Bulgarian Factories and Secret Special Forces: How the West Hunted for Soviet Weapons

KOSTENETS, Bulgaria – The job is simple, dangerous and will be open to applicants soon: filling a Soviet-style 122mm shell with explosives will turn it into a deadly projectile.

For residents of Kostenets, a dying mountain town in western Bulgaria, this is a welcome opportunity despite the danger of death. It means more jobs at the Terem ammunition factory on the outskirts of town.

The plant ceased production of 122mm artillery shells in 1988 at the end of the Cold War. But the assembly lines will be back up and running soon. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Soviet-era weapons and ammunition into vital supplies as Western nations seek to supply Ukraine with the weapons needed to thwart Moscow’s attack.

And so in January, 35 years after the last 122mm shells left the Terem plant, the company stopped production.

Small towns in Bulgaria, with large pro-Russian populations, are unlikely to be the mainstay of Ukraine’s military effort. But a year after the war, despite an array of sophisticated Western weapons, the Ukrainian army still relied heavily on standard Soviet ammunition firearms. The United States and its NATO allies do not manufacture those munitions, and some countries outside of Russia produce most of them within the orbit of the former Soviet Union.

That leaves Western countries scrambling to find alternative sources, pouring millions of dollars into alternatives to keep deals quiet and avoid political consequences and Russian retaliation. . And that brings them to some of the more remote areas of Eastern Europe, like Kostenets, and the small town of Sopot, about 50 miles northeast, where another state arms factory is located.

Representatives from the US embassy quietly attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony last month for the new production line in Kostenets, takes place outside the factory, a rundown building in a corner of town. With the new jobs added, the factory could become one of Kostenets’ biggest employers.

“This is a big problem for the town,” said Deputy Mayor Margarita Mincheva.

Sopot too, its fortunes have improved since the invasion. This is the headquarters of VMZ, an arms company that employs the majority of the local workforce. The mayor of the town said that on a recent Friday, a rumbling explosion rattled the windows – they could have been a test of newly built ammunition.

Over the years, the VMZ has been the main source of income for Sopot residents, added mayor Deyan Doinov. “There’s probably not a single family in town whose members don’t work or don’t work at the factory,” he said. “We have almost no unemployment — only people who don’t want to work are unemployed.”

Bulgaria has close historical ties to Moscow, even though the country has been part of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the early 2000s. Last summer, revelations about the Bulgaria’s supply of weapons to Ukraine, despite strong opposition to arming Kiev, has caused a wave of outrage in the country’s politics.

Last year, Bulgaria’s expected arms exports skyrocketed, exceeding $3 billion, about five times the sales abroad in 2019, according to government estimates from data collected in October.

But it is not the only country that has quietly contributed to Ukraine’s war effort. Luxembourg is supplying Ukraine with weapons of Czech origin. Brokers with cash from the United States are scouring factories in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Romania for shells. And Britain has set up a covert task force to arm Ukraine, according to a document obtained by The New York Times and officials familiar with the task force’s work.

The importance of such sources is growing as Ukraine burns ammunition at an unsustainable rate – which Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, said last week is “many times higher than the rate of production” our present”.

“This puts our defense industries under strain,” he added.

In recent months, Ukraine has fired between 2,000 and 4,000 shells a day, but wants to fire more so it can retake territory held by Russia. At one point last summer, Russia fired up to 50,000 rounds a day. But that number has dropped since then, and Russia is also suffering from an ammunition shortage.

The United States is increasing production of its own shells sixfold to fill the gap. But it mainly produced ammunition for the standard NATO howitzers it sent to Ukraine.

When the invasion began last year, Ukraine and its allies began buying Soviet-style weapons wherever they could find them. Ukrainian state-owned companies asked brokers in the US and other places for tanks, helicopters, planes and mortars, according to documents obtained by The Times.

Potential supplier emerged from the downturn of the global arms trade to meet demand. Last June, a Czech arms company offered ammunition and dozens of Soviet-style ground attack planes built between 1984 and 1990 for about $185 million, the documents show.

