AUTHOR:Margarita Assenova
20 July 2016

Bulgaria’s Black Sea dilemma

For a country whose entire eastern border is exposed to the risks of increased Russian militarization of the Black Sea, Bulgaria seems less worried about protecting itself from potential Russian aggression than about angering Moscow by joining defense efforts with other NATO members. As NATO places renewed emphasis on deterrence and defense cooperation, Sofia is evidently afraid that enhanced naval cooperation in the Black Sea could be perceived as part of an “anti-Russian front.” That has obstructed Romania’s proposal for the formation of a Black Sea joint maritime group under NATO command.

However, it would be wrong to say that the entire Bulgarian leadership holds such a position. A number of politicians and professionals in government—including President Rosen Plevneliev—understand the dangers of growing Russian military might in the Black Sea. These officials have been working on boosting Bulgaria’s air and naval defense capacities, and coordinating efforts to deter potential threats from the northeast.

The problem is that Bulgaria’s powerful prime minister, Boyko Borissov, wants the problem with Black Sea security to simply disappear—at least until the presidential elections in November, when he might run on the ticket of the ruling GERB party. As NATO leaders adopted their July 9 declaration on transatlantic security in Warsaw, pledging to enhance their military presence in Eastern Europe and deepen engagement with its Black Sea partners, Borissov proposed in Sofia that the Black Sea be declared a demilitarized zone and “excluded from the zones of conflicts.” He did not specify how exactly this can be achieved since the conflict zones—Crimea, Donbas, Abkhazia and Transnistria—are all part of the Black Sea region.

Borissov’s startling proposal was also not addressed to anyone in particular, certainly not to Russia, which plans to deploy 30 new warships to its Black Sea fleet by 2020. Equipped with more guided missile frigates and corvettes than any other regional fleet, Russia’s Black Sea fleet—consisting of 47 warships and six attack submarines—is already a frightening presence in this strategic region.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has removed limits on the buildup of warships imposed by Ukraine in the past. Along with Russia’s de facto control of Georgia’s Abkhazia region, it has stretched the geographic reach of Moscow’s naval power. According to RIA Novosti, the Russian Defense Ministry plans to transfer to the annexed Crimean peninsula a regiment of S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile systems in August, to be based in Feodosiya in eastern Crimea, near the Kerch Strait. But if the missiles were moved to the peninsula’s west coast, their range would extend to the shores of Bulgaria, while covering large parts of Romania as well as completely closing off access to the Black Sea for Ukrainian aviation.

All this is happening as Bulgaria’s prime minister pleads for tourists, yachts, peace and love on the country’s shores, while rebuffing a joint regional effort to increase NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities. His concerns, however, are not without reason. As 80 percent of Bulgarian exports and imports transits the Black Sea and tourism contributes heavily to the country’s economy, increased maritime militarization could have a widespread negative economic impact in case of accidents or clashes.

More importantly, Borissov is afraid that Moscow might retaliate if Sofia joins forces with Bucharest and Ankara to construct a more effective naval defense to counter potential Russian aggression. He is also courting pro-Russian circles in Bulgaria before the presidential elections. They include various Russophile organizations and nationalist formations; associations of former military officers (some armed and functioning as a militia); the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; the sizable Russian energy lobby; and politicians with business links to Moscow.

The Socialist party, whose leadership recently attended Putin’s United Russia party congress in Moscow, has already proposed a resolution in parliament to declare the Black Sea a demilitarized zone. This perfectly serves Russia’s interests, because, as Borissov said, “no one is going to shred their warships, I don’t have illusions that Russia will take out its fleet, but if possible we should stop a further military buildup on all sides.” This means that Russia will get to keep its already expanded fleet in Crimea while NATO will be prevented from increasing its presence in the Black Sea, which borders three member states.

Borissov’s stance not only baffled NATO’s leadership and the country’s neighbors, but also threw into confusion various domestic actors formulating Bulgaria’s official position on Black Sea security. In Warsaw, Plevneliev reaffirmed his longtime position by calling for an increased NATO presence in the Black Sea. In fact, since joining the alliance in 2004, Sofia has insisted on a stronger NATO presence in the region—through military exercises and frequent visits by NATO’s Mediterranean maritime group (Standing NATO Maritime Group 2) as well as by ships of other NATO countries, and even by establishing a NATO Black Sea maritime group. The latest idea was promoted by Romania and not rejected by Turkey, which has always treated Black Sea security as a regional matter.

The three countries even managed to convince NATO to put Black Sea security higher on the agenda of the Warsaw summit, by displaying for a while an unusual unity—similar to that of the Baltic states and Poland—regarding the security of the Baltic Sea. The result is that the summit acknowledged the growing security risks for its Black Sea members and agreed to decide on concrete measures in October. Unfortunately, Borissov’s negative reaction, followed by Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow and more recently the failed coup d'état in Turkey, will make a meaningful arrangement very difficult to achieve.

Margarita Assenova is the Director of Programs at the Jamestown Foundation.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Ruslan Shamukov/TASS