Bulgaria secretly provided fuel and ammunition to Ukraine at start of Russian invasion

Bulgaria secretly provided fuel and ammunition to Ukraine at start of Russian invasion
Bulgarian Prime Minister Petkov Sofia's firm support for Ukraine in the war during a visit to Kyiv in April 2022. / government.bg
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia January 18, 2023

Bulgaria secretly supplied Ukraine with fuel and Soviet calibre ammunition after the start of Russian invasion, according to an investigation by German daily WELT published on January 18.

Officially, Sofia has claimed it was not exporting weapons to Ukraine during the former government of Kiril Petkov. However, according to WELT, the pro-Ukrainian former premier had found a way to support Ukraine through third countries.

At the time, Bulgaria’s then economy minister Kornelia Ninova, who is also the leader of the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), repeatedly said that Bulgaria was not directly exporting weapons to Ukraine.

However, after interviewing Petkov, his former finance minister Assen Vassilev and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba, WELT revealed the scheme Sofia used to provide diesel, weapons and ammunition.

Crossing the red line 

As the BSP called Bulgarian arms deliveries to Ukrainian forces a “red line” that should not be crossed if it was to keep supporting Petkov’s government, direct deliveries were avoided but Sofia opened air and land supply routes via Romania, Hungary and Poland. 

Petkov told WELT that around one third of the ammunition needed by the Ukrainian army in the early phase of the war came from Bulgaria.

Sofia also supplied Ukraine with diesel produced by Russia-owned Lukoil Neftochim Burgas oil refinery.

“Bulgaria became one of the largest exporters of diesel to Ukraine and at times covered 40% of Ukraine’s needs,” Vassilev told WELT.

Kuleba confirmed that information and said that in April his country was running out of ammunition.

“We knew that Bulgarian warehouses had large quantities of the ammunition needed so President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy sent me to obtain the necessary material,” Kuleba told WELT.

On the “right side of history” 

He added that at the start of the war Petkov decided to “be on the right side of history and help us defend ourselves against a much stronger enemy”.

The day after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at an informal European Council meeting in Brussels, Petkov pointed out to the other EU leaders that Zelenskiy might have less than 48 hours to live, that he was on Moscow’s death list, and that the Council must take tough decisions on sanctions immediately.

Vassilev attended a meeting of EU finance ministers in Paris where he gave a speech about what Putin meant by “de-Nazification of Ukraine” — his justification for the invasion — pointing to Bulgaria’s own experiences.

“That’s what the Russians did in Bulgaria after World War II, they murdered thousands of dissenters, professors and priests,” Vassilev said.

Two days later, Brussels implemented the measures requested by Petkov and Vassilev.

On April 19, shortly before a visit to Kyiv by Petkov, Kuleba visited Sofia, requesting weapons as those promised from the West were yet to arrive. Ukraine urgently needed to replenish its stocks, especially of Soviet-made ammunition.

Petkov’s government authorised middlemen to make the exports, not directly to Ukraine, but to intermediary companies abroad.

“Our private military industry was producing at full speed,” Petkov told WELD. (Bulgaria has one of the biggest arms industries in the region.)

“We made sure that the overland route via Romania and Hungary was also open to trucks,” he added.

Kuleba confirmed those supplies, saying that Petkov’s government gave Ukrainian companies and companies from Nato member states the opportunity to procure what was needed from Bulgarian vendors. The supplies were paid for by the US and the UK.

Lukoil Neftochim sent oil to Ukraine 

Vassilev told WELT that, after a Ukrainian official told him that the troops were running out of fuel, he encouraged Lukoil Neftochim to export surplus oil to Ukraine. Despite being owned by a Russian company, the Bulgarian unit was on the Ukrainian side and its employees have condemned the Russian invasion.

Vassilev said that half of Lukoil Neftochim’s production was exported to Ukraine through foreign intermediary companies. That was also confirmed by Ukraine.

“Trucks and tankers regularly went to Ukraine via Romania, and in some cases the fuel was also loaded onto freight trains,” Vassilev said.

Euractiv also confirmed that in the first eleven months of 2022, Ukraine bought fuel worth €700mn from Lukoil Neftochim, and that sum is expected to reach €825mn when figures for December are out, up from just €750,000 in 2021.

The main fuel export from Bulgaria to Ukraine in 2022 was gas oil, also known as red diesel, which makes up more than 90% of deliveries.

Gasoline supplies have also increased rapidly over the past six months, after the start of intense Russian attacks on critical Ukrainian infrastructure. Diesel fuel is used in heavy industry to power machines, generators and off-road vehicles, as well as for agriculture and shipping.

According to statistics office data, in 2022 Ukraine was Bulgaria’s third-largest trading partner in terms of fuel exports, up from eighth place prior to the war.

Fuel sales to Ukraine continued after the fall of Petkov’s government that was replaced by the pro-Russian caretaker government of Gulub Donev, Euractiv reported. Many in Bulgaria suspect Donev’s government of being pro-Russian. 

In mid-January, Bulgaria’s parliament passed a law allowing Lukoil Neftochim to export fuel only to Ukraine.

Brought down by Russia? 

There are suspicions that Moscow had a hand in the collapse of Petkov’s government in June 2022. 

Ostensibly, it fell as one of the coalition partners of his Change Continues party – There Are Such People (ITN) – pulled out. Although ITN claimed it withdrew from the coalition as Petkov and Vassilev were taking decisions without discussing them with ITN, many believe it was Russia that dragged down the reformist government. 

Previously, Petkov had refused to pay for Russian gas in rubles, resulting in Bulgaria being cut off from Russian gas exports. Shortly before stepping down, Petkov expelled 70 Russian diplomats – the largest number ever in Bulgaria’s history, angering the Russian ambassador to Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova.

As of late on January 17, Petkov and Vassilev have not confirmed or denied they were aware of the final destination of the weapons. 

Gerb, the largest party in Bulgaria’s current parliament, has attacked Petkov, Vassilev and Ninova, accusing them of lying, reported Dnevnik news outlet. Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of far-right pro-Russian Vazrazhdane accused the BSP of hypocrisy.

However, Hristo Ivanov, co-leader of Change Continues' most loyal partner Democratic Bulgaria, said that it would have been better if the exports had been made openly, but that it was good that they happened.