New Spying Allegations and Expulsions Are Another Setback for Bulgaria-Russia Relations

Recently, Bulgaria announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats after being declared personae non grata. This announcement came shortly after a recent investigation uncovered a spy ring. Relations between Russia and Bulgaria were already facing challenges as there have been similar incidents before, and these new developments are unlikely to improve the current situation.

The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry announced on March 22 that it would be expelling two Russian diplomats since they “had carried out activities in the country that are incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” and these individuals are Maxim Ribkin, first secretary in the Russian embassy and Alexander Zinkin, the second secretary. Russia’s response was immediate as its embassy in Sofia stated that “this unjust démarche of the Bulgarian authorities will not contribute to creating a constructive Russian-Bulgarian dialogue,” according to reports from Balkan Insight. These expulsions come just days after Bulgaria busted a spy ring that involved “former and current military intelligence officers [that were] passing classified information about Bulgaria, NATO, and the E.U. to the Russian Embassy in Sofia,” RFE/RL reports. At the moment, there is no formal link between both events. In addition, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov announced that “It is difficult to say that any important information has been leaked. Part of it was also public,” and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev later announced that significant secrets had been revealed that affected the security of Bulgaria, NATO and the E.U., according to EURACTIV. While these developments are certain to affect Bulgaria-Russia Relations, it is not the first time this has happened.

The findings of these spy rings and spying allegations have many regional and international implications. Given that Bulgaria is a E.U. and NATO member, these spying allegations are likely to irk other members. The United States has previously announced its support for Bulgaria on various fronts, such as the summer protests against the government and in past spying allegation incidents. Its complicated relationship with Russia in recent years is also likely to create a new point of contention for both countries. In this case, Russia has reiterated that these spying allegations will lead nowhere and are only compromising dialogue between both countries, but these intentions are likely to be questioned by the United States, the E.U. and NATO members. This has to do with the recent souring of relations between Russia and the West, such as the treatment of activist Alexei Navalny or human rights in the country. On a related note, Russia and NATO have faced off on varying issues, such as alliances, East v. West dynamics, and political figures.

What is happening in Bulgaria will likely be raised by NATO and E.U. members in which they press Russia about its intentions with any information that was obtained. One point of concern for several Western countries is that Russia may use this information to bolster its intelligence, military, and regional capabilities which may further threaten relations with Bulgaria or Western alliances. Its growing relationship with China is also another concern. Depending on how much sensitive information was divulged by Russia to its agencies, NATO members and the E.U. may seek accountability via warnings, withdrawing from agreements, or in the case of top classified information, sanctions. As more is known about this case and how it connects to past spying incidents, countries like the United States, the E.U., and Bulgaria itself will present their course of action.

Bulgaria and Russia share historical, cultural, economic, and linguistic links. However, in the past several years, there have been similar spying allegations that have involved Russian individuals, which has increased tensions between both. RFE/RL reports that “Since October 2019, the EU and NATO member state has expelled five diplomats and employees of the Russian Embassy accused of conducting intelligence work”. Other similar cases took place in early 2020 and in September 2019 in which Russian officials were charged with spying and/or expelled from the country. One of the earliest spying allegations happened in April 2015, which involved “the poisoning of firearms dealer Emilian Gebrev, allegedly with a Novichok agent, although this was never confirmed [and] the case remains unsolved,” according to Balkan Insight.

Given the frequent nature of these incidents, Bulgaria must continue acting firm, such as conducting expulsions of implicated Russian individuals or collaborators. NATO and E.U. members must also reiterate their zero-tolerance for these kinds of spying incidents but at the same time maintain an openness for dialogue with Russia to reach common ground. As troubling as the situation is, there should still be a form of open dialogue which can lead to a solution for both sides in which there can be steps towards improving relations and ending spying campaigns in Bulgaria. If Russia continues these operations or if more sensitive information is divulged, then Bulgaria, NATO, and the E.U. have the right to take additional steps to protect their information. Before any of these drastic measures, holding dialogue should be the starting point.