How the EU’s poorest country secretly saved Ukraine – POLITICO

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Last spring, Ukraine’s army was running desperately low on the fuel and Soviet caliber ammunition it needed to fight the Russians.

Salvation came from an unexpected quarter: Bulgaria.

Thanks to its fractured domestic politics — and the pro-Russian leanings of much of its elite — Sofia has been at pains over the course of the invasion to stress that it is not arming Ukraine.

That was, however, a smokescreen, according to an investigation by German daily WELT, a sister publication of POLITICO in the Axel Springer Group. Thanks to exclusive interviews with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and his finance minister, Assen Vassilev, WELT has pieced together a picture of how Bulgaria stepped into the breach and used intermediaries to provide Kyiv with vital supplies of weapons, ammunition and diesel at a critical juncture of the fighting last year.

While Petkov, who was Bulgarian prime minister at the outbreak of the war, was attempting to pull the country in a more westward, pro-NATO trajectory, he had to grapple with intense blowback from pro-Kremlin politicians, including among his coalition partners, the Socialists, who are the successors to the old Communist Party. He even had to fire his own defense minister for parroting Russia’s spin on the war. In public, at least, Petkov sought to play down any idea that Bulgaria — despite considerable stocks of Soviet-era weaponry — would step up and arm Ukraine.

Given these sensitivities, Bulgaria’s official stance toward the war has seen it lumped in the same basket as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary — too politically in hock to Moscow to pull its weight.

But Petkov and Vassilev, now opposition politicians seeking a path back to power in expected upcoming elections, have broken their silence on the true scale of Bulgaria’s role last spring.

While the Socialist Party in Sofia called Bulgarian arms deliveries to Ukrainian forces a “red line,” Petkov’s officials avoided government-to-government transactions and used intermediary companies in Bulgaria and abroad to open up supply routes by air and land through Romania, Hungary, and Poland.  

“We estimate that about a third of the ammunition needed by the Ukrainian army in the early phase of the war came from Bulgaria,” Petkov told WELT.

Just as sensitively, the diesel that Bulgaria supplied to Ukraine was processed from Russian crude oil at a Black Sea refinery, which at the time belonged to the Russian company Lukoil. “Bulgaria became one of the largest exporters of diesel to Ukraine and at times covered 40 percent of Ukraine’s needs,” former Finance Minister Vassilev told WELT.

The government in Kyiv confirmed that version of events. Kuleba told WELT his country was in danger of running out of ammunition last April. “We knew that Bulgarian warehouses had large quantities of the ammunition needed so President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy sent me to obtain the necessary material,” Kuleba said.

It was a matter of “life and death” at that time, Kuleba explained, because otherwise the Russians would occupy more villages and towns, “kill, torture and rape” more Ukrainians.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told WELT his country was in danger of running out of ammunition last April | Pool photo by Valentyn Ogirenko/AFP via Getty Images

Faced with Kyiv’s requests, Kuleba said Petkov replied that his domestic situation was “not easy” but that he would do “everything in his power.”

“Kiril Petkov has shown integrity, and I will always be grateful to him for using all his political skills to find a solution,” Kuleba continued. The story, he said, was simple: While some members of the Bulgarian coalition sided with Russia, Petkov decided to “be on the right side of history and help us defend ourselves against a much stronger enemy.”

Petkov’s plan

On February 25, just one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, at an informal European Council meeting in Brussels, Petkov stressed to his fellow leaders that Zelenskyy may have less than 48 hours to live, that he was on Moscow’s death list, and that the Council must take tough decisions on sanctions immediately. The European Commission ultimately supported those moves.

At the same time, Finance Minister Vassilev attended a meeting of EU finance ministers in Paris. There, too, there was indecision, as he described it. Everyone was still in shock over the attack. Then Vassilev gave a speech. Not about numbers and economic consequences, but about what Putin meant by “de-Nazification of Ukraine.” He drew on Bulgaria’s own experiences.

“That’s what the Russians did in Bulgaria after World War II, they murdered thousands of dissenters, professors and priests,” Vassilev said. He, too, called for immediate resolutions and participants in the meeting confirmed to WELT that the Bulgarian minister had turned the mood of the assembled delegates.

Two days later, Brussels implemented those measures. In EU circles, they were styled as the “Bulgarian proposal.”

On April 19, shortly before a visit to Kyiv by Petkov, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba traveled to Sofia, as a new and uncertain phase of the war began. The Ukrainians had pushed the invaders back from the broader Kyiv region and the north, but many Western weapons had not yet been delivered. The fighting was so intense, Kuleba says today, that Ukraine urgently needed to replenish its stocks, especially Soviet-made ammunition.

That’s what Zelenskyy thought Kuleba could secure on his mission to Sofia.

Petkov says now that his government authorized middlemen to export, not directly to Ukraine, but to intermediary companies abroad.

“Our private military industry was producing at full speed,” Petkov said. Footage from April shows cargo planes “loaded to the brim” with weapons flying between Bulgaria and Poland. What is known is that Poland’s Rzeszów airport, 70 kilometers from the Ukrainian border and closely guarded by NATO, is a major shipment point. “We made sure that the overland route via Romania and Hungary was also open to trucks,” Petkov said.

