Special Operations: Explosive GRU Presence In Bulgaria


April 27, 2023: Bulgaria, a small (population 6.5 million), poor and pro-Russia country in southeast Europe, finds itself in the midst of a scandal involving over a decade of Russian-sponsored sabotage. Despite centuries of being a “little brother” protected or supported by big brother Russia, Bulgaria became increasingly pro-West after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, adopted democracy and slowly shifted towards alliances with the West. This led to Bulgaria joining NATO in 2004 and the EU (European Union) in 2007. Despite that, many Bulgarians still retained pro-Russia attitudes. That wasn’t hard to do because Bulgaria is the only EU (European Union) nation using the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and most Bulgarians belong to the Russian dominated Eastern Orthodox church. While a majority of Bulgarians approved membership in NATO and the EU, many still cling to pro-Russian attitudes.

All this is background for a current scandal in Bulgaria as Russian GRU (military intelligence) operatives were found to be responsible for over a decade of mysterious explosions in storage sites holding Bulgarian-made weapons awaiting shipment to Ukraine or, in 2010, to Georgia. Russia briefly invaded Georgia in 2008, a prelude to the more ambitious attacks on Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Bulgarian arms manufacturers are one of the few in Europe to manufacture munitions for Russian designed weapons.

These explosions were not accidents, even though Bulgarian officials initially refused to consider sabotage or foreign agents as a cause. That eventually changed as more evidence of Russian GRU activity in Bulgaria was uncovered. British investigators identified some of the GRU agents active in Bulgaria as being some of those involved in a 2019 incident in Britain where the GRU was found responsible using a Russian made poison against British citizens targeted by Russian assassins.

GRU operations in Bulgaria were found to be far more extensive and dramatic (explosive) than what Britain experienced. As Bulgarian officials investigated possible GRU involvement of explosions in several weapons storage sites since 2014 it was found that none of these explosions were accidents and all were the work of Russian GRU operatives assigned to prevent these weapons from reaching Ukraine.

This was embarrassing for Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the EU. Getting into both these organizations was difficult because of the high levels of corruption in Bulgaria. Many of the destroyed weapons were paid for by other NATO members supporting Ukraine. Opinion polls showed that many Bulgarians did not support the Ukrainian resistance to Russian invaders.

Bulgarian problems with NATO membership and Russian weapons is another factor. For example. in 2015 Bulgaria hired a Polish firm to upgrade six of their MiG-29 fighters. Poland was selected because in 2014 Poland completed upgrades required to make their own MiG-29s compatible with NATO standards. This was necessary because Poland was now a member of NATO and could not then afford to replace all its MiG-29s with Western fighters. Poland has the largest fleet of MiG-29s in NATO (32 operational) and other East European nations that recently joined NATO are in a similar situation.

The Poles didn’t do it all themselves but figured out who the most effective partners would be. For example, a Polish firm worked with an Israeli company to make the MiG-29 electronics compatible with NATO equipment. Mechanical controls were replaced with electronic (“fly by wire”) ones. This involved a much more efficient cockpit and some amenities which make life much easier for pilots. All this gave the MiG-29 electronics similar to those in the 48 F-16s Poland has purchased.

The Bulgarian upgrades are less about new electronics and more about keeping the Bulgarian MiG-29s flyable. This was being done despite protests from Russia who insisted it was illegal for anyone but the Russian manufacturer to perform such upgrades and refurbishment. But the Russians wanted a lot more money for the work than Polish, or even Western European firms charged. The then current Russian hostility towards NATO did not make Russia a reliable source of such services.

Bulgaria has to be careful with what it spends on military equipment because the country was never rich to begin with. After Bulgaria broke free from communist (and Russian dominated) government in 1989, it turned to the West for help. Reforms, including reducing the chronic corruption, took time. It wasn’t until 2009 that Bulgaria was able to resume training new MiG-29 pilots. Such training had stopped, for budgetary reasons, in the late 1990s. Throughout the 1990s, and until 2004, Bulgaria was busy disbanding its Cold War era air force of 226 aircraft. By 2009 all they had left was 18 MiG-29s (which needed upgrades to meet NATO standards), some Su-25s (for ground attack), a few MiG-21s (on their way out), some Su-22s (used for reconnaissance) and a few dozen transports and helicopters. One by one, most air bases were shut down, and the Russian made aircraft (most of them obsolete) sold for scrap.

Western aircraft are being bought, but the MiG-29s are being kept because they are competitive with Western fighters. That is important because East European nations found that Western warplanes were too expensive. By 2009 the existing MiG-29 pilots were getting old and many of them had already left for more lucrative commercial flying job. This created the need to train another dozen MiG-29 pilots. That training was completed by 2010.

In late 2011 Bulgaria announced that it would postpone a decision on the purchase of a new multi-role jet fighter until at least 2012. Bulgaria originally committed itself to buying a NATO-type fighter as part of its alliance integration process. However, an unexpected economic recession cut into procurement funds and that situation never got better. Soon plans for buying Western warplanes were dropped as well. Then the Poles showed it was possible to upgrade MiG-29s on an East European budget.

Bulgaria and Romania were both forced to clean up their corruption before joining NATO in 2004, and the European Union (EU) in 2007. Being in NATO afforded protection from Russia, which was still considered a threat by East European nations. But NATO would not allow a nation with rampant corruption to join, as that would mean many NATO secrets would be vulnerable to theft via a few well-placed bribes. There was a similar situation with the European Union, which sends in lots of financial aid to needy new members, and does not want to see all that cash stolen by corrupt officials.

But as soon as Romania and Bulgaria were in the EU, the corruption revived. Apparently the crooked officials in both nations agreed to shape up just long enough to get into the EU. Then they could go back to plundering, this time with all that additional EU aid available as well. The EU was not amused, and has been putting pressure on, and issuing threats to, both nations. This is having an impact, because this Grand Scam quickly became obvious to the EU, and there are threats of expulsion and withholding economic aid. This has given the honest politicians an opportunity to install a clean government for the first time. But the dirty politicians are not giving up easily.

Most NATO members are EU nations, and have made it clear that if the two nations cannot clean up their corruption, they can forget about NATO protection as well. The fact that Romania dismissed its armed forces commander, and several senior officers, for plundering military equipment, indicates that the message was received. Recent history indicates that a corruption problem can be quickly addressed. Greece did an admiral job of cleaning up its problems to gain admittance to the Euro zone (using the Euro as its currency and gaining financial and trading benefits). But, like Bulgaria and Romania, Greece found that after they got into the Euro Zone in 2001, after having failed to make the grade in 1999, the backsliding began. It's a struggle that will take a decade or more of politically hard anti-corruption work to change centuries-old traditions.


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