Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU members and long perceived as pro-Moscow, helped Ukraine survive Russia’s early onslaught by secretly supplying it with large amounts of desperately needed diesel and ammunition, the politicians responsible have said.
The former Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov and finance minister Assen Vassilev said their country provided 30% of the Soviet-caliber ammunition Ukraine’s army needed during a crucial three-month period last spring, and at times 40% of the diesel.
The men, who are now in opposition, have described along with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, the remarkable operation mounted by the small Balkan state, which officially was refusing all requests to arm Ukraine, in interviews with Die Welt.
“Kiril Petkov has shown his integrity, and I will always be grateful to him for using all his political skill to find a solution,” Kuleba told the German newspaper, adding that the Bulgarian leader “decided to be on the right side of history, and help us defend ourselves against a much stronger enemy”.
Petkov had to act covertly because of the overtly pro-Kremlin sympathies among many in Bulgaria’s political class, including his Socialist coalition partners. Days after Russia’s so-called special operation in Ukraine began on February 24, he fired his defense minister, who was refusing to call the invasion an act of war.
Meanwhile, polls showed more than 70% of Bulgarians feared being drawn into the conflict and opposed supplying arms to Ukraine, despite their country having large stocks of Soviet-caliber arms and ammunition that Kyiv urgently needed.
According to Kuleba, the arms shipments began in mid-April after he visited Sofia. Ukraine had repelled Russia’s initial drive on Kyiv but was running dangerously short of supplies, with many western deliveries not yet under way and Soviet-caliber ammunition being particularly needed.
“We knew Bulgaria had large quantities of the ammunition needed, so [I was sent to] procure the necessary materials,” Kuleba told Die Welt. He said it was a matter of “life and death”, adding that Petkov had replied that while his domestic political situation was “not easy”, he would do “everything in his power”.
Sofia did not supply Ukraine directly, but allowed Bulgarian intermediaries to sell to their counterparts in Ukraine or Nato member states, and kept open its air links with Poland and land routes via Romania and Hungary, Petkov told the paper. Many deliveries were ultimately paid for by the US and UK, Die Welt said, without citing sources.
Even greater secrecy surrounded the diesel exports, again via international intermediaries. They were especially sensitive since the fuel Bulgaria was shipping to Ukraine was produced from Russian crude oil, at a refinery near Burgas on the Black Sea operated by Russia’s Lukoil.
“Trucks and tankers regularly went to Ukraine via Romania, and in some cases the fuel was also loaded onto freight trains,” Vassilev said. “Bulgaria became one of the largest suppliers of diesel to Ukraine,” exporting about half the Burgas refinery’s output, he added. Kuleba confirmed the deliveries, saying they came “at a critical time”.
Moscow retaliated with crippling cyber-attacks and an intelligence onslaught (70 Russian diplomats were expelled for spying between March and June last year), as well as by turning off gas supplies to heavily dependent Bulgaria as early as April 27.
But Petkov said he resolved a looming energy crisis by organizing two tankers of liquefied petroleum gas from the US, making it clear to Washington that the delivery was “a political signal to the whole of Europe that there are always ways out of dependence on Russia” .
In June, his government fell after a vote of no confidence. In December, Bulgaria’s parliament voted to officially allow arms supplies to Ukraine. Since the beginning of this year, the Lukoil refinery has been controlled entirely from Bulgaria, and is looking to import crude from other countries.
Petkov and Vassilev said their anti-corruption We Continue the Change party will fight in a general election – the country’s fifth in two years – that is likely to be called this spring. Whatever its outcome, Petkov said they had shown that a “world without dependence on and fear” of Russia was possible.