SHIPKA, Bulgaria — A week after Russia invaded Ukraine, Moscow’s ambassador to Bulgaria climbed a snowy mountain pass to honor Russian soldiers of the Tsarist era who died there fighting for Bulgarian independence in the 19th century.
However, current concerns quickly overshadowed the ambassador’s efforts to remind Bulgaria of the debt it owed Russia. On the same day, Bulgaria expelled two of its diplomatic subordinates for espionage and announced the arrest of a senior military officer on charges of spying for Russia.
In the weeks since, Bulgaria, a country that Moscow had long regarded as its most ardent and reliable friend in Europe, along with fellow European Union members imposed increasingly tough economic sanctions on Russia, offered to sell broken military helicopters and tanks for Ukraine. repair it, and expelled even more Russian diplomats.
“Traditionally, Russia has always been a big influence here, but we were a big surprise to them,” Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said in an interview in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, last week. “They don’t understand what happened,” he added.
The rapid deterioration of relations with Bulgaria, a poor but symbolically important country due to its historically close ties to Russia, underscores how far off-script the invasion of Ukraine on the orders of President Vladimir V. Putin has deviated, and not just on the battlefield. .
Russia, furious at what it sees as its wayward friend’s audacity, abruptly stopped supplying Bulgaria with natural gas from Gazprom last month, leaving its former Balkan ally the first country along with Poland to be targeted by the energy weapon of Russia. Moscow.
At the same time, Mr Petkov said Moscow launched cyber-attacks, attacked the Bulgarian state energy company’s server and crippled postal pension payments. “We are currently under heavy attack,” he said, describing this as an apparent “attempt to derail our government” by fomenting domestic unrest.
“They are trying to set an example for us,” said Mr Petkov, who described Russian energy pressures on his country as aimed at creating a situation where “energy prices will go through the roof and our government will fall.”
The survival of Mr Petkov’s already fragile coalition government, formed after inconclusive elections in November, depends largely on its ability to bring together alternative energy sources with the help of the European Union, which Bulgaria joined in 2007. became, and the United States. Mr Petkov visited Washington this week, where Vice President Kamala Harris promised the US “solidarity in light of Russia’s latest attempt to use energy as a weapon”.
Assen Vassilev, Bulgaria’s Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, emphasized that Bulgaria was already well on track to secure replacement gas supplies through pipelines from Azerbaijan and through sea deliveries of liquefied natural gas to terminals in neighboring Greece for transport north to Bulgaria. .
“For us, Gazprom is clearly a thing of the past,” Mr Vassilev said in an interview. Moscow, he added, had overplayed its hand in pushing normally feuding Balkan countries into swift concerted action to avoid the danger of Russia suddenly cutting supplies.
“This,” he said, “gives me a lot of hope that the gas weapon will not only be a paper tiger, but also backfire.”
It is clear from Russia’s break with Bulgaria that faltering progress on the battlefield in Ukraine was accompanied by often self-inflicted setbacks on the diplomatic front.
Moscow has sidelined China and garnered support in Africa and parts of Latin America, but elsewhere it has shown a remarkable ability to lose friends and alienate people.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, for example, recently outraged many in Israel, a country that had largely been on the fence about the war in Ukraine, by claiming that Jews were “the biggest anti-Semites” and that Hitler Jewish descent. President Putin later apologized to Israel for the comments.
Russia’s ambassador to Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova, scored an own goal by describing Bulgaria as America’s ‘bed room’, an insult that her embassy later blamed for a flawed translation.
Mr Petkov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, said he had summoned the ambassador to protest her comment, telling her that “there are many good dictionaries around”, and was given an apology.
He added that he was still unhappy that the Moscow envoy “acted not like a diplomat, but like a propaganda machine”.
Bulgaria recalled its ambassador from Moscow in March in response to what it described as “undiplomatic, sharp and rude” statements by Ms Mitrofanova. It has allowed the Russian ambassador to stay in Sofia, but soon more of its diplomats will be sent home.
“Now is the time to take a strong stand against Russian spies and agents,” said Mr. petkov. “Now it’s time to clean up.”
Poland, though never a friend of Moscow like Bulgaria, is also surprised by Russia’s disregard for public sentiment. The Russian embassy in Warsaw, a city awash with Ukrainian flags and insulting billboards aimed at Mr Putin, last week called on residents of the Polish capital to join Russian diplomats at “Victory Day” events on May 9 to mark the to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a Russian holiday that Mr Putin has turned into a festival of nationalist bombast.
On Saturday, following a public outcry over what many in Poland saw as a crude attempt to hijack memories of World War II, the embassy canceled its plans for joint public events with Poland. In a statement, the embassy also expressed regret at Poland’s ingratitude to Moscow for its role in defeating the Nazis, “making the Polish state exist today!” When the Russian ambassador appeared at the Soviet war memorial in Warsaw on Monday, a Ukrainian activist doused him with a red liquid.
The Moscow embassy in Sofia made an equally unsuccessful attempt to co-opt Russia’s past military glory in the service of its brutal attack on Ukraine. Ms Mitrofanova, the ambassador, infuriated even formerly pro-Russian Bulgarians with the claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was nothing more than the Tsarist-era military intervention against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, which helped Bulgaria become an independent nation. .
“There were times when Russia liberated Bulgaria, now is the time for Russia to liberate Donetsk and Lugansk,” the ambassador said, referring to two eastern regions of Ukraine, in a speech in March.
That comparison, said Daniela Koleva, a historian at the University of Sofia, “caused a wave of outrage” by presenting a one-sided view of history that, like Mr Putin’s disdain for Ukraine’s history and raison d’être, complicated past events in the service of clumsy propaganda.
Ms Koleva said that many Bulgarians recognized that their country had benefited from Russian aid in the 19th century and still felt some gratitude. But, she added, the country also has bitter, more recent memories of Russian attacks on the Black Sea coast during World War I and of the Soviet occupation after World War II.
“There is a lot of mythology about Russia,” she said, adding that more than four decades of Soviet-imposed communist rule “had systematically erased anything that could cast a shadow on Russia or the Soviet Union.”
Opinion polls show that sympathy for Russia is still stronger in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe. But according to a survey commissioned by Bulgarian state television in March, more than 60 percent are in favor of tougher sanctions against Moscow, while Putin’s approval rating has more than halved to about 25 percent since he invaded Ukraine.
“This war is a big nail in the coffin of our enchantment with Russia,” said Ruslan Stefanov, program director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, a research organization in Sofia. “They have been very successful in evicting people from Russia completely,”
When the government tabled a resolution in parliament last week authorizing “military technical assistance” to Ukraine, even the Socialist Party, which has long been a staunch supporter of Russia, voted in favour. The only party to vote against was Revival, a nationalist group that regularly protests in support of the Russian invasion.
Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of Revival, insisted in an interview that most Bulgarians supported Russia but had been ignored by a government he accused of turning the country into a “fully dependent colony of the United States.”
Stopping gas supplies to Bulgaria, he acknowledged, “is not an act of kindness” by Russia, but an act he says he understood because “we started this war with Russia” by imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats from the country. .
Until Gazprom abruptly shut down Bulgaria in late April, the country relied on Russia for about 90 percent of the natural gas it consumed.
But according to Prime Minister Mr Petkov, Russia has seriously miscalculated in making Bulgaria a test of its ability to inflict economic damage and change government policies in support of Ukraine.
“If the most Russia-dependent country with the lowest GDP per capita in the EU can afford to stand up to Putin, everyone should be able to stand up to Putin,” he said. he.