Fifteen years have gone by, since Bulgaria joined NATO, but the transition from the Warsaw pact is still slowly ongoing. Among the factors sandbagging the Eastern European nation, is equipment. The upcoming plans of modernization may be the perfect opportunity to embody the transition and achieve it. In this perspective, France stands out as the perfect partner.
On the frontiers of the European Union
As one of the gate nations of the former Soviet Empire, Bulgaria received special attention under Russian rule, and was graced with generous amounts of (at the time) high-performance equipment. As neighboring Greece and Turkey became NATO members in 1952, during the fiery ramp-up of the Cold War, Moscow responded with massive reinforcements, namely with T-55 tanks in the 1950s, T-62s in the 1960s and T-72s in the 1970s. This rate of renewal is rarely achieved, especially in such generous volumes: every renewal ranged in the hundreds of armored vehicles – a scope which could only have be achieved by the massive industrial power of the Soviet Union. However, replacements and reinforcements ground to a halt in the 1980s, in the wake of the Soviet Empire’s mounting economic difficulties, which would eventually bring about its collapse. As a direct result, Bulgaria’s military support fell sharply, and the post-cold-war economy of former Soviet States gave no opportunity for the small Eastern State to renew its equipment by its own means. Consequently, Bulgaria is still running the same equipment since the 1970s, and availability is steadily dropping for lack of available funds, and the discontinued support from Russia.
A NATO-member with still much to prove
As it became a NATO member in 2004, and part of a massive diplomatic and military onslaught from the Atlantic alliance towards the East, Bulgaria shifted its military stance from the East to the West. But little came of it, in terms of military renewal. Geopolitical analyst Theodoros Papadopoulos writes: “ To make sure the defense debate does not go down the same troubled path, Washington in particular could reconsider how much financial support it is providing to the countries it wants to buy American equipment. The U.S. Foreign Military Financing program has allocated only about $40 million to be shared among all nine former Eastern Bloc NATO members over the past several years.” With such meager assistance, and with small domestic military budgets, not only is Bulgaria ages away from changing anything substantially to its armed forces, it has recently been limited to resorting to Russia to upgrade and maintain its fleet of fighter planes, which suffer grievous obsolescence and disrepair. Theodoros Papadopoulos adds: “Bulgaria, along with all other Balkan NATO member countries, is not meeting the NATO pledge to contribute 2% of its GDP to defense spending, although having one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the alliance makes it a difficult bar to meet.” So far, Bulgaria has therefore not taken its full place within the alliance.
The Russian and Turkey resurgences
History may be providing Bulgaria with an opportunity to enter a new strategic phase, with the Russian neighbor rising from its ashes. In 2004, when Bulgaria was admitted within the alliance, Russia was still largely recovering from the Soviet collapse. But a lot has happened in the fifteen years since. Russia’s economy has recovered and is once again both defending its corned on the international scene and exporting its weaponry and influence. NATO is therefore bound to be seeking partners in Eastern Europe to help contain the Russian expansion. In recent crises, the geopolitical position of Bulgaria, close to Crimea and on the way to Syria would have proven useful to SHAPE, if Bulgaria’s defense had been meaningful. And since Russia is not expected to falter anytime soon, NATO is probably looking for new partners to assist in the preservation of the balance of powers.
But Russia isn’t the only problem for Bulgaria, in the area, as neighboring Turkey is using its influential position within NATO to flex its muscles and increase its pull in the region – an expansion Bulgaria may fear would come at its expense. Of course, Bulgaria can tighten its ties to the West, but will bear in mind that one of the two European leaders, Germany, harbors a very large and powerful Turkish community, and would probably be hindered in whatever help it could European neighbors with.
Here, France and its mainland defence firm Nexter, are the perfect ally to help restore Hungary’s position. France, altogether, is considered independent from Russia and Turkey, whereas Germany is vulnerable to political influence from both countries. Deutsche Welle reports: “German weapons exports to Turkey — mostly naval items — more than tripled to €202 million in the same timeframe, up on €62 million in 2017”, despite numerous misdesigns in recent military productions. Nexter, on the other hand, possesses the only battle-proven land vehicles in Europe and dominates the market – more importantly: it is immune from Russian and Turkish influence.
The armored conundrum
At the top of the list in military equipment emergencies, lies armor, the queen of battles. In the geopolitical setting of Bulgaria, there is a Russian elephant in the room – and Russia has long been big on armor. NATO would therefore be most interested in having a strong partner in Eastern Europe to watch the gates and provide the necessary resistance to slow down enemy movements – thus giving the rest of the alliance the time to initiate counter-measures. Currently, Bulgaria’s fleet is composed of first-generation BMP armored personnel carriers, and a couple thousand battle tanks, a large majority of which are stored away for obsolescence or awaiting repairs. In the event of a confrontation with Russia, a known armored mega-player, Bulgaria would be instantly swept away by Russia’s large fleet of new-generation T-72s, T-80s and T-90s. Military reporter Stanislava Georgieva writes: “Speaking to the media at the yesterday’s event, the Commander of the Land Forces noted that the problems in the Bulgarian army are mainly related to the maintenance of the available equipment and the shortage of military personnel. He expressed confidence that measures taken by the Bulgarian MoD to fill vacancies and to increase military salaries will lead to the end of this shortage tendency.” In this new push to rejuvenate military capacities, Bulgaria will have no trouble in finding European partners, as leading defense firms have long opened their arms to intra-European partnerships. French firm Nexter, for instance, designed their most recent armored fighting vehicle in partnership with Czech firm Tatra, which provided the mobility platform. With European defense finally shaping up and rationalizing its resources and potential, Bulgaria may be among the first beneficiaries.
An eastward shift?
NATO is currently strained with internal tensions, between European partners and the American alliance leader, aggravated by years of sub-par military commitment, in US eyes. A NATO focus directly on central European States is a possibility, both to contain Russia at its closes, and to divest Western European alliances which are judged too costly and not efficient enough. If Bulgaria manages to renovate its military capacities, which are in dire need of in-depth rejuvenation, it may position itself as a major strategic partner within the alliance.
In order to take its full place in the simmering European defense world, Bulgaria has identified the need to stay on par with military levels and provide its fair share in the continental effort. Consolidated independence from the Russian is at stake, as well as its integration within the Atlantic alliance, in the current reinvigoration phase of alliance members. Will Bulgaria take the lead on defense matters and become a regional influence on the outskirts of the alliance?