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Bulgarian PM, Main Ruling Party Vow Support To Arm Ukraine After Gazprom Cutoff

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on April 28.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on April 28.

Bulgaria's main ruling alliance has responded to a Russian gas cutoff by abandoning the hesitancy that has kept that Black Sea state from supplying military aid to Ukraine, capping off two days of political messaging with visiting Prime Minister Kiril Petkov declaring outside the Ukrainian capital that it would be "inhuman to remain uninvolved" as Russia's invasion unfolds.

After Gazprom suspended natural gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland amid escalating fallout from the 8-week-old war, Petkov and his We Continue The Change alliance vowed on April 27 that all 67 of its lawmakers will back military assistance for Kyiv in a vote expected early next month.

The provision of such aid would align Sofia more closely with most of its NATO allies -- Hungary aside.

But it will also deepen a rift over Ukraine and Russia with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a retired general and air force commander who has suggested that arming either side merely prolongs the fighting.

"The rhetoric we have been hearing for several months is 'Don't give military aid to Ukraine so that peace comes sooner,'" Petkov said during a quickly organized visit to Kyiv and its environs on April 28 to demonstrate support for Ukraine's defenders. "If this is the price of peace, if the Russian state continues to [attack] and no one has the opportunity to defend itself, then do we want this peace?"

Petkov had warned alongside a senior party colleague in Sofia a day earlier against siding with "aggressor" Russia instead of Kyiv and said "internal circles" in Bulgaria had been fomenting division since the eight-week-old Ukraine war began.

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union and NATO.

Energy 'Blackmail'

Russia suspended gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria on April 27 over ruble-denominated payments amid massive international financial sanctions to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

While not expected to cut as deeply as it would in other EU countries more reliant on Russian gas, such as Germany or Italy, Moscow's announcement represented Putin's most significant action of the war on European energy markets.

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Sofia, Warsaw, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have described it as energy "blackmail."

Petkov assured Bulgarians that Gazprom's actions won't lead to any gas cutoffs to consumers and stressed that he is coordinating with EU partners.

Von der Leyen has said both Poland and Bulgaria are getting gas from neighboring countries.

Petkov's liberal government has curbed many long-running ties to Russia since taking over in December 2021. Since Putin's troops invaded nearby Ukraine, the government has welcomed an increased NATO presence, including a new deployment of fighter jets at a base on its Black Sea coast.

Sofia has also supported Western political and economic sanctions and other nonmilitary measures to punish Russian actions in Ukraine, whose southern border extends to within 200 kilometers of Bulgarian territory.

Bulgaria already hoped to eliminate its Russian gas deliveries by the end of the year, when Bulgargaz's current long-term contract concludes. A gas pipeline from neighboring Greece is due to be finished in June.

Petkov said on April 27 that Russia had for years treated EU and NATO member Bulgaria like a "fifth column."

On April 28, the Bulgarian prime minister traveled to Ukraine and visited the Borodyanka region where evidence since a Russian retreat has compounded international fears of Russian atrocities against civilians in the town of Bucha and other places.

Petkov's delegation -- which included Defense Minister Dragomir Zakov and several lawmakers but no one from the junior coalition partner, the Socialist Party (BSP) -- delivered helmets and body armor as part of its assistance to Ukraine.

Petkov was scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose government this week challenged Sofia anew to "take a stand" and deliver weapons to Ukraine and support Kyiv's accelerated EU bid.

Speaking in the town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, Petkov pledged that Bulgaria would "provide all the help necessary."

He said Bulgarians and the rest of Europe must be "stronger" and "tough," including finding alternative sources of fuel and energy.

The Bulgarian National Assembly returns from Easter holidays on May 4 and the junior coalition Democratic Bulgaria party has said it will immediately introduce a proposal on military and other assistance for Ukraine.

Clashes With The President

The We Continue The Change pledge suggests there could be sufficient support in the resulting vote, although several parties have yet to fully commit to a "yes."

Petkov and We Continue The Change co-founder, Assen Vassilev, assured reporters at their April 27 press conference that their support for military aid to Ukraine would not disintegrate the ruling coalition, which took over after months of political crisis spanning two inconclusive elections.

President Radev won reelection in a vote held alongside the November 2021 parliamentary vote, and he has repeatedly clashed publicly with Petkov.

After the Gazprom cutoff, he demanded that Petkov's government "answer some questions" about Poland and Bulgaria being singled out by Russia.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)

Radev called the gas interruption "a real test of European solidarity" and expressed "bewilderment at how the economy minister will explain to Bulgarians and leftists, who have always been against wars, that Bulgarian weapons fuel the conflict."

Only Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has emerged as Putin's strongest ally within the European Union, and Germany's main Russian gas importer, have so far flat-out agreed to Putin's terms for ruble-based payments for gas.

The Bulgarian coalition's Socialists, a party of many former Communists with pro-Russian sentiments, has said it opposes sending weapons to Ukraine as it would make Bulgaria a party to the conflict.

But a handful of opposition parties have hinted at their approval of such a measure.

NATO countries are treading carefully, but many have joined the United States, Britain, and Germany in supplying weapons, and now even tanks, to Ukraine's military and militia forces defending the country and its prewar population of 34 million people.

Some 5 million Ukrainians have fled and more than that number have been displaced inside the country.

Radev questioned Petkov's trip to Kyiv, expressing concerns about the Bulgarian "national interest" and suggesting he should formulate the "sovereign Bulgarian position" instead.

In Ukraine on April 28, Petkov pushed back, reassuring reporters that his alliance will vote for providing Ukraine's defenders with military assistance.

Petkov's party colleague Vassilev, who is also deputy prime minister, leveled a blunt response to Radev's criticisms a day earlier.

"The position of pretending that there is no aggressor in this war does not work. We are not looking for conflict, we are not looking for war, but when it comes to our doorstep, we will meet it and repel the aggressor," Vassilev said.

He called Radev's suggestion that arming Ukraine merely perpetuated the war "disgraceful."

"It is disgraceful because it implies that Russia will win this conflict and that it is normal and good for Russia to win this conflict," Vassilev said. "I believe that Ukraine will win this conflict and that we must help Ukraine win this conflict."

Vassilev said the alternative was "first for Ukraine and then for the whole of Eastern Europe to become vassal appendages again, which this government will not allow."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service
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