Bulgaria has agreed to allow NATO to use its Black Sea port for naval coordination efforts amid growing rivalry between the Western military alliance and Russia.
The agreement was reached following a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at the White House on November 25 -- could be the first step in the formation of an intelligence hub in the region, analysts said.
NATO has bolstered its defenses in Eastern Europe, including the Black Sea region, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and seized Ukrainian Navy vessels last year.
"Viewing with concern the security situation in the Black Sea, the United States welcomes Bulgaria's offer to provide a maritime coordination function at Varna in support of NATO's Tailored Forward Presence initiative," the United States and Bulgaria said in a joint statement.
The Western military alliance earlier this year carried out exercises in the Black Sea that involved more than 20 ships and crews from Romania, Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, the Netherlands, and Turkey to the consternation of Moscow. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is located in Crimea.
The coordination function for the Black Sea is currently located in the United Kingdom. U.S. and Bulgarian officials will hold high-level meetings to discuss further maritime military cooperation, the statement said.
“This is a good start towards what I hope will be a more robust operational headquarters in the region,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former top U.S. Army commander in Europe and now an analyst at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
“The Black Sea region is very important -- it affects the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Ukraine," Hodges told RFE/RL.
NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey border the Black Sea along with Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia. Both Ukraine and Georgia have expressed a desire to join NATO -- a move fiercely apposed by Moscow.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Garibashvili visited the Pentagon last week to sign a new partnership agreement with the United States.
Trump hosted Romanian President Klaus Iohannis last month as part of a series of engagements with leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria.
Prior to his arrival in Washington, Borisov told journalists that he would not allow a permanent NATO military base on the Black Sea, a move that would anger Russia.
NATO does not have the same deterrence capabilities in the region as it does in the Baltic because the Montreux Convention limits naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states, Hodges said. NATO and its partners have to improve their intelligence sharing about movements in the Black Sea, he said.
“None of our allies should ever be surprised by what happens in the Black Sea,” Hodges said.
Bulgaria agreed to continue increasing its military spending to modernize its military and meet NATO's spending targets of at least 2 percent of gross domestic product, a threshold it will surpass this year following the purchase of its first F-16 fighter jets from the United States.
It's part of a $1.67 billion package that is the country's biggest military procurement since the fall of communism in the early 1990s. It includes ammunition, training, and support from the United States.
The eight F-16 jets are expected to be delivered to Bulgaria in 2023 and 2024 to replace the Bulgarian Air Force's fleet of Soviet-built MiG-29s.
Overall, Bulgaria plans to spend $2.44 billion in the coming years to bolster and modernize its armed forces, including the acquisition of new aircraft, navy frigates, and 150 armed vehicles, the State Department said.
It said the purchases will allow better integration with NATO forces.
Washington agreed to seek defense-industry partnerships with Bulgarian companies, while Sofia agreed to open its defense procurement to U.S. companies, a separate joint statement from the two presidents said.
Washington will aim to help Bulgaria wean itself off Russian energy dependence, not just through exports of natural gas but also through the supply of nuclear fuel, the joint presidential statement said.
Russia not only supplies the overwhelming majority of Bulgaria’s oil and gas needs, but also the fuel to run its only nuclear plant at Kozloduy.
The United States and Bulgaria "plan to work together to enhance Bulgaria's energy security by supporting expeditiously the licensing and use of American nuclear fuel for the Kozloduy nuclear power plant," the joint presidential statement said.
The United States will also send a “technical team” to Bulgaria to study cooperation in the energy sector, including nuclear.
Bulgaria is seeking to complete a second nuclear power plant and has requested bids from global companies. Russian, Chinese, European, and U.S. companies have expressed interest in working on the project.
The United States also called on Bulgaria to liberalize its energy industry, fight corruption, and protect press freedoms, which have eroded over the past decade as the media sector comes under the control of politically connected oligarchs.