Bulgaria goes to Warsaw Summit with Black Sea in mind

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

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 now been part of the Alliance for over 12 years, it 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 (GDP), which places Bulgaria average in the overall NATO ranking, but still far behind the 2% of GDP target set in 2014 at the Wales NATO summit.

Apart from a few isolated equipment purchases and donations, the bulk of the arsenal of Bulgaria’s military 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 experience trouble in filling in all their staffing needs due to the insufficient wages for those who sign up.

"Verni" one of three Wielingen class frigates under commission in Buglaria's Navy. It was purchased from Belgium in 2004, but was manufactured in 1977.
“Verni” one of three Wielingen class frigates under commission in Buglaria’s Navy. Purchased from Belgium in 2004; manufactured in 1977

The good news for Bulgaria’s generals came in March this year when the government approved a EUR 1.2bn program aiming to modernize the 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 war-games and military exercises. In 2016, it participated in Anaconda, the largest NATO war-game which took place in Poland and the Baltics, and was also part of all NATO military maneuvers in the Black Sea.

Bulgaria’s Soviet-made naval vessels during the “Black Sea 2016” drills, June 2016

The Warsaw Summit

Bulgaria’s direct security concerns within the current regional state of affairs include the militarization of the Black Sea, the instability spilling from the Syrian Civil War and bringing a migrant wave through the Balkans, and the proliferation of Islamist terrorism. The recent wave of terror attacks that destabilizes 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 in Romania and according to statements 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 realize that the 2014 annexation of the 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 program to beef up and modernize 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 on 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 the 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 in the Black Sea sailing ships, yachts, tourists, love and peace, rather than turning it into a war theater” 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. Saber rattling is not in the interest of regional stability, something that Bulgaria dearly needs to maintain its tourist industry and export-driven economic growth.  Russia has also thrown straight warnings all around the region, but largely avoided Bulgaria due to fears of antagonizing average Bulgarians, who are largely free-riding on 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 better be avoided.

Still, from strategic and military point of view, Russia’s actions in the BSR do present reasons for concerns in Sofia. Even the sceptics would not turn a blind eye to such rapid militarization and abrupt shattering of power balance. Bulgaria is also a NATO member 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 will 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 to deter and prevent 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  of 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 should be controlled and supervised by NATO task groups and not left to regional “mob rule”.

Images: Bulgarian Ministry of Defense