Bulgaria declared two Russian diplomats personae non grata on March 22 following the arrest of six Bulgarians suspected of being involved in espionage for Moscow, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
These were the latest in a series of arrests by the Bulgarian authorities of people suspected of spying for Russia. But despite the recent deterioration in relations between the two countries, Russia is carrying out several significant energy infrastructure projects in EU and Nato member Bulgaria.
On March 19, the prosecution said it had arrested six persons led by a former senior military intelligence officer, who built an intelligence network committing espionage for Russia.
The ministry noted that it received information from the prosecution that the two diplomats were involved in the case. They were given 72 hours to leave the country. The ministry provided no further details.
Russia’s embassy in Sofia warned of possible Russian reprisals following the expulsions.
“We have to state with regret that this yet another groundless demarche of the Bulgarian authorities will not contribute to the further building of a constructive Russian-Bulgarian dialogue. The Russian side reserves the right to retaliate,” the embassy said in a statement posted on social media.
Also on March 22, a Bulgarian court left in custody five out of the six people who were arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia, Dnevnik news outlet reported on March 22. One of those initially arrested was released on bail after providing information to investigators.
Chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev said at press conference on March 19 that the operation infiltrated the defence ministry, Military Intelligence Service and parliament. One of the group members was a former military attaché abroad and current head of the registry for classified information at parliament.
Other members of the group included military personnel employed or formerly employed at the Military Intelligence Service. One was an employee of the defence ministry, involved in planning the budget of the institution.
The group includes also the wife of the officer, dubbed The Resident. She is suspected of gathering information and transmitting it to the Russian embassy, for which she was allegedly paid.
According to news outlet Mediapool, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov said the group was mainly gathering information about the plans to modernise the army.
The suspects photographed secret files on the monitors of their computers, which was documented by security cameras.
The operation was hailed by US and UK officials.
“The UK stands with Bulgaria against Russia’s malign activity which seeks to undermine the sovereignty of our Nato ally. We fully support Bulgaria’s efforts in disrupting an alleged spy ring & taking steps to tackle Russia’s hostile actions in its territory,” UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote on Twitter.
The US State Department also issued a statement supporting Bulgaria’s operation.
“Bulgaria is a friend, Nato ally, and partner. We are attentively watching the Bulgarian investigation into an alleged Russian spy ring. The US strongly supports Bulgaria’s sovereignty and stands with Bulgarians against these malign activities on their territory,” State Department spokesman Ned Price wrote on Twitter.
Sofia has expelled several Russian diplomats in the last two years. In October 2019, the country expelled a Russian diplomat also allegedly involved in spying, and refused to issue a visa to an incoming defence attaché at the Russian embassy due to a negative opinion provided by one of the bodies in charge of the procedure for issuance of long-term visas.
In January 2020, Bulgaria declared a Russian diplomat persona non grata and a technical staff member unacceptable over alleged espionage. One of the Russians was suspected of gathering information on the electoral process in Bulgaria since 2017, while the other one was believed to have been gathering information concerning Bulgaria’s energy and energy security since October 2018, some of which were state secrets.
Relations between Bulgaria and Russia have become increasingly controversial in recent years. While the government in Sofia claims to be pro-EU and not related to Moscow, it is carrying out significant energy projects related to Russia, which has angered the US. In January 2020, then assistant secretary for energy resources Francis Fannon said that the US was maintaining its position against the construction of the Bulgarian section of the Turkish Stream (TurkStream) pipeline and of the Belene nuclear power plant (for which Russia’s Atomstroyexport supplied equipment), as it considers they would not give the country energy diversification and security.
According to Aleksey Petrov, former head of the Bulgarian intelligence service, the latest arrests indicate that Bulgaria might be turning into arena of clashes between the special services of Russia and the US. However, there are other theories about the recent arrests. Some believe they might be intended to divert attention from the recent scandal that broke after the EU chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi rejected seven out of ten Bulgarian candidates for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). Bulgaria’s justice system — of the main targets of mass protests last summer — has come in for criticism from EU institutions recently.