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Bulgaria goes to the Warsaw Summit with the Black Sea in mind

The 2016 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit will begin in Warsaw on July 8th. The meeting of NATO heads of state is expected to address issues which are seen as essential for Central and Eastern Europe’s security environment in view of Russia’s perceived aggressive posture in the region. Some of those issues will include eastward force deployment in CEE and the Baltics, propping up the anti-missile shield and the potential for the Alliance’s enlargement.

July 8, 2016 - Kamen Kraev - Articles and Commentary

Bulgarian Navy corvette Bodri

Image by wikimedia

Bulgaria, a NATO member since 2004, will be heading to Warsaw with the main goal of bolstering its security standing in the Black Sea region (BSR).  The Balkans and the BSR have come under security pressure due to the mass migration crisis, the risk of terrorism from the unstable Middle East and Russia’s aggressive moves along the northern shores of the Black Sea.

Although Bulgaria has been part of the Alliance for over 12 years, the country has largely failed to keep its defense capabilities in line with NATO standards. The country’s military needs have been put on the sidelines by the political establishment since NATO began guaranteeing Bulgarian security in 2004.  In 2015, amidst the peak of both the migration and Ukraine crises, Sofia’s defense spending hit a 10-year record low. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) spent just BGN 979m (EUR 500m), or 1.2% of Bulgaria’s gross domestic product, on military defense, which places Bulgaria at an average level in the overall NATO ranking, but still far behind the 2% of the GDP target set in 2014 at the Wales NATO summit.

Apart from a few isolated equipment purchases and donations, the bulk of Bulgaria’s military arsenal consists of ageing Soviet-made hardware.  In October 2015, Bulgaria signed a contract with two Polish companies to carry out repair works on six engines for its Mig-29 interceptors amid warnings that the country’s fighter aviation could be grounded due to the expiring lifetime of the Soviet-era aircraft. To ensure the security of its skies, Sofia even approved the possibility for joint air-policing missions with neighboring NATO members.  The armed forces also have experienced trouble filling in all their staffing needs due to the insufficient wages for those who sign up.

The good news for Bulgaria’s generals came in March this year when the government approved a EUR 1.2bn programme aiming at modernising its military. The MoD has expressed its interest in buying new jets, building two corvette-class patrol vessels to be used for anti-submarine warfare in the Black Sea and securing a large number of modern infantry fighting vehicles. On the flip side, it still largely remains to be seen where all the funds will come from in cash-strapped Bulgaria.

Bulgaria also regularly takes part in NATO wargames and military exercises. In 2016, it participated in Anakonda, the largest NATO drill which took place in Poland and the Baltics, and was also part of all NATO military maneuvers in the Black Sea.

The Warsaw Summit

Bulgaria’s direct security concerns within the current regional state of affairs include the militarisation of the Black Sea, the instability spilling from the Syrian Civil War, which is bringing a migrant wave through the Balkans, and the proliferation of Islamist terrorism. The recent wave of terror attacks that is destabilising Turkey is also a reason for concern.

In Warsaw, Sofia’s delegates would like to ensure that Bulgaria will not be sidelined when it comes to boosting NATO presence in the East. An overemphasis on the Baltic region is not in the interest of Sofia. NATO has already decided to deploy four 1,000-strong battalions in the three Baltic countries and Poland.  There have been reports that NATO will be deploying a multinational brigade to Romania and, according to statements made by Bulgaria’s minister of defense, Sofia would like to send 400 of its troops to be part of it.

Bulgarian military planners have also come to realise that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has reshuffled the military balance in the BSR. The Crimean peninsula is referred to by some as the “largest Russian aircraft carrier” now hosting jets, bombers, missiles, submarines and warships. Russia has deployed its newest S-400 surface-to-air missiles and reportedly also the Iskander ballistic missiles able to carry a nuclear warhead.  Russia has also embarked on a programme to beef up and modernise its Black Sea Fleet by 2020. The Kalibr missile system which can be ground or sea-based and can target both surface vessels and submarines has also reportedly become a concern for NATO planners.