Both the UK and the US sponsor agreements to use third-party countries and brokers in cases where the producing countries do not want to be publicly identified as supplying arms to Ukraine, people familiar with the matter said. with this effort said.

The secret task force set up by the British Ministry of Defense focused on buying Soviet-style ammunition, people familiar with the effort said, a task that became more difficult as the war progressed and experts said. Large supply is out of stock.

Last June, Britain made a deal with Pakistan to buy 40,000 shells and missiles manufactured by the government-owned Pakistan Arms Factory. Under the terms of the deal, Britain would pay a Romanian broker to buy Pakistani weapons, the documents show. The official document of the transaction said the weapons would be moved from Pakistan to the UK, without mentioning Ukraine, a document obtained by The Times showed.

Marius Rosu, export director of Romanian brokerage Romtehnica, said the deal fell apart after the Pakistani supplier was unable to deliver ammunition.

Such problems are common in transactions that rely on remote brokers and manufacturers. Mr. Rosu said his company does not send weapons to Ukraine. He said customers elsewhere could buy weapons from Romtehnica and then send them to Ukraine.

“It’s not our problem,” he said.

Officials from the government ministry that oversees Pakistani arms did not respond to questions about the proposed deal.

Bureaucratic loopholes and compromise agreements give Bulgarian officials political cover while advancing Ukraine’s war effort – although the cover is very thin.

“Given that the war in Ukraine is still raging, where do we think the shells will be exported?” Lyuba, a 41-year-old grocer in Kostenets, who declined to give her last name. “It’s not rocket science to figure out that its production is going to Ukraine.”

The Bulgarian arms industry has played a special role since the days of the decline of the Soviet Union. It supplied weapons to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war and to Libya, among other customersand after the fall of the Soviet Union, it supplied the rebels in Angola and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

Even after Bulgaria joined the European Union and NATO, the country’s arms industry continued to produce Soviet caliber ammunition. That created opportunity after the United States sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. American allies in those countries used Soviet-era weapons, and the United States purchased ammunition from Bulgaria to supply them.

After the civil war in Syria began in 2011, Bulgari’s bombs appear there – likely as part of an armed campaign for groups against the Syrian regime.

That puts Bulgaria at odds with Russia, which backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Russian assassin poisoned a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, and since then a series of unexplained explosions have rocked Bulgarian arms companies.

Lyuba, the salesman, said the presence of the Terem arms factory, which was rocked by a sudden explosion in 2014, made Kostenets a target for Russia.

“We are ordinary people; we’ll probably never know exactly what they’re doing there,” she said.

A coincidentally well-timed election made it easy for Bulgaria to become a major supplier to Ukraine. In the fall of 2021, as Russia prepared for invasion, a new party came to power and Kiril Petkov, the Harvard-educated prime minister, decided it was time for Bulgaria to turn its backs on Russia. and headed west.

“We want to be on the right side of history,” he said in an interview this month.

Mr. Petkov’s ruling coalition consists of a party with a history of being friendly with Russia, which does not want to send weapons to Ukraine, so they have come up with an alternative that causes Bulgaria to officially deny that it is supplying weapons. arms for Ukraine: The government will approve exports to another European Union. countries, including Poland. At that time, the weapons could reach Ukraine without the participation of Bulgaria.

Sales increased and factories increased output. Petkov said that Bulgarian ammunition soon accounted for a third of Ukraine’s supply.

Mr. Petkov’s government collapsed a few months later, when another party left his coalition. But then there was enough impetus for exports to continue, even as other politicians in Bulgaria criticized the decision to help fight Russia.

Crossing the snow-capped mountains of Sopot, residents who work there say VMZ has increased production since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the plant now operates Monday through Saturday.

“The VMZ has been and is an integral part of town life,” said a 63-year-old employee who has worked there for more than four decades and declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. After all this time, he said, his body was still stressed on days when the company tested explosives.

And like the VMZ, whether the people of Sopot admit it or not, the war in Ukraine has become a part of their daily lives.

“It would sound cynical if I told you I wanted peace,” he said solemnly. “But at the same time I work at a weapons factory.”


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