesa, Chornomorsk and other Ukrainian ports. By these steps, Russia is not only trying to economically crush Ukraine. Such steps should also be seen in the context of Russia’s strategy for establishing the RF as a military-political hegemon on the Black Sea. Therefore, the situation in the region can no longer be considered as the problem of Black Sea countries alone. It is the problem for NATO as well.

Since 2014, the Alliance has really expanded its presence in the region, increased its military training, as well as prepared the logistics for more active actions in case of an escalation.

According to the NATO-Ukraine Commission’s statement following the October 31 meeting in Kyiv, the Black Sea region is of strategic importance to the Alliance and its partners. According to the Alliance’s foreign ministers’ decision of April 2019, NATO member countries have increased their practical support for Ukraine, including through cooperation with our Navy, port visits, training and exchange of information. They also assured that they would continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its resistance to hybrid threats from Russia.

…Behavior of Bulgaria in some cases undermines the effectiveness of NATO’s efforts, and even looks like a quiet sabotage of NATO’s efforts in the region…

It should be recalled that the Black Sea countries: Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are members of NATO. Turkey has always had a special position due to a variety of reasons, such as its own geopolitical ambitions, strong economic ties with Russia and, ultimately, its many disagreements with other Allies. This makes Turkey play a secondary role in building a security system in the Black Sea. More about the peculiarities of Turkey’s positioning on the international scene — in V. Hvozd’s article “The Black Sea-Middle Eastern Tiger”.

As for Romania, the country has been and remains a reliable outpost of the Alliance in the region. Peculiarities of Bucharest’s foreign policy positioning is a separate topic. But with regard to Bulgaria, there are a number of questions. Because its behavior in some cases undermines the effectiveness of NATO’s efforts, and even looks like a quiet sabotage of NATO’s efforts in the region.

…All these are the Bulgarian leadership’s attempts to take advantage of the benefits of the country’s membership in the EU and NATO, along with the benefits of continuing economic cooperation with Russia…

Despite the fact that in 2017 Bulgaria declared its intention to increase defense spending to 2 % of GDP by 2024, its progress in this area is still negligible. Thus, in the 2019 budget, the country’s defense spending was only 1.43 % of GDP. We should also remember that Bulgaria’s position in 2017 was the main obstacle to the formation of joint NATO naval forces in the Black Sea with the participation of Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria. In such circumstances, examples of ambiguous decisions of the Bulgarian leadership are multiplied. A striking example is Bulgaria’s recent permission for Russia to use its territory to transfer to Serbia, to the Bataynitsa airbase of the S-400 air defense complex and the Pantsir-S air defense missile-gun battery to participate in the second stage of the “Slavic Shield-2019” military exercise on October 24–28, (the first stage was held in Astrakhan region of the RF in September 2019). According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, this is the first example of the use of such complexes in exercises in a foreign country.

 

In a split

To some extent, such actions by the Bulgarian leadership are explained by the country’s economic dependence on Russia. In general, since its accession to the EU in 2007, Bulgaria has reoriented its exports to European countries, but its critical dependence on imports of the RF’s energy carriers, in particular natural gas, remains. In 2018, the trade turnover between Russia and Bulgaria amounted to 3.47 billion US dollars, mainly due to exports of Russian gas (83.19 % of total exports). But about this — later. That is, the Russian Federation for Bulgaria is the first country in terms of imports, and only eighth in terms of Bulgarian exports. This is just one component of Russian influence.

Bulgaria’s major trade partners

Equally critical is the penetration of Russian businesses into the Bulgarian economy. Key sectors of Bulgaria’s economy — energy, media, banking and telecommunications — are under the influence of the capital oriented to Russia. For one, Gazprom is still the only supplier of natural gas to Bulgaria. Lukoil controls the only Bulgarian refinery in Burgas and more than half of its fuel market. At the final stage is the conclusion of an agreement with Rosatom on the construction of Belene NPP. According to the New Direction analytical centre, as of the end of 2018, 4 652 companies with Russian capital were registered in Bulgaria.

