How Bulgaria and The West help Ukraine with Soviet Arms

Russian weapons have long been a staple of the Ukrainian military. With the assistance of producers even in remote areas of Eastern Europe, it is now rushing to obtain Soviet-era ammo for those weapons.

Bulgarian town of Kostenets Soon applications will be accepted for the position of putting explosives inside a 122-millimeter artillery shell of Soviet design in order to make it into a lethal projectile. It’s a welcome chance for the people of Kostenets, a mountain village in western Bulgaria that is in decline. In the nearby Terem ammunition factory, this translates into extra jobs.

The 122-millimeter shells were no longer produced at the plant in 1988 when the Cold War came to an end. Nonetheless, the production lines will soon start up again. As Western countries attempt to provide Ukraine with the armaments it needs to repel Moscow’s assault, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has converted Soviet-era weapons and ammunition into a crucial piece of equipment. So, the business restarted manufacturing in January, 35 years after the last 122-millimeter shells departed the Terem plant.

With its sizable pro-Russian population, Bulgaria’s little towns might not seem like the most probable candidates to lead Ukraine’s military campaign. But a year into the conflict, the Ukrainian military continues to rely mostly on guns that fire Soviet-standard ammunition. This is despite an influx of high-tech Western armaments. The few nations outside of Russia that do develop such bombs are largely in the former Soviet orbit and are not produced by the United States or its NATO allies.

In order to avoid political backlash and Russian retaliation, Western nations are frantically searching for alternate sources and investing millions of dollars in workarounds. They eventually arrive in some of Eastern Europe’s more distant regions, including Kostenets and Sopot, a small town 50 kilometers to the northeast that is home to another state-run weapons manufacturing.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new production line in Kostenets last month was held outside the facility, a dilapidated low-slung structure in a remote area of the city, and attendees from the American embassy were discreet. The plant might become one of Kostenets’s largest employers with the additional positions it’s adding.

Since the invasion, Sopot’s circumstances have also changed for the better. The majority of the local workforce works for the armaments company VMZ, which is located there. The town’s mayor claimed that on a recent Friday, the slow thud of explosions likely represented tests of recently manufactured bombs.

The mayor of Sopot, Deyan Doinov, continued, “VMZ has been a major source of income for the citizens of Sopot over the years.” No relatives in the community, according to him, “probably hasn’t worked or isn’t working at the plant.” We essentially have no unemployment; the only unemployed are those who do not wish to work.

Although being a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the early 2000s, Bulgaria has long had close connections with Moscow. The country’s politics were rocked last summer by disclosures that Bulgaria had provided Ukraine with weaponry despite strongly opposing arming Kyiv.

According to government projections based on information acquired in October, Bulgaria’s estimated exports of armaments in 2018 skyrocketed, surpassing $3 billion, or roughly five times the sales abroad in 2019.

But, it is far from the only nation making covert contributions to the conflict in Ukraine. Ukraine is receiving weaponry from Luxembourg that were made in the Czech Republic. American-funded brokers are searching for shells in companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Romania. In addition, according to a document obtained by The New York Times and people familiar with the functioning of the task force, Britain has established a covert task force to arm Ukraine.

As Ukraine consumes ammunition at an unsustainable rate, which Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, noted last week was “many times higher than our current rate of production,” the significance of such supplies is increasing.

«This strains our defense industries», he continued.

Ukraine has been firing between 2,000 and 4,000 artillery shells every day in recent months, but it would prefer to fire more in order to recover Russian-conquered territory. Russia was launching as many as 50,000 shells per day at one point last summer. But, that number has decreased since then, and Russia is also experiencing a lack of ammunition. To address the gaps, the United States is doubling its own artillery shell output. Yet, it primarily produces ammo for the NATO-compliant howitzers it has provided to Ukraine.

Ukraine and its supporters started purchasing Soviet-style weapons wherever they could find them once the assault started last year. State-owned Ukrainian businesses requested tanks, helicopters, planes, and mortars from brokers in the United States and other countries. To accommodate demand, potential sources emerged from the shadows of the world’s weapons trade. The documents reveal that in June of last year, a Czech arms dealer offered Ukraine ammunition together with 12 Soviet-style ground-attack jets produced between 1984 and 1990 for around $185 million.

In situations where producing nations don’t want to be openly identified as delivering weapons to Ukraine, both Britain and the United States have financed agreements using third-party nations and brokers, according to persons involved with the initiative. According to those acquainted with the endeavor, the secret task force established by the British defense ministry was tasked with obtaining Soviet-style ammunition, a mission that grew more difficult as the conflict progressed and major suppliers ran out of stock.

Although the cover is barely veiled, bureaucratic loopholes and pass-through agreements provide Bulgarian officials with political cover while supporting Ukraine’s war effort.

With the end of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria’s arms industry has played an odd role. Together with other clients, it supplied Libya with weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, and following the fall of the Soviet Union, it also armed insurgents in Angola and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with weapons. Bulgaria’s military industry continued to produce ammunition with Soviet caliber even after it joined the European Union and NATO. After the United States sent soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq, that opened up possibilities. In such nations, US allies employed Soviet-era weapons, and the US supplied them with Bulgarian ammo.

Bulgarian ammunition started to show up in Syria after the civil conflict broke out there in 2011, most likely as part of an effort to arm rebel factions against the Syrian government. As a result, Bulgaria was at odds with Russia, which backed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. After Russian operatives poisoned a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, a slew of mysterious explosions rattled the country’s defense industry.

A strategically planned election made it easier for Bulgaria to establish itself as a significant supplier to Ukraine. When a new party came to power in the fall of 2021, as Russia prepared to invade, the Harvard-educated prime minister Kiril Petkov believed that Bulgaria could now pivot away from Russia and toward the West.

In an interview last month, he stated, “We wanted to be on the right side of history”.

A historically pro-Russian party in Mr. Petkov’s ruling coalition objected to shipping weapons to Ukraine, so they devised a workaround that would allow Bulgaria to formally deny supplying Ukraine: the government would sanction exports to other members of the European Union, including Poland. Once there, the weapons may be transported to Ukraine without the involvement of Bulgaria. Sales increased, and manufacturing facilities increased output. One-third of Ukraine’s munitions supply was immediately provided by Bulgaria, according to Mr. Petkov.

A few months later, when one of the parties in Mr. Petkov’s alliance withdrew, his government was overthrown. Yet by that point, there was enough momentum for exports to continue, despite criticism from other Bulgarian lawmakers over the choice to support the struggle against Russia.

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