Bulgaria Expels 2 Russian Diplomats over Military Espionage
EU and NATO member Bulgaria has kicked out two Russian diplomats over information that they were conducting military espionage targeting modernization programs of the Bulgarian armed forces as well as Bulgarian military-industrial producers.
Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry declared two Russian diplomats “persona non grata” on Wednesday, September 23, a move later confirmed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, with details about the alleged spies emerging on Thursday.
The two expelled men are Sergey Nikolashin and Vadim Bykov, both of them employees of the Commercial Representation of the Russian Embassy in Sofia. According to the Trud daily, which cites unnamed government sources, both of them are career intelligence officers from Russia’s military intelligence service GRU.
According to the report, back in 2018, Nikolashin tried to recruit a senior Bulgarian military officer as a collaborator. The officer reported the attempt to the State National Security Agency (DANS), which began following Nikolashin and instructed the Bulgarian officer to continue meeting with him.
Shortly after that, another Bulgarian military officer was detected at meetings with the Russian operative, leading the former to be stripped of his access to classified information of the Bulgarian government.
Nikolashin was also an employee of Russian arms company Rostec, and as such, he also had formal contacts with officers of the Bulgarian military as well as some of the Bulgarian military-industrial companies.
According to the report, he would promise Moscow’s support to each of the Bulgarian plants separately, leading them to expose information about their local competitors.
Bulgaria’s counter-intelligence service DANS is certain that Nikolashin is an officer of the Russian military intelligence GRU, the report notes citing a DANS source.
So is the second Russian diplomat expelled from Bulgaria on Wednesday, Vadim Bykov, who arrived in Sofia in 2019. Nikolashin passed on to him all information about the Bulgarian military and military-industrial complex that he had collected.
However, Bykov is reported to have dealt with collecting data for the recent deal between Bulgaria and US producer Lockheed Martin for the purchase of 8 US F-16, Block 70, fighter jets, worth over USD 1 billion.
The deal in question is the first purchase of new planes for the Bulgarian Air Force after the fall of communism in 1989 and is part of a major modernization effort as the country’s air force is left only with Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su-25 fighter jets.
“I warned Putin several years ago that there are things which are inadmissible on Bulgaria’s territory, and that whoever is trying to spy, will be sent off, according to the respective rules,” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov commented on Thursday.
Bulgaria’s Specialized Prosecutor’s Office also confirmed that it had started a pre-trial procedure based on the information from the National Security Agency that “two foreign persons had been collecting information which is state secret in order to reveal it to a foreign state or organization.”
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the espionage activity in question began in 2016.
“It has been established that… two citizens of the Russian Federation have been carrying out intelligence activities in which they have been seeking information for the modernization plans of the Bulgarian military… Their aim was to transfer the gathered information, which is state secret, to the Russian military intelligence in Moscow… In certain cases, they would offer and provide to the [targeted] Bulgarian citizens financial benefits,” the Bulgarian prosecution said.
Russia’s Foreign Minister has reacted by expressing “regret” over Sofia’s decision to declare two of its commerce officials in Bulgaria “persona non grata” based on “made-up charges”.
“We see this as a deliberate attempt to hurt the constructive Russian – Bulgarian cooperation,” it said, promising a response at a later stage.
Bulgaria’s Borisov government has been trying to balance between Russia and the West, with Borisov oftentimes touting his alleged good understanding with Putin. Bulgaria remained one of the few NATO and EU member states which did not expel Russian diplomats over the poisoning of the Skripal family with the Novichok nerve agent, allegedly by GRU officers in the UK last year.