Therefore, Bulgaria would like to see a continuous NATO presence in the Black Sea after the Warsaw summit, as its own naval capabilities are modest to say the least. At the same time, Sofia has repeatedly refused to point fingers at Russia as a direct threat for its security in the BSR. Other littoral countries like Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine have been directly involved in a military clash of some sort with Russia. Romania’s geopolitical situation allows it to take a firmer stance regarding Russia than its southern neighbor. Bulgaria’s economy still largely depends on energy imports and the flow of millions of tourists from Russia.

A scandal unfolded last month when Bulgaria’s prime minister Boiko Borissov lambasted Bulgaria’s ministers of defense and foreign affairs over their alleged approval of Bulgarian participation in a joint NATO naval task force in the Black Sea without his knowledge. “I want to see sailing ships, yachts, tourists, love and peace in the Black Sea, rather than seeing it turned into a war theatre” Mr. Borissov said. The initiative, which was reportedly suggested by Romania and backed by Turkey and the United States, was also said to include Ukrainian vessels.

In September 2015, in a similar fashion, “the Russian threat” was removed from a strategic document on the development of Bulgaria’s armed forces by 2020. The notions on “hybrid warfare” were then also erased and replaced by more blunt expressions.

Some Realpolitik

Clearly, when it comes to Russia, Bulgaria is not in the hawks’ camp. Sabre rattling is not in Bulgaria’s regional stability interest, something that Bulgaria dearly needs in order to maintain its tourist industry and export-driven economic growth.  Russia has also thrown straight warnings all around the region, but has largely avoided Bulgaria due to fears of antagonising average Bulgarians, who are still largely free-riding on the Soviet-period and Slavophilic nostalgia. Still, Russia’s soft power push has increased in the past couple of years via media outlet sponsoring and direct backing for nationalist political parties like Ataka. Bulgaria may still play a pivotal role in Russia’s energy policies in the European Southeast and losing its favor is better to be avoided.

Still, from a strategic and military point of view, Russia’s actions in the BSR do present reasons for concerns in Sofia. Even sceptics would not turn a blind eye to such rapid militarisation and an abrupt shattering of the balance of power. Bulgaria is also a NATO member state and shares the duties of maintaining collective security. Thus, its defense policies must be in line with the overall strategic posture NATO will take on its eastern flank. It would be very difficult for Bulgaria to push its weight in decision making in Warsaw, but it will try to make its voice heard.  If the Black Sea member states find support for a Black Sea naval task force initiative, Bulgaria is not likely to object or block it.

Moreover, Bulgaria’s president Rosen Plevneliev, foreign minister Daniel Mitov and minister of defense Nikolay Nenchev have all expressed firmer positions on Russia than prime minister Borissov. It will be their call to present and negotiate Bulgaria’s position during the Warsaw summit.

“Bulgaria supports increased NATO presence in the Black Sea with the aim of deterring and preventing conflicts in the region” Mr. Mitov told Parliament last week. “Our priorities for the summit are focused on building a strong collective defense and deterrence. This must be clearly heard” he added.

Mr. Nenchev also spoke at the parliamentary hearing saying that NATO seeks rebalancing  forces in the Black Sea, as Russia has “250 warships and 6 submarines” in the region. “Bulgaria … I’m ashamed to say what we have,” said Nenchev.

The regional geopolitical realities will compel Bulgaria to align its position with that of the Alliance as it has little room for other options. One thing Bulgaria may try to avoid is giving a clear-cut name to the threat in the Black Sea, an accommodation which should seem palpable. Possibly, Bulgaria would also like to avoid the primacy of Turkey in an eventual Black Sea naval task force arrangement over fears of its alleged shadow agenda in a bilateral stand-off with Russia. From Sofia’s perspective, all joint actions must be controlled and supervised by NATO task groups and not left to regional “mob rule”.

Kamen Kraev is the founder of Vox Orientalis, a blog aiming to express views and opinions on a wide variety of topics concerning the “East of Europe” and its periphery.

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