Lieutenant General Dennis Luyt, Chief of the Air Force, is aware of this. On the platform of the military base Graf Ignatievo in Bulgaria, against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, he begins his speech with a reference to Ukraine. The Russian invasion is forcing NATO partners to guard security at NATO’s eastern borders, Luyt said. “We must remember that while we are now here in freedom, the people of Ukraine are suffering from gross Russian aggression. We should think about them today. “
Luyt spoke on Thursday at the air base north of the city of Plovdiv at the start of a Dutch operation. Until the end of May, four F-35 fighter jets together with Bulgarian MiG-29s will monitor Bulgarian airspace. The F-35, formerly known as the JSF, has only just been ordered by the Air Force. The mission, involving 100 Dutch soldiers, is a step forward in permanently NATO-strengthening the eastern flank: from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. The reason is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ‘East flank’ is now high on the agenda of every NATO meeting. Following the example of the Baltic countries and Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria battle groups posted. In early June, at a NATO summit in Madrid, there will be permanent reinforcements at Europe’s eastern border.
also read this commentary on NATO and Eastern Europe
However, the speaker who preceded Luyt did not hear anything about this. In the speech of Admiral Emil Eftimov, Commander of the Bulgarian Armed Forces, “Ukraine” and “Russia” did not appear. Eftimov highlighted Bulgaria’s cooperation with NATO partners on airspace surveillance (air police) since 2014 and omitted geopolitical current affairs. Also in a conversation with NRC he puts it cautiously: “The mission is well timed, especially because of Ukraine.”
The difference between the two speeches is significant. While both countries emphasize how harmonious the co – operation is with regard to the Dutch mission, the views on the war are different. The Netherlands is convinced of Russia’s debt and the need to support Ukraine. In Bulgaria, which is traditionally closely linked to the Soviet Union, this is much less clear. Attitudes towards Russia are a politically sensitive issue.
Monument to the Soviet Army
In the capital Sofia, a search is being made for a Ukrainian flag or other yellow-blue expression. There are hardly any visible signs of solidarity with the besieged country, as in other European cities. An Alpha Research poll taken four days after the invasion shows that Putin’s popularity has halved compared to last year, but 32 percent of the population still thinks positively about the Russian president.
In a park in the middle stands the 45-meter-high monument to the Soviet Union Army, built in 1954 in honor of Soviet support for the expulsion of Nazi Germany from Bulgaria. Three Stalinist-style figures tower on the pedestal: a Soviet soldier surrounded by a worker and a peasant woman with a child. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, prayers to remove the monument have so far been in vain. Sofia’s mayor will now make it work. Other Soviet statues are housed in a somewhat hidden sculpture garden museum – where the shop sells mugs with Stalin on them.
Both pro- and anti-Russian activists use the Soviet monument as a place to gather. There was no fear of clashes between the two groups after the invasion. Apart from anti-Russian graffiti on the shelf – the famous curse on the now sunken warship – there are no signs of protest. Young people on BMX bikes perform stunts at the reliefs painted yellow and blue in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.
Corruption and nepotism
Its communist heritage is reminiscent of the days when Bulgaria was a loyal satellite state in the Soviet Union with a leader who wanted his country to become the ’16. Soviet Republic ‘. The 30 years that followed show “a very slow development towards democracy and prosperity”, as a journalist from the independent weekly said Capital it formulates. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU.
Since the end of 2021, there has been hope for improvement, thanks to a new government that wants to break with the political tradition of corruption and nepotism. Pro-European Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, an entrepreneur with a past in Canada and a Harvard education, will have to implement radical political and economic reforms.
However, Petkov’s four-party coalition is vulnerable, especially when it comes to relations with Russia. The Socialist Party has announced that it will leave the government if Bulgaria donates arms to Ukraine. Defense Minister, non-partisan Stefan Yanev, was forced to resign in early March after complaining to media outlets writing about “war” rather than the Kremlin’s euphemism “special military operation”. He had previously turned against several NATO soldiers in Bulgaria and Romania. Petkov immediately appointed former NATO ambassador Dragomir Zakov as the new defense minister.
In late March, the Russian ambassador to Sofia set fire to the fire by saying in an interview on Russian television that the majority of Bulgarians would not support Petkov’s policies. According to her, most Bulgarians want their country to remain neutral. Petkov condemned her comments and recalled the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow for consultations.
Marines’ tent camp
It is no problem for Lieutenant General Luyt that Bulgaria has a complex relationship with Russia. “I do not want to get around it. What is happening in Ukraine is terrible, and it is because of Russian aggression. That the Bulgarians can see it differently, or put it differently, has no consequences for our efforts. We are professionals . ”
also read this analysis on NATO and Ukraine
Luyt praises the reception in Graf Ignatievo. “We’re here to help, but they’re getting in the way.” A tour of the base shows that the mission involves more than just the four aircraft from 322 Squadron from Leeuwarden – two for the joint flights, two as a reserve. Tents have been built for the F-35s, dozens of containers and vehicles have come over. In addition to six pilots, there are people for maintenance, logistics and the fire service.
The Marine Corps takes care of security with 35 men. In a corner of the base, they pitch their tents, complete with PlayStation, fitness equipment and loud music. They had to hand over their private phones, he says troop commander Thomas, to prevent personal leakage and extortion. Someone has already received an offer to share F-35 information for a fee.
The deployment of the new fighter jet in Bulgaria is exciting, says everyone involved, because the air force is still in the process of switching from F-16 to F-35. After years of initial stages of policy making and education, it is now real. The Netherlands bought 46 F-35s for almost 6 billion euros, of which 18 have now been delivered. The device is characterized by its ability to be almost invisible (stealth) and by collecting a lot of information through sensors.
The war in Ukraine has accelerated the deployment, even in front of Bulgaria. Luyt: “Within NATO, we had already discussed what we could contribute. We were in the air a few hours after the invasion started.” Until mid-March, four F-16s and four F-35s have been on surveillance over Poland with day flights from Volkel and Leeuwarden.
Fighter pilot Pascal also flew there, but due to the location, Bulgaria feels like the first real commitment for him. The purpose of the flights is to warn: As soon as the command center in Sofia detects an unknown aircraft approaching Bulgarian airspace, the F-35s are launched. Pascal: „Not with the knife between the teeth. Our goal is to de-escalate. Show that we are there, that we see him. Then it runs away. ”
The Dutch contribution to strengthening the eastern flank is not limited to Bulgaria. On Thursday, a unit of 150 soldiers with Patriot Air Defense traveled to Slovakia for six months. The number of military personnel in Lithuania is increasing. Is it not to send people and equipment out at the expense of security in the Netherlands? Luyt: “NATO is our security guarantee. The Dutch border is irrelevant to me. Our real border is here, in Eastern Europe.”
A version of this article was also published in NRC Handelsblad on April 16, 2022