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Document Analysis Reveals Bulgarian Perception of Mid-Term Security Threats

March 20, 2015

By Chris Deliso

Bulgaria is a country in a unique situation, with one eye historically on the western Balkans, and the other on eastern issues, such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. Like Romania to its north, it was hustled into NATO and the EU due to this fortunate geography, despite failing to have really fulfilled all the mandated reforms.

The country’s national security policy in the post-Communist age of democracy has expanded on this vision of itself as perfectly suited to providing useful services to the Western alliance- especially when it can benefit in other ways.

For example, though it is not widely known, Bulgarian intelligence has been one of the key sources of NATO intelligence on goings-on in Damascus, as its previous good relations during Communism with Arab states (and current ground activities) have sustained an advantageous position that Bulgaria has exploited as leverage for the achievement of otherwise unrelated policy goals. The value NATO saw in Bulgaria was also evidenced in its proposed role in training the new Libyan army in November 2013, as discussed on this official US military press release. This has not turned out as planned, though the situation in Libya is certainly not Bulgaria’s fault.

The present document analysis discusses the policies that were officially agreed by the National Security Council and government in a text published on September 4, 2014. The publication of this text, two weeks before the NATO Summit in Cardiff, Wales was not coincidental.

The strategy describes the national security threats to Bulgaria and the steps needed to address them. It is stressed that Bulgaria alone cannot manage these threats, and invites the EU and NATO to do their part.

The major threats outlined include: Russia, militarily and in terms of energy control; cyberwar; separatist movements and instability in the Western Balkans, as well as immigration and Islamic terrorism. In late 2014 (and still today) these themes resonate with most members of the NATO alliance.

This assessment concludes by noting the prioritization and perception by the Bulgarian security establishment, and what this means for related political and diplomatic policies, in order to better understand their thinking. This in turn helps our understanding of Bulgarian policy and intended involvement in the region during the ‘enlargement freeze’ period.

Document Facts

The text, which comes to 43 pages in Bulgarian, is entitled Visiya: Bulgariya v NATO i v Evropeiskata Otbrana 2020 (Vision: Bulgaria in NATO and European Defense 2020). It is available on official Bulgarian government websites (including here, .PDF). Note that quotes below come from a private official draft, which is so mewhat shorter but which contains nearly identical text.

According to the draft document, the strategy was developed after parliament’s adoption of a White Paper on Defense and Armed Forces (from 28 October 2010), “taking into account the changes in the security environment, the implementation of the Development Plan of the Armed Forces and in connection with the expiration of the period of the plan’s mandate at end 2014.”

According to the document, the strategy was developed by an interdepartmental working group led by the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, which also included the deputy minister for defense policy, the Council on Defense, other experts and finally the Security Council to the Council of Ministers, which approved the document at a meeting on September 1, 2014. As mentioned, the full strategy document was published three days later.

Context

The draft document had been finalized two weeks before its publication date, with a clear view towards the NATO Cardiff Summit. The Bulgarians were the only ones there to present such a strategy beforehand, one Bulgarian military official tells us, and clearly took advantage of expected requirements to gain an advantage in preparedness.

The Bulgarian delegation knew they would have an edge on their ‘allied competition’ by being prepared to step forward with a plan, and indeed this turned out to be the case, increasing the public perception of Bulgaria as a forward-thinking and active member on the Alliance’s strategic Black Sea periphery.

It might be said that another reason why post-Cold War Bulgaria has sought to step forward and be counted is because of lingering (and sometimes justified) concerns that it is still relatively easy for Russia’s intelligence services to penetrate Bulgaria, creating a critical vulnerability in the overall NATO architecture. But the Bulgarians know that the West thinks this, and subtly uses it as another justification for NATO to be more involved with the country.

Bulgaria was the first allied country ready to answer the Cardiff Summit’s concluding request for each country to come up with its own national security strategy that could be integrated into the overarching NATO vision. This helps explain why the document is entitled ‘Vision 2020’ and indicates a clever awareness of the ‘mood’ within the alliance.

