A secret supply of Bulgarian-made ammunition made its way to Ukraine as early as last April and continues to arrive today.
It is not widely known that in the first months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the urgently needed military supplies from Bulgaria were arriving in a clandestine operation through a network of intermediaries, and in large quantities.
The Bulgarian arms shipments made up about 30% of all ammunition deliveries, according to the Die Welt newspaper, and there were doubts they would continue when the Bulgarian parliament dismissed the government of then-Prime Minister Kiril Petkov after a vote of no confidence on June 22.
According to the information provided by the former prime minister to VOA and confirmed in Ukraine's Embassy in Sofia, the government collapse didn't stop the Bulgarian-made weapons from arriving in Ukraine.
Petkov says that taking on corrupt interests and Russian influence inside the country, rather than the support for Ukraine, cost him his job. He and his party, "We Continue the Change," plan to run for office in the next parliamentary elections on April 2.
Last November, the Bulgarian National Assembly voted to send military and technical aid to Ukraine, and in a written response to VOA from the Embassy of Bulgaria in the United States, the continuous Bulgarian support to Ukraine was confirmed.
"Bulgaria is united with its allies and partners, including the U.S., in providing security assistance, as well as humanitarian and energy support to Ukraine," it said.
The position of the government coalition partner, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was the primary reason why Bulgaria hasn't exported weapons to Ukraine directly.
VOA asked Korneliya Ninova, the BSP leader, for comment but hasn't received any.
"I insist that Bulgaria has not supplied a single cartridge to Ukraine and whoever claims the opposite must show documents to prove it,” she told Die Welt. “For tens of years, we have been exporting arms to over 60 countries, and Bulgaria cannot control what they do with their assets."
Neither Ukrainian nor Bulgarian officials, nor the U.S. Defense Department would disclose to VOA what kind of Bulgarian-made weapons went to Ukraine.
Additionally, as Die Welt uncovered, diesel fuel — refined from the oil supplied to Bulgaria from Russia and processed at the refinery owned by the Russian company Lukoil — went to Ukraine in massive quantities: up to 40% of all of the army’s diesel needs.
According to a Russian media report, Lukoil said it hadn't supplied fuel from its plant in Burgas, Bulgaria, to Ukraine. However, it also reported that the company sold its products to about 500 wholesale buyers.
In early June, Bulgaria received an exemption from a European Union embargo on imports of Russian crude oil until the end of 2024 to allow the country's processing facilities to adapt to alternative supplies. Currently, Bulgaria is the world's third-largest purchaser of Russian oil, after China and India.
At the same time, Petkov's government ended his country’s dependency on Russian gas, which had reached 95% of all gas supplies by early 2022.
While Bulgaria was the source of a critical number of weapons and diesel supplies to Ukraine, it was considered to be one of the most pro-Russian countries in the region. In April 2022, 44% of Bulgarians believed that NATO was responsible for the war in Ukraine, the highest among 16 European countries and Britain surveyed by YouGov, an international data research and analytics group.
This interview with Petkov has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: You attended the EU Council meeting in Brussels on February 25, and your minister attended an EU finance ministers meeting in Paris the next day. Can you provide details of what happened at these meetings?
Petkov: What was happening — rockets flying to Kyiv — nobody expected this to happen. Everybody was thinking maybe there was going to be a regional invasion in the East. We realized quickly that this would not be a minor conflict, not a regional one. It was a war that started in full force. We understood the more we in Europe act in a coordinated and swift manner, the more significant impact it would have.
Moreover, we realized — and President Zelenskyy spoke extremely well — how scary the situation was. The idea of de-Nazification that Russia used is extremely scary, and Bulgaria knows what it means. In 1944, they de-Nazified Bulgaria. It meant going and killing all the healthy forces in society.
Then, we had an initial idea of the sanctions: travel bans on [Vladimir] Putin, [and Sergey] Lavrov — more surface-type bans. At that point, we realized that one of the first things we could do together as Europeans was to freeze Putin's war chest. We realized that some of his Central Bank reserves were in euro and U.S. bonds, and if we make them frozen and untradeable, they can't use them to wage war in the full-fledged style as they saw it.
I went around the table and spoke to many of my colleagues, prime ministers and presidents, and said, ‘Listen, the first thing we can do is freeze the Central Bank reserves to the level we can.’ Some people were too scared because we are talking about hundreds of billions in reserves. I had a very positive reaction from the European Commission that evening, and from a few of the leaders I would not mention. But a few others said that's a scary big thing; we need to assess how much it counts. One prime minister said, "Kiril, this evening, you spoke with more European leaders than your predecessor had spoken in 12 years."