Russian influence in the Bulgarian political environment is based not only on the economy, but also on the old ties established long before the collapse of the socialist camp, and further anchored in the 1990s, including through the activities of organized crime networks. In the Bulgarian politicum, the closest to the Russian Federation are: the “Attack” far-right party; partly “The Movement for Rights and Freedoms”, which defends the rights of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria; and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is currently the main opposition political force in the country’s Parliament.

 

An Attempt to Hit on Moscow’s Positions

…On October 28, one of the employees of the Russian Embassy was declared by Bulgaria a person non grata…

Since the beginning of autumn 2019, Russian agents of influence on the territory of Bulgaria have experienced a few tangible blows at once. On October 28, one of the employees of the Russian Embassy was declared by Sofia a person non grata. Bulgaria’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Office discovered that, starting in mid-September 2018, the Russian diplomat, in the rank of first secretary of the embassy in Sofia, had been collecting state secret information for Moscow. In particular, he held regular secret meetings with Bulgarian citizens, including high-level officials who have access to state secrets regarding Bulgaria, the European Union and NATO. He offered money for the information. Moreover, a day after the incident, on October 30, Bulgaria refused a visa to the new military attaché of the Russian Embassy in Sofia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria made this decision because of the “negative opinion” of one of the bodies involved in the coordination of long-term visas for diplomats.

Shortly before, on September 10, the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security, together with the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office, unveiled a more powerful Russian network operating on the basis of the “Russophiles National Movement”. The head of “Russophiles”, former MP of Bulgaria (two terms) from the Socialist Party Nikolay Malinov, secretary of the Movement Yuriy Borisov and a number of others were detained.

In September 10, in Bulgaria was unveiled a powerful Russian network operating on the basis of the “Russophiles National Movement”

On the same day, the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had forbidden to visit Bulgaria within the next 10 years Lieutenant General (held the post of the chief of information and analytical department) of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service in reserve, a former head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Leonid Reshetnikov. Besides, a Russian billionaire, the chairman of the board of directors of the group Tsargrad, Konstantin Malofeev, was banned from visiting Bulgaria for 10 years. Don’t forget that during the active hostilities in the Donbas, this K. Malofeev played the role of one of the key financiers of the LPR/DPR. He is currently under the EU and US sanctions.

N. Malinov, who, since 2010, has been working for the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, is accused of money laundering and espionage in favor of Russia, in particular, of the transfer of “secret information to Russian organizations trying to deliberately influence Bulgaria’s national policy”.

According to investigators, N. Malinov tried to create in the country “conditions for Bulgaria to turn away from the Western countries and begin to focus on Russia”. Prosecutors say that he has met with L. Reshetnikov and K. Malofeev at least 30 times since 2010. Although N. Malinov was released on bail in the amount of about 28,000 US dollars, he was forbidden to leave the country.

As we can see, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies have for a long time been aware of both, the work of N. Malinov and the work of Russian intelligence under diplomatic cover. However, these cases have only been released now. Bulgarian experts mainly link these incidents to attempts to influence public opinion before the October 27 local elections. In our opinion, this is not completely true, since during election campaigns this type of attention is mainly focused on internal, purely local issues. The events must have been linked to more significant regional developments.

 

The Gas Needle

As mentioned above, Bulgaria is still almost entirely dependent on the import of Russian gas transported through the Ukrainian gas transportation system and the Romanian territory. According to Russia’s Gazprom, in 2017 Sofia imported from the RF 3.33 billion cubic meters of gas, with a total consumption of 3.47 billion cubic meters. The rest is covered by own production. Given the risks of interruption of gas supply through our territory, this naturally leads to Bulgaria’s efforts to diversify gas transit routes. In October, such efforts came to the finish line.