Kuleba confirmed those supplies. He stressed that it was not a matter of the Bulgarian government providing military aid directly to Ukraine, “but rather of Ukrainian companies and companies from NATO countries being given the opportunity to procure what was needed from Bulgarian vendors.”

According to information supplied to WELT, the U.S. and Great Britain paid for the supplies.

The international media remained intently focused on the delivery of Western weapons, including the U.S. Himars missile launchers | Jam Sta Rosa/AFP via Getty Images

The cat appeared to be out of the bag in June when the head of the state military export company Kintex, Alexander Mihailov, had to resign after a political dispute and went public with figures — probably with the aim of rocking the government. Mihailov spoke of exports worth “€2 billion” since the war began. He also mentioned deliveries of ammunition for the Grad BM-21 multiple rocket launcher.

But then things fell silent again. The international media remained intently focused on the delivery of Western weapons, including the U.S. Himars missile launchers. The Socialist Party in the government kept threatening to break up the coalition if there was any direct support for Kyiv — but could not, because no such support officially existed.

Diesel deals

Flying even further below the radar, Bulgaria sent diesel to Zelenskyy’s forces.

Vassilev recalls a World Bank meeting in Washington in the spring. There, he said, a Ukrainian official told him that Kyiv’s troops were running out of fuel. Bulgaria has a refinery near Burgas on the Black Sea, which is operated by a subsidiary of the Russian Lukoil group and supplied by oil tankers from Russia.

Vassilev said he encouraged Lukoil in Bulgaria to export surplus oil to Ukraine. The reaction was positive, and employees there also condemned Putin’s war, he said. Bulgaria itself needs about half of the fuel the refinery produces; the rest, he says, has been shipped to Ukraine. Once again, supplies from local companies were handled through foreign intermediary companies.

Kyiv confirmed to WELT that Ukrainian companies received Bulgarian diesel at this all-important stage.

“Trucks and tankers regularly went to Ukraine via Romania, and in some cases the fuel was also loaded onto freight trains,” Vassilev said.

Moscow bites back

With the secret supply lines to Ukraine, Petkov was taking a big risk.

Polls in Bulgaria showed that 70 percent of citizens worried about being drawn into the war and therefore opposed too much support for Ukraine. President Rumen Radev, a nominee of the Socialist Party, stoked this sentiment, claiming that Bulgaria would become a party to the war if arms were supplied.

Only recently has the game of hide-and-seek come to an end. Since the beginning of the year, the Lukoil refinery in Burgas has been controlled entirely from Bulgaria, with no connection to the headquarters in Russia, and it is now seeking oil from other countries. The government in Sofia officially asked the EU Commission in November for permission to export diesel refined from Russian oil to destinations including Ukraine.

It didn’t escape the Kremlin’s attention that Bulgaria was making efforts on behalf of Ukraine | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

It did not escape the Kremlin’s attention that Bulgaria, under Petkov and Vassilev, was making massive efforts on behalf of Ukraine.

Starting as early as May, Moscow bombarded his country with cyberattacks, Petkov said. These hit the power supply and post offices, and at times pensions for civil servants could not be paid.

Moscow also tried to bribe deputies and infiltrate the authorities. Between March and June, Bulgaria expelled some 70 staff from the Russian embassy in Sofia for spying.

Moscow knew Bulgaria was the EU country most dependent on Russian gas before the war and decided to make an example of it.

As early as April 27, Gazprom chose Bulgaria as the first EU country where it would sever gas exports. But Sofia did not relent. Within 24 hours, Prime Minister Petkov presented a solution that would allow Bulgaria’s nearly 7 million inhabitants to get by without gas from Russia. He organized two tankers of liquefied natural gas from the United States — at the same price per cubic meter as Gazprom was charging.

Petkov now explains why the U.S. was willing to go along with this.

“I made it clear in the talks that the tankers are a political signal to all of Europe that there are always ways out of dependence on Russia.” He also had a pipeline connection to Greece completed to catalyze alternatives to Russian supply lines.

Petkov’s government was toppled in a parliamentary vote of no confidence over the summer. Pro-Russian forces also played their part in that. By the fall, Petkov and Vassilev were only in office on a provisional basis. Since then, the country has been caught in political deadlock, but the attitude toward Ukraine has changed somewhat.

In December, parliament decided to officially allow arms deliveries to Ukraine. “We are deeply grateful to Bulgaria for that,” Kuleba said. However, he noted he was already seeing attempts to torpedo that decision. “It is unbelievable how persistently these forces are trying to pull Bulgaria to the side of the aggressor and butcher.”

Petkov and Vassilev have already made history with their unprecedented covert help. With their party “We Continue the Change,” they want to run again in the next elections and continue their fight for a Bulgaria that tackles the corruption of the old order and embraces a more westward path.

Petkov insists one thing is irreversible: “We have shown that a world is possible without dependence and fear of Russia.”

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