The next day the finance ministers’ meeting took place. Assen [Vasilev, Bulgarian finance minister at the time] made a passionate speech and said we have no time to waste. If President Zelenskyy is the first on the de-Nazification list, I'm sure the second on the list will certainly be his family. The third would be prominent members of society. He also compared these developments with similar ones in the history of Bulgaria. A few days later, the implementation of what was called colloquially in Brussels, the Bulgarian proposal, was announced.
VOA: How did the weapons deliveries begin?
Petkov: We were in a very delicate situation because, for the first time in Bulgaria, we had a four-party coalition that needed unprecedented coordination among parties with different ideologies. On one side, we had the right-wing Democratic Party. They would send everything to Ukraine immediately if it were up to them. They have very anti-Russian views because many of those people, their parents, were victims of the 1944 events. On the other side, we had the former Communist Party that had strong ties to Russia and wanted to ensure that we were not leading in this because we were too close to the war, which was too scary for Bulgaria. They said not a single bullet could go to Ukraine; otherwise, we would come out of the coalition, and the government would collapse.
I'm very fortunate and thankful that other NATO and EU countries decided we had these ammunitions. Of course, it fits with our understanding that they would buy directly from Bulgaria and give it free of charge to the Ukrainian army. It was the best of all worlds because, on one side, we could significantly contribute to helping the Ukrainian army. On the other side, the Ukrainian nation was not paying as much or at all. Thirdly, there were no direct exports from Bulgaria to Ukraine, which satisfied our coalition partner. I am sure she would have taken her support, and the government would fall that very second. That was the power of partnership, the power of NATO.
VOA: You are talking about Korneliya Ninova, a leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Did she know about that and support how the weapons were delivered?
Petkov: She had formal documents that indicated where the goods went. I don't know what she knew and what she did not. However, she followed the formal procedure, saying that she would not sign a document that says "Ukraine." Suddenly, the documents came to her that named the U.S. government, the U.K. government, Polish firms, and Romanian firms. We entirely fulfilled these criteria. I'm sure that she was not lying to her supporters; that if even a single document said "Ukraine," she would have pulled her support.
We are proud that we met her criteria, were swift enough, and the Bulgarian industry worked hard to produce the volumes our NATO partners needed. Ukraine's foreign minister came to Bulgaria; he was in dire need because there were not so many producers of Russian ammunition. As you know, much of the equipment of the Ukrainian army was based on this technology.
VOA: How long did it last? Your government collapsed in late June and stayed until early August.
Petkov: I think the Bulgarian government, even the interim government, continued with sales to Poland, the U.S., and so on. Now, in November, we made a parliamentary decision that we can officially send weapons directly to Ukraine. By then, everybody saw that the risk was low and other countries were doing this.
VOA: The weapons were delivered to Poland by cargo planes, which, I assume, was fine. Also, the trucks full of armaments were going through Romania and Hungary. Was the Hungarian government fine with that, and how much did they know?
Petkov: We should leave this to the history books because some of these politicians are still in power. Some people were helpful, and some people were not. We were working with the people who were helpful. The last thing I want to do is point fingers, especially now, because we need as much support and unity in Europe. After all, unfortunately, the war is continuing in a big way. One day when the war is over, we can write about it in our memoirs.
VOA: For this program to become operational quickly, Bulgaria would have already had a network of intermediaries?
Petkov: Yes. The U.S. government and the U.K. government were a major part of it. Some people in Bulgaria say we were using middlemen; people were making money out of it. I said if you call the Pentagon the middleman, we had a middleman. What made me happy was that later I learned from my Ukrainian colleagues that they received many of these items for free. It wasn't like Bulgaria was making money out of Ukraine's troubles. But we did make money. Two thousand Bulgarians worked at 100 percent capacity, these funds went for the local cities and made a big contribution to the economy.
VOA: Up to 40% of all the diesel Ukraine received in the early months of the invasion came from Bulgaria. Did Russians know and were OK with that?
Petkov: Yes, that's pretty amazing to buy Russian oil, to refine it in Bulgaria, and send it north [to Ukraine]. That was a private business. I guess oil traders were buying from Lukoil and delivering to Ukraine. I don't know how much Lukoil knew, but I know that the U.S. government knew what was happening and was in full support. Interestingly, we also asked for the sanctions exemption to continue buying Russian oil. Many of our critics said that this was pro-Russian policy to continue to buy oil from them. In reality, the refinery was working at full capacity during these months, and the local market was only 40 percent. So, 60 percent of it went for export. Is it a pro-Russian policy to use Russian oil to support Ukraine? I don't think so.
Information from Politico, RIA Novosti, Bulgarian News Agency, See News, OilPrice.com, and You.Gov was used in this report.