NATO Bases and Operations in Bulgaria in the Context of a Perceived Russian Threat

From the wording and subjects discussed, it becomes clear that another strategic goal of the government was to, if not sensationalize, at least exaggerate somewhat the perceived threat from Russia, so as to maintain and ideally increase the existing foreign military presence in Bulgaria.

The long-sought US military presence had already been achieved, with the 2006 Defense Cooperation Agreement (official .PDF text here) between the two countries. It established the Joint Task Force East, with command (and more bases) in Romania, a structure ultimately under command of USEUCOM. (Not incidentally, our sources have identified Bucharest as the central focus of regional activity for Russia’s GRU).

The Joint-use US-Bulgarian military bases established according to the agreement included Bezmer Air Base (Yambol area), Aitos Logistics Center (Burgas area, near the Black Sea) and inland at Graf Ignatievo Air Base (Plovdiv area). Finally, the small east-central city of Sliven (where American and British servicemen out for a beer at night dramatically outnumber tourists) hosts the Novo Selo Range.

The last base was where, in April 2014, a week-long multinational military training exercise known as ‘Saber Guardian’ was held (the year before it had been held in Romania). According to an official US Army summary, the operation comprised “a week of scenario-driven, computer-based operations… designed to strengthen international agency and military partnering, and to foster trust while improving interoperability between NATO and partner nations involved in foreign humanitarian assistance operations with U.S. forces.”

The US Army in Europe’s Deputy Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Richard C. Longo, who led the exercise, characterized it as “an incredibly complex exercise. This is the most complex exercise the United States Army in Europe has participated in, in many years.”

Significantly, the countries involved were largely from the Russian periphery (Bulgaria, Romania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Poland and Ukraine) as well as Turkey and the ambivalent Serbia. (The Belgians offered a token presence too).

The September 2014 Bulgarian security vision document must thus be assessed within this recent context. It is also worth noting that the Bulgarian strategy focuses on the year 2020.

This has been a stipulated date for everything from regional energy projects to investment targets, and it has become infamous as the minimal period of non-EU expansion as decreed by new European Commissioner Juncker. The last decision has raised fears widely that we are entering a dangerous vacuum period in which various actors will attempt to increase their influence due to Brussels’ waning appetite for new members.

Strategic Justifications for Increased Military Spending

The draft document further notes that “NATO and individual Member States have already carried out a strategic review of the decisively changed security environment and identified concrete measures, including adequate investment in the defense sector, and plan to increase preparedness.” The recommendation is made that Bulgaria should do the same- qualifying that this vision reflected the position of caretaker government in power at the time. However, we can expect any Bulgarian government to have broadly the same view.

The Bulgarians’ assessment of the “external security environment” was provided as justification for increased defense spending (and ideally, donations) in accordance with expected NATO requirements. The alliance (and particularly, the US) has long complained that European states largely do not invest enough of their budgets in defense, so Bulgaria’s security sector have hinted at this alleged shortcoming in requesting a bigger budget. The full Vision 2020 document goes into detail about the sub-sectors and some of the equipment categories involved.

The cumulative program anticipates specific projects at a budget of over 100mn leva (about $500mn). According to the strategy, “all projects will seek the maximum use of mechanisms common, joint and multinational funding in addition to the national and cooperation with agencies of the EU and NATO to achieve interoperability at minimal cost and with the possibility of integration of the defense industry and research sector in Euro-Atlantic space.”

This indicates that we can expect a larger role for US and European defense contractors in Bulgaria, and possibly an increase in the domestic sector itself. The Western obsession with the Russian threat, which is (at least militarily) irrelevant to Bulgaria, will thus have primary benefit for arms dealers and the militaries involved- and the politicians and lobbyists involved from the various sides.

Perceived Threats to Bulgarian National Security, as Presented

The strategy document goes on to list perceived national security threats, as characterized by a current environment of “dynamic, diverse challenges and changes.” These threats are “difficult to predict,” but include “asymmetric risks,” in one of “the areas with the highest concentration of risks and threats in the Euro-Atlantic community. Their development tendencies are negative in the medium, and in many cases, in the long term.”