September 19, the Minister of Industry and Trade of the RF Denis Manturov paid a visit to Sofia, during which it was announced about the construction of a branch of the “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline through the territory of Bulgaria, known as the “Balkan Stream”.

Note:

The “Balkan Stream” is a 474 km long pipeline that runs from Bulgaria’s southern border with Turkey to its western border with Serbia. It will be connected to the “Turkish Stream” pipeline, which will allow Russian gas to be supplied to the countries of Southeastern and Central Europe. The cost of the project is over 1.1 billion Euros, the implementation period is 615 days, i.e. by the end of 2021. The contractor is Saudi consortium Arkad.

As part of the construction of the “Balkan Stream”, on October 21, “Strandzha” compressor station and an 11-kilometer gas pipeline connecting Bulgaria-Turkey border and Bulgaria’s gas transportation system were put into operation. Thus, apart from reducing its dependence on transit through Ukraine and Romania, Sofia expects to strengthen its positions in the Balkans at the expense of its transit potential.

Another area of diversification is the supply of gas from the Azerbaijani “Shah-Deniz II” gas field. For example, on October 10, Greek Environment and Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis and Bulgaria’s Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova signed an agreement on the construction of a 182 km long Greece-Bulgaria gas interconnector (IGB), financed by the 110 million Euros loan from European Investment Bank. Bulgaria hopes that this pipeline with its annual capacity of 3 billion cubic meters will be operational at the end of 2020, after the connection to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The IGB is 50 % owned by the Bulgarian state-owned energy company BEH EAD. The remaining shares are held by the Greek DEPA and the Italian Edison. After 2020, Bulgaria plans to satisfy up to 30 % of its needs with Azerbaijani gas.

Project of the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) for the transportation of Azerbaijani gas

So, the Bulgarian leadership’s taking measures to diversify gas supply routes are half-hearted. In the medium term, Sofia will reduce its dependence on Ukrainian and Romanian transit, but will continue to depend on Russian gas.

…It is possible that the activation of the Bulgarian special services on the Russian direction is connected with the efforts to disrupt or at least delay the implementation of the “Balkan Stream”…

It is possible that the activation of the Bulgarian special services on the Russian direction is connected with the efforts to disrupt or at least delay the implementation of the “Balkan Stream”. At the same time, it is clear that this task requires more comprehensive and large-scale measures.

In this regard, characteristic is the reaction of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. September 11, he urged not to associate the case of the detention of the head of the “Russophiles” movement, N. Malinov, with relations with Russia. “Some are trying to put this on the same level with our relations with Russia… I do not see any reason to link the one with the other. When something happens that we disagree with, the MFA reacts. Everyone, including non-governmental organizations, has the right to carry on with their activities. Some support religion, some culture, some love Russia, some America”, — the Prime Minister said.

 

…The deterioration of the situation in the Black Sea region, including due to the dual positions of some Black Sea countries, requires Ukraine’s closer cooperation with NATO and the European Union, as well as consolidation of their efforts to defend common interests…

All these are the Bulgarian leadership’s attempts to take advantage of the benefits of the country’s membership in the EU and NATO, along with the benefits of continuing economic cooperation with Russia. In turn, this Sofia’s course reduces the effectiveness of Western policy in the Black Sea region and helps Russian expansion on the Southwestern direction.

If Moscow takes more active steps to achieve its goals in the region, including the use of military force, the above-mentioned steps taken by Bulgaria will lead to additional problems for Ukraine and NATO in countering Russian aggression.

The deterioration of the situation in the Black Sea region, including due to the dual positions of some Black Sea countries, requires Ukraine’s closer cooperation with NATO and the European Union, as well as consolidation of their efforts to defend common interests. At the same time, it will be quite appropriate to intensify the diplomatic contacts between Kyiv and Sofia, in particular after the conclusion of a new contract for the transit of Russian gas through the territory of Ukraine.

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