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Investigation: Bulgaria ‘indirectly’ sent weapons to Ukraine

Bulgarian arms worth billions of dollars entered Ukraine through other countries in the past two years without Ukraine and Bulgaria even having to agree to a single direct deal, even before the war, an investigation carried out by EURACTIV Bulgaria has found.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bulgaria’s then deputy prime minister and economy minister Kornelia Ninova reiterated that she would not allow the export of Bulgarian weapons to Ukraine after making her first promise in a televised interview just four days after the invasion began.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion, the sending of weapons to the war-torn country has been a key bone of contention between Russophile and pro-Western parties in Bulgaria.

While the direct trade of weapons has not occurred, their indirect sale, first highlighted by EURACTIV in October 2022, has now been found to be taking place even before the conflict started.

“For the period 24 February 2022-19 January 2023, no applications for foreign trade transactions with Ukrainian companies and state institutions were received for consideration by the Commission for Export Control, and accordingly, no export permits were issued for this period,” a response provided to EURACTIV by the Economy Ministry says following a request under the Access to Public Information Act.

Even before the war, from the start of 2021 until 24 February 2022, Ukraine made no direct deals with Bulgarian arms companies, which are major exporters of weapons and ammunition produced according to the Soviet standard for the Ukrainian army.

However, last year alone, Bulgaria exported indirectly at least $1 billion in arms to Ukraine, EURACTIV sources comment.

As Ninova, the leader of the pro-Russian socialists in Bulgaria repeated, she would not allow the export of Bulgarian weapons to the Ukrainian army, the Bulgarian arms industry had record sales abroad, mainly to Poland and Romania, from where weapons are then sent into Ukraine.

Large state-owned arms plants such as those in Sopot, Karlovo, and Kazanlak, where the plants are located, and the people working there, reported a 100% uptick in sales.

Alexander Mihailov, former executive director of the state company “Kintex”, through which the country’s arms exports pass, confirmed the record Bulgarian exports this year.

“When there is an international armed conflict, there is always an increase in the use of defence-related products,” Mihailov told EURACTIV Bulgaria last year, adding that the arms export permits issued by the state during this time added up to a total of €1.1 – €1.3 billion.

Meanwhile, at the end of April 2022, Ninova stated that if the National Assembly decided Bulgaria would provide arms to Ukraine, she would not give it her required stamp of approval.

“If parliament takes such a decision, I will not sign such a document. If they want to replace me, I will not sign this document! I’m leaving my post. But I consider the Bulgarian interest, and most citizens say clearly: not to export weapons,” Ninova said in an interview with BNT at the end of April 2022.

After she and her cabinet were ousted in July 2022, the Bulgarian parliament decided with a large majority at the end of last year to provide military aid to Ukraine from the warehouses of the Bulgarian army.

President Rumen Radev, who was categorically against this decision, did not stop it and issued a decree. Bulgaria sent military aid, but then Radev announced that there would be no second arms shipment.

International trading schemes

“Bulgarian arms companies do not sell weapons and ammunition directly to Ukrainian companies because there is a practice for this to happen through foreign programmes,”  Velizar Shalamanov, former acting defence minister, former chairman of the Supervisory Board of the NATO Communications and Information Agency, and now director at the Atlantic Club told EURACTIV Bulgaria.

“There is a programme with good funding in Great Britain, the United States and Poland. Through this programme, the armaments needed for Ukraine are bought, that is, the money is not Ukrainian but British, American, Polish or European. That is why it is bought through other companies. In addition, logistics is important, and as we all know, it is mainly organised through Poland and is the responsibility of those companies that buy from the Bulgarian market,” Shalamanov explained.

According to him, there are other logical factors for Bulgarian companies not to sell directly to Ukraine, though Ninova saying that “not a single Bulgarian patron will go to Ukraine” during her time as economy minister was likely what stopped Bulgarian companies from doing so.

Still, these factors have led to a kind of “triangular approach”, which is extremely useful for Bulgaria, both financially and image-wise, and for Ukraine, Shalamanov added.

“That is, all parties get their share,” he explained. Shalamanov recently advocated for Bulgaria to hand over all its Soviet-era tanks and armoured vehicles and replace them with modern equipment from our allies, which would speed up our rearmament.

This applies to both T-72 tanks and to Su-25 and MiG-29 aircraft. Shalamanov pointed to the Czech Republic and Poland, which have already done so, as good examples.

But this practice of indirect export was not just limited to the period of the war.

Bulgaria is one of the major producers of Soviet-standard weapons and ammunition used by the Ukrainian army.

A series of sabotages against Bulgarian arms factories after the annexation of Crimea and the attempted murder of an arms businessman, for which the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office suspects the Russian secret services, are one of the proofs that Bulgaria exported a significant amount of weapons to Ukraine even before the war, multiple EURACTIV sources have revealed.

Business loves silence

In a television interview on 25 January, the former executive director of the most significant state military plant in Sopot, Ivan Ivanov, explained that Bulgaria did not export weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.

Bulgaria trades with over 60 countries, mainly through companies with licences and approval of the Commission as end-user. Ivanov, however, emphasised that through his work at the plant, he became convinced that the arms business loves silence.

“Therefore, I am deeply surprised that the current caretaker minister of the economy (Nikola Stoyanov) keeps raising this question about weapons. He should know that by constantly talking about the military-industrial complex, he is harming Bulgaria, he is harming this sector of Bulgaria’s economy,” emphasised Ivanov.

The topic made headlines following the publication of an article by the German newspaper Die Welt, stating that the government, under the leadership of former prime minister Kiril Petkov and finance minister Asen Vassilev started a secret procedure to send Ukraine large-scale military aid – including ammunition and weaponry – through other routes to avoid official arms supplies.

Source : Euractiv

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