The source of “significant” national security risks are stated as including “instability of regions located near the borders of our country.” These include “conflict confrontation in the Black Sea and Caucasus region,” as well as the “illegal annexation of the Crimea by Russia and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.”

In this context, the document lists a concept that has become fashionable in the Western media (‘hybrid war’), even if it is defined variously in different sources. This reference clearly indicates an awareness of, and desire to play into, the developed media discourse associated with Russia’s perceived method of operations today. Ironically, the definition provided (“techniques of guerrilla warfare, covert support to separatist groups, cyberattacks and propaganda, economic pressure and acts contrary to international law”) could just as well describe the modus operundi of NATO countries since the end of WWII and the creation of NATO’s ‘stay-behind armies’ and similar programs.

The reality of an economic effect of Russian sanctions on the Bulgarian economy is also mentioned, as are frozen conflicts and energy: “Bulgaria is highly dependent on a single supplier of energy resources. In this sense, is a key need for diversification of energy sources for Bulgaria and enhanced cooperation within the EU to reduce the negative economic consequences of the crisis to the east of us.”

This observation is also in line with existing NATO and EU priorities on the issue of creating a regional gas hub similar to Vienna’s. This is something that both Bulgaria and Greece might like to host. Of course, the political turbulence in Bulgaria over the decisions to build or not build South Stream is understood, though not specified.

The chronic Middle East and North Africa crises are also mentioned in the document. Conflicts specified include Syria, Iraq, Libya and, interestingly Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sinai and the Palestinian Territories. Although it is not completely specified exactly how, it is affirmed these conflicts “are a source of potential and actual risks and threats to Bulgaria and other member states of NATO and the EU.”

For good measure, the text adds that “Iranian ambitions to develop nuclear and missile programs also continue to be a risk factor for stability on the regional and global scale.”

This last talking point chimes with Bulgaria’s increasingly close relationship with Israel, though as we have seen, the recent re-election of the controversial Benjamin Netanyahu – who is not on the best of terms with the Obama Administration – puts Bulgaria in an interesting position, in terms of its policies regarding all actors.

Analysts might thus consider what position Bulgaria would take (and what would result from it) in the case of a nuclear deal being reached between the US and Iran, in the case that the deal would also be unpopular with Israeli leaders.

Perceived Balkan Threats to Bulgarian National Security

Most interestingly in the Balkan context is the draft paper’s specification of “existing potential risks associated with the Western Balkans.” These are said to include “political and economic instability, trends towards separatism [that would] delay their integration into NATO and EU, challenges to progress in the development of democratic processes and the risk of losing a clear Euro-Atlantic direction.”

Further, the document claims, the region “continues to generate risks to stability, including to Bulgaria, stemming from ethnic and religious intolerance, as well as deep-rooted nationalist ideologies.”

It is not precisely clear to what the authors are directly referring, but it is safe to assume that (on the military level) they include Albanian-Serbian grievances and unrest in Kosovo, Albanian separatism elsewhere in the region, and (on the political level) perceived nationalism in Macedonia, which is seen as negative for Bulgaria’s historic pretensions there. The talking points regarding ‘democratic processes’ and a lack of Euro-Atlantic prospects also align perfectly with the Euro-Federalist pressure projection shared by entities like the OSCE and UN in the region on Balkan countries. This strategy is effectively to put Bulgaria into the ‘first tier’ of EU countries that are entitled to judge, rather than be judged.

Bulgaria has in the past decade used its EU membership privileges as leverage to punish Balkan states, particularly Macedonia, at some times outdoing even Greece in this regard. Greek-Bulgarian shared obstructionist tactics have progressively increased over time. It is interesting to note for analytical purposes that Bulgarian national security doctrine seeks to overtly present a political policy used by successive foreign ministries as a fact somehow distinct from, and unaffected by, its own interventions into regional politics.

