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ByYordan Bozhilov
Against the backdrop of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the role of European countries in guaranteeing their security is under discussion again. How Bulgaria sees the future European defense cooperation through this prism?

HOW DOES BULGARIA SEE THE EUROPEAN DEFENSE COOPERATION? SUMMARY 1. Bulgaria supports the development of European defense and participates in all common initiatives, although it has no separate strategy for participation in them. 2. Efforts to build European defense should not duplicate NATO, which remains the backbone of common defense, especially territorial defense. 3. Bulgaria sees the development of the European capabilities as a tool to cope with numerous challenges. 4. The country's participation in European defense projects is an opportunity to increase the capabilities of the Armed Forces and to modernize the technological and production base. Undoubtedly, the Russian aggression against Ukraine is the most serious challenge to peace and security of Europe and globally. It was a wakeup call for many politicians in the country that security and defense have to be taken more seriously. The question of the role of NATO and the EU in the defense of Europe and in particular of Bulgaria became central in the public debates, which included the role and participation of Bulgaria in common defense. It has to be noted that despite the predominant assessment that the war in Ukraine is the most serious challenge to the European peace and security, the attitude of politicians and Bulgarian society towards the war per se and towards Russia itself remains not clear-cut. After the start of hostilities, the approval of Putin among Bulgarians dropped dramatically, but the majority of Bulgarian society still keeps a positive attitude towards Russia. This can be explained primarily by the long-standing historical, cultural and other ties between the two countries along with other factors. At the same time, the vast majority of Bulgarian people remain staunch Europeans and Euro-Atlanticists. On November 3, 2022, the newly elected Parliament, by a large majority condemned the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine as “the most significant threat to peace and security in Europe”. With the same decision, it voted to provide direct military aid to Ukraine, but some of the parties, socialists and nationalists, categorically opposed the donation of arms to Ukraine. Some political parties and many Bulgarian citizens still see the war in Ukraine as a bilateral conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and not as a major geostrategic rift and a crisis of the international security architecture. At the same time it is hard to define “the position of the Bulgarian government” regarding the war or military assistance to Ukraine. There are rather diverse positions of different governments depending on political parties participating in the coalitions. Since 2021 Bulgaria has been in a constant political crisis with frequent changes of governments. For example, the previous regular government in June 2022 assessed the Russian military aggression in Ukraine in a categorical manner “as a threat to peace and security in Europe and a direct challenge to NATO and the EU”. The current caretaker government has a different assessment. This was most clearly expressed by the Minister of Defense on 13.12.2021, who stated in the Parliament that “because of the war in Ukraine there are risks for national security because of the proximity of the conflict, but there is no real threat to the country’s security at the moment”. These risks are seen as a secondary consequence of the war, such as refugees, floating mines in the Black Sea, problems with energy sources, inflation, etc. The war is not perceived as having a direct impact on the country. As mentioned above, the population remains divided in the assessment of the war due to many reasons, just to mention the general positive attitude to Russia as a liberator from the Ottoman Empire, cultural ties, widespread pro-Russian propaganda, divergent messages from different political parties, lack of common strategic communication and many other factors. The fact that war is being waged just a few hundred kilometers from the state borders heightens the sense of risk and pushes the politicians to look for means to mitigate that risk. Despite the differences in the assessments of the war, the vast majority of political parties agree that the defense capabilities of the Bulgarian army have to be further developed. Undoubtedly, NATO and the EU are seen as the major factors for protection of the security of the country. Bulgaria strongly supports all measures by NATO and the EU aimed at strengthening the Eastern flank, providing aid, including military, to Ukraine and putting pressure on Russia to stop the aggression and withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian territory. A multinational battalion battle group, led by Italy, was deployed on Bulgarian territory as part of the measures. Bulgaria supports the development of the Common Security and Defense Policy and strengthening European defense capabilities. Being on the Eastern border of both the EU and NATO it considers itself particularly vulnerable to external risks and threats. There is an understanding that Europe should develop mechanisms to realize its priorities. In this regard Bulgaria participates in PESCO projects, for example. At the same time, it can be said that the country participates in the construction of European defense with moderate enthusiasm. The main principle which Bulgarian governments follow is that NATO is the core of the collective defense of the whole Euro Atlantic area. It is stated in the national documents that “NATO and the EU should work together, complement each other and do everything possible to strengthen both organizations. NATO remains the main guarantor of security and achieving the strategic autonomy of the EU is possible only on the basis of the transatlantic bond”. There is a generally accepted position among politicians that Bulgaria’s commitments and cooperation within the CSDP will be compatible with commitments to NATO. A guiding principle is that the efforts to build European defense should not duplicate efforts undertaken within NATO. This is motivated mainly by financial and economic considerations, as the country cannot afford to allocate more resources to defense and create capabilities for the EU separate from those for NATO. Most political parties accept that NATO is the core for collective defense, including the defense of the European continent. European defense is seen as a European pillar of NATO. The war in Ukraine