As a NATO and EU member, Bulgaria has the potential to play an important role in Black Sea security, but the country’s complex relationship with Russia also has the potential to weaken it.

Russia’s militarization of the Black Sea, its occupation of Crimea, and then its full invasion Ukraine has left the region vulnerable. NATO has never had an effective strategy a strategy for the Black Sea, which contains various diverse actors, including three alliance members. Bulgaria, Romania, and Türkiye have increased their defense spending substantially in recent years, but Bulgaria, in particular, still relies excessively on NATO security guarantees to deter Russia’s aggression in the region.

Bulgaria does not have a Black Sea strategy, although the region is extremely important for its economy, not least for its transportation industry, energy routes, raw materials, and tourism. It has been conducting exploration of deposits of natural resources in the Black Sea for years. Sofia therefore places a substantial emphasis on security in the region. It also still aims to avoid unnecessary confrontation with Russia.

Over the past 30 years, Bulgaria’s politics and approach to regional security have been influenced by pro-Russia politicians, who simultaneously wanted the country to be a close friend of Moscow as well as a NATO and EU member. This led some of its allies to perceive it as something of a Trojan horse, effectively weakening regional security and the alliance’s position.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven Bulgaria to rethink its political and security agenda.

However, Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven Bulgaria to rethink its political and security agenda. The country has been instrumental in supporting Kyiv militarily, covering up to one-third of its munition needs at certain points. For the first time since it joined NATO in 2004, it has taken steps to play a more active role in the Black Sea region. It has hosted a multinational NATO battalion since 2022, and will start investing 2% of its GDP on defense from 2024, as the alliance requires. Sofia plans to invest billions of euros in military infrastructure that would ensure a faster response and deployment capability, and it has started substituting its old Soviet weaponry with modern Western ones. It has also been trying to combat Russian disinformation, including regarding NATO.

Navigating Domestic Divides

This transformation has been possible because the reformist PP-DB (We Continue the Change—Democratic Bulgaria) alliance managed to push its pro-Ukraine, pro-West agenda within the coalition government, in office since last April, with the GERB-SDS (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria—Union of Democratic Forces) party, which favors the old status quo.

The two attitudes toward Russia have coexisted in Bulgaria for a long time. Support for it is declining but still present in large segments of society. In a November 2023 poll, 56% said they did not perceive Russia as a threat to national security. Yet, perceptions might be slowly changing due to the war and the current government’s stance. In another poll last year, 26% said they viewed Russia as a strategic partner, down from 45% in 2021, while 58% said they supported NATO membership, which now has the support of a growing majority.

Despite this, pro-Russia actors, such as the far-right Revival party or President Rumen Radev, should not be underestimated. Pro-Russia cadres are still prevalent in government institutions, including the Ministry of Defense, military universities, and army. Russian disinformation is one of the biggest threats in the country.

If the coalition government collapses due to its rising internal tensions, the country might reverse the progress it has made toward combating Russian influence, supporting Ukraine, and trying to be more involved in regional security. A militarily weak and inactive Bulgaria with pro-Russia politicians and population would be a security threat not only to the region but to the whole of NATO and the EU.

Strategic Imperatives

Russia has repeatedly attacked Ukrainian infrastructure and has put hundreds of thousands of mines in the Black Sea. It keeps trying to prevent Ukrainian grain from reaching the world market through the sea lanes. Ukraine’s recent strikes have forced the Russian Black Sea fleet to retreat and Moscow is failing to project power over the entire region, but it still controls some of its key ports, including in Ukraine.

Russia will keep seeking to prevent the concentration of NATO forces in the region or keep them from operating freely. It can use nonmilitary means against the alliance there, primarily hybrid and cyber operations. It can also try to fuel any conflicts of interests between NATO’s Black Sea members.

NATO has increased its military presence in the region as a result of Russia’s actions. Multinational battlegroups have been established in Bulgaria, as noted, and in Romania, just like in other countries of the alliance’s eastern flank. The allies have also sent more ships, planes, and troops to its Black Sea members. NATO has shown readiness to expand the battlegroups to brigade size, including in Bulgaria and Romania, which have also committed themselves to modernizing their military. Modernization gives them the opportunity to coordinate policies and even jointly acquire, for example, naval equipment or unmanned aerial vehicles.

Türkiye complicates the picture with its distinct regional ambitions and wavering support of NATO. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, it has closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to alliance and Russian warships, as it is allowed to do under the Montreux Convention

For Bulgaria, in particular, it is insufficient to “outsource” regional security to NATO.

The Black Sea is mentioned in NATO’s Strategic Concept and the EU Strategic Compass, but a coherent, long-term approach to the region that takes into account the unpredictability of Russia is still missing. Bulgaria, Romania, and Türkiye are cooperating in analyzing the situation but the Black Sea must become a priority for NATO for enhanced regional cooperation to become a reality. The Biden administration introduced a bill for a Black Sea Security Act at the end of 2023. But it is unlikely that this would have any immediate effect on this picture, especially given Türkiye’s distrust of US involvement in the Black Sea. Any fatigue in the United States with the war in Ukraine will also be an important factor.  

For Bulgaria, in particular, it is insufficient to “outsource” regional security to NATO. Its pro-West government should exercise a stronger voice within the alliance and in the region. Formats, such as the Bucharest Nine, which groups NATO members on the eastern flank, or the Three Seas Initiative can be useful channels for emphasizing the importance of Black Sea security. However, for Bulgaria to have a stronger voice in regional security, its politicians must prioritize this domestically. This means talking about investments in defense and how the country sees its relationship with Russia in the long run, including under any future government. It is also ultimately dependent on whether the current government coalition is able to hold or not.

Join us on February 29th at 4:00pm CET for a virtual event on security in the Black Sea and Bulgaria's role. RSVP here.