International Islamic terrorism, and particularly the role of foreign fighters as returning threats to European countries, is also mentioned. “The migration flow is a challenge to the system of border protection and integration capabilities,” the document notes, and this phenomenon has indeed been indicated, as recent police activities and media reports have shown. It is postulated that “the refugee influx in Bulgaria” could include the penetration of “other risk categories of persons involved in terrorism or other criminal activity. Increased immigration is a challenge to the existing legal framework in such crises.”

Regarding all of these risks to its security, the report states that “Bulgaria is not able to cope alone with them, and the only real way to meet them effectively is to use the opportunities that membership in NATO and the EU provide. Allied solidarity does not mean that we can not stop investing in our national security. On the contrary, solidarity requires long-term political, economic and financial commitment on the part of Bulgaria.”

Conclusion: the Intersection of Security Doctrine and Political Ambition in Bulgaria’s ‘Vision 2020’

In other words, Bulgarian national security doctrine until 2020 involves not only an increase in hard power designed to deter a military invasion. It also includes an invitation to wide participation of Western allies in Bulgaria’s entire political and foreign policy project.

This is an extremely important point to note, considering that Bulgarian political instability in recent years has been rampant, with the various governments not tending to survive long and coming under extreme pressure from outside influencers. Nevertheless, despite continued political turbulence, this strategy document indicates that the country’s leaders are in agreement at a state level over a national security doctrine that also has political aspects.

This fact differentiates Bulgaria from most other states in the region, which have not articulated (or which cannot sustain) a unified national security doctrine; in these cases, it is very uncertain that the reason for this failure is non-membership of NATO as a unifying and motivating force. It is thus not necessarily true that NATO membership will automatically create the conditions for a unified national security policy in complex and divided states. Concerted political pressure from NATO on the local governments, however, ignores this fact while continuing with the forceful sales pitch.

What the Bulgarian security doctrine does indicate – and this is also due to reasons not involving NATO per se – is that it is most similar regionally, on a structural level with Greece, which also has a core set of national security interests that have remained intact, despite chronic instability on the political level.

Indeed, the SYRIZA government has made no signs of changes to the existing Samaras policy, and campaign rhetoric regarding American bases and the need for NATO have diminished in public discourse. The Americans were so concerned in autumn 2014 that they called in a top SYRIZA leadership team to get a promise over the status quo not changing in future. They got their guarantee.

This is because Greece is not stupid. Like Bulgaria, Greece has historically invited NATO and the EU to help strengthen its own military and diplomatic project in the near-abroad. Since Greece does not face any serious potential military threat (except theoretically from fellow NATO ally, Turkey), this influence projection is inevitably mostly wielded on the policy and diplomacy front, such as blocking Macedonian NATO and EU accession indefinitely.

Indeed, it might be this shared structural similarity – not the actual specific policies – that best explains the increased level of coziness between Bulgaria and Greece, and the similarity of their approaches, despite other factors that would seem to differentiate their goals and objectives.

In the final analysis, Bulgaria’s ‘vision’ of its national security through 2020 indicates that the country will cleverly continue to highlight its strategic geography to gain special privileges, to exploit its institutional memberships for diplomatic and political purposes, and to entice foreign military contractors as a further stabilizing (and lobbying) force. All of this behavior, and especially the concentration on leveraging its value on the ‘Black Sea’ front, will support the country’s desire to continue playing an outsized role in the Balkans.

This indicates that Bulgarian decision-making on the security front will continue to be influenced by a historic and political perception of its own regional importance.

This analysis becomes especially compelling considering that Bulgaria is completely insulated from any military or political threat that could arise on its western flank. There is no scenario in which Bulgaria faces any direct military threat from any country and (with the exception of an immigration- or terrorism-related threat, which are extra-regional) there is no dramatic security event that could adversely affect the country.

While cyber-war, energy and the effect of economic sanctions on Russia are all deleterious to the country, these threats are all related to Bulgaria’s east- not west. Nevertheless, by bundling in these ‘popular’ security issues in with the less credible Balkan-related issues, the country’s security architects will continue to get tacit approval for national political and diplomatic activities in the Balkans, activities which can have destabilizing effects for other states.

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