put on the political agenda the need for decisive modernization of the Bulgarian armed forces. However, there is no decision to seriously increase the defense budget, which should reach 2% of GDP by 2024. No doubt Bulgarian Armed Forces need decisive modernization. The biggest challenge is that the main combat systems are produced according to the standards of the former Warsaw Pact, some of them are produced in the former USSR and are morally and physically obsolete, and incompatible with NATO and EU standards. The main goal of the modernization is to acquire new, modern platforms according to NATO/EU standards. Bulgarian MOD developed an ambitious Modernization program, but the lack financial resources cannot ensure its implementation in a short or even medium term. For the development of key capabilities Bulgarian armed forces will rely on the defense budget, but also on the assistance from allies. In this regard participation in multinational projects within the framework of the EU and NATO is an opportunity to acquire new capabilities, as well as to bring the country to a new technological level. The latter is of key importance, as currently the Bulgarian defense industry is practically excluded from the modernization of the army. During the last several years Bulgaria acquired different platforms according to NATO standards, including 16 new F-16 Block 70 fighter jets from the USA, transport aircraft, helicopters and vehicles. A project to build two battleships for the NAVY is underway. There are several other priority projects, which include purchasing new infantry fighting vehicles, radars, drones, etc. Of key importance for the modernization of the Armed Forces is the high degree of integration in NATO and the EU. This includes more training and exercising with allies, participation of Bulgarian servicemen in joint operations and activities, etc. A serious challenge remains the chronic lack of personnel. Almost 20% of the positions are vacant with no sign of improvement. There are not enough applicants for service in the Armed Forces as the service in the Armed forces remains unattractive, due to low salaries. At the same time over 70% of the military budget goes to the personnel, which reduces the amount for the acquisition of new systems and armament. It is a challenge to strike the balance so that more funds are spent on personnel, new equipment and training. In recent years, the Bulgarian defense industry has exported production for about 1 billion euros annually mainly to countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 2022, exports increased many times because of the war in Ukraine. Large quantities of weapons and equipment were exported from Bulgaria to Ukraine through private companies. Most of the companies of the Bulgarian Military production complex were built during the Cold War for the production and maintenance of armament and equipment according the former Warsaw Pact standards. Since Bulgarian companies have enough orders for armament and ammunition on the Warsaw Pact standards, they have no interest in switching to NATO standards. Currently, with few exceptions, all companies are private, which deprives the state of the possibility to influence the production and provide resources. The state has distanced itself from research and development (R&D). Human resources in the field of research are in constant decline, due to low pay, better opportunities in other industries, or better offers from the defense sectors of other countries. As companies do not produce military equipment, armaments and ammunitions according to NATO/EU standards, the Bulgarian defense industry in practice is excluded from participation in the modernization of the Armed forces and cannot participate in multinational EU or NATO projects. For its Modernization plans Bulgaria has to purchase new systems from its allies without being able to engage its own Military-Industrial Complex, something that is considered to be a serious problem. An essential question is about the division of the countries from different parts of Europe into 'producers' and 'buyers'. This issue has to be addressed at the EU level in order to guarantee the geographical balance of the common European defense market. It worth mentioning that there is an interest from Western companies in investing in the local production, but the investments are made, conditional on receiving orders for military supplies. An alternative for the participation of Bulgarian companies in multinational projects is to engage high-tech, innovative companies which develop new technologies or intellectual products. There are currently debates in the country as to how the state can support such companies. With the exception of participation in several PESCO projects, Bulgaria has not established deeper cooperation within the framework of European defense projects. Key for the Bulgarian defense is the strategic partnership with the USA. In 2006, an Agreement for Defense Cooperation was signed with the USA, which enables the joint use of facilities and the deployment of a certain number of American troops on Bulgarian territory. Such strategic cooperation has not been implemented with another NATO and/or EU member country. Currently, a multinational NATO battle group, led by Italy, is deployed on Bulgarian territory as part of the efforts to strengthen the Eastern flank. This is considered as an opportunity for the development of deepened bilateral relations between Bulgaria and Italy. Bulgaria develops enhanced defense cooperation with neighboring countries, especially with Romania and Greece in areas such as air defense, joint training and others. This cooperation could be extended to the joint acquisition and joint use of armaments and equipment, or the creation of common capabilities, but to date no such project has been implemented. Bulgaria supports multinational projects in the framework of EU and NATO that would lead to the development of key capabilities and at the same time optimizing the acquisition and maintenance costs of the participating countries. Bulgaria participates in several projects like strategic airlift Capability, AGS, a European missile defense project and others. It is considered that the participation in such projects also leads to better interaction between allies. Another key issue for the country is to provide support for the investments in the defense companies to manufacture armaments and equipment according to NATO and EU standards. This is why the Bulgarian MOD requires from the foreign companies which participate in the modernization projects to invest in the Bulgarian defense industry. This is seen as an opportunity to obtain not only technology, but also to provide much-needed investment funds.