Bulgaria, one of the EU’s poorest members and long seen as pro-Moscow, helped Ukraine survive an early Russian attack by secretly supplying it with large quantities of desperately needed diesel and ammunition, the politicians responsible said.
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kirill Petkov and Finance Minister Asen Vasilev said their country last spring provided 30 percent of the Soviet-caliber ammunition needed by the Ukrainian military during a key three-month period, and sometimes 40 percent of the diesel.
The men, who are now in the opposition, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleb, described in interviews with Die Welt the extraordinary operation organized by the small Balkan state, which has officially rejected all requests to arm Ukraine.
“Kirill Petkov showed 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 let’s defend against a much stronger enemy”.
Petkov had to operate undercover because of open 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 refused to call the invasion an act of war.
Meanwhile, polls have shown that more than 70% of Bulgarians fear being drawn into the conflict and oppose supplying arms to Ukraine, despite their country having large stockpiles of Soviet-caliber weapons and ammunition that Kiev urgently needs.
According to Kuleba, the arms deliveries started in mid-April after he visited Sofia. Ukraine had repulsed Russia’s initial attack on Kiev, but was dangerously short of supplies, as many Western deliveries were still pending, and Soviet-caliber ammunition was particularly needed.
“We knew that Bulgaria had large quantities of the necessary ammunition [I was sent to] get the necessary material,” Kuleba told Die Welt. He said it was a matter of “life and death”, adding that Petkov replied that although his domestic political situation “is 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 air links with Poland and land routes through Romania and Hungary, Petkov told the paper. Many of the shipments ended up being paid for by the US and the UK, Die Welt said, without citing sources.
Even greater secrecy surrounded the export of diesel, again through international intermediaries. They were particularly sensitive because the fuel supplied by Bulgaria to Ukraine is 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 fuel was also loaded into freight trains,” Vasilev said. “Bulgaria has become one of the largest suppliers of diesel to Ukraine,” exporting about half of the output of the Burgas refinery, he added. Kuleba confirmed the deliveries, saying they came “at a critical moment”.
Moscow retaliated with crippling cyber-attacks and an intelligence crackdown (70 Russian diplomats were expelled for spying between March and June last year), as well as cutting off gas in heavily dependent Bulgaria as early as April 27.
But Petkov said he had solved the looming energy crisis by organizing two tankers of liquid petroleum gas from the US, making it clear to Washington that the delivery was “a political signal to all of Europe that there are always ways to get out of dependence on Russia.” .
In June, his government fell after a vote of no confidence. In December, the Bulgarian parliament voted to officially allow the delivery of arms to Ukraine. The Lukoil refinery has been fully controlled from Bulgaria since the beginning of this year, and it is trying to import oil from other countries.
Petkov and Vasilev said their anti-corruption party, We Continue to Change, will fight the general election – the country’s fifth in two years – likely to be called this spring. Regardless of the outcome, Petkov said that they showed that “a world without dependence on and fear of Russia” is possible.