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Russian hitmen and saboteurs target Bulgaria’s arms industry, magnate says

A Bulgarian arms magnate who survived two Russian assassination attempts has raised the alarm about a sabotage campaign that he says Moscow has been waging for years as it tries to disrupt crucial weapons supplies to Ukraine.

Emilian Gebrev, whose company, Emco, produces much of the Bulgarian output of Soviet-standard bullets and tank shells shipped to Kyiv, told the Financial Times that Russian saboteurs have actively targeted his factories and depots — including after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

“The Russian threats [mean] a new set of measures should be undertaken at a national level, as well as the level of the alliance,” he wrote in emailed answers to questions. He was referring to Nato, of which Bulgaria has been a member since 2004.

The arms manufacturer said Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives who tried to kill him twice in 2015 “obviously acted on orders from a very high level in Moscow”, but said it remained unclear why Russia “would use subversive methods on defence-related sites and [against] individual lives on Nato and EU soil”.

No Russian operatives were captured or prosecuted in connection with his poisonings and the explosions at his company’s sites, a failure that Gebrev blamed on Moscow’s ongoing influence over Bulgaria’s government.

Russian meddling, which also extends to political parties and the media, threatens Bulgaria’s growing ambition to increase production of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition used by Ukraine and clients around the developing world, according to analysts and government officials.

The Balkan nation of 7mn — one of Moscow’s closest allies during the cold war — has remained a prime area of operations for Russian agents, according to Gebrev and other industry insiders. They say infiltration is particularly acute in the country’s prosecutorial and security services.

Since the cold war, “Bulgaria [has been] too exposed and relaxed, offering a convenient environment for the GRU agents to operate freely,” Gebrev said.

Gebrev was poisoned in 2015 with an organophosphate nerve agent similar to novichok — a substance used three years later in the assassination attempt against former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal on British soil.

In Gebrev’s case, the nerve agent was smeared on his car’s door handle in a Sofia car park. He fell into a coma for several weeks, but recovered. A few months later at his summer home, he started displaying similar poisoning symptoms and was rushed to hospital and treated.

Bulgarian prosecutors investigated three GRU agents suspected of having handled the nerve agent and charged them with “attempted murder”. But in 2020, the proceedings were suspended, with authorities citing stalled progress and a lack of international legal assistance.

Experts have pointed out that Emco is one of just a few companies making Soviet-standard 125mm tank shells outside Russia, which Ukrainian forces still use for their old fleet of tanks. Such specific capabilities may be among the reasons why the Bulgarian manufacturer is the target of sabotage attempts.

Artillery shells at the Emco stand: the Emco chief claims that Russian saboteurs have actively targeted his factories and depots
Artillery shells at the Emco stand: the Emco chief claims that Russian saboteurs have actively targeted his factories and depots © Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

“Russians are very interested in our facilities and the people manning them,” said a Bulgarian official who requested anonymity. “The question is how Bulgarian authorities can protect the industry and individuals, owners of the industry. Botched investigations, destroyed evidence — this is a problem. Who investigates the prosecutors?”

Emco was first targeted in 2011, when an explosion hit one of its depots in central Bulgaria. Gebrev said that was the first act of sabotage against his factories — a claim that was not confirmed by an official investigation. Other blasts happened over the years, including an explosion in 2022 and a large fire this year at the Emco facility in Karnobat in eastern Bulgaria.

Similar incidents had occurred also at other weapons manufacturers, without authorities investigating the circumstances, he said.

“There has been no result whatsoever in any of more than a dozen cases, involving Russian terrorist acts and spy networking in Bulgaria,” Gebrev said. “All the investigations have been either stopped or stalled and none has been brought to court.”

Corruption among Bulgarian prosecutors and the lack of investigations into their criminal behaviour have featured prominently in reports by the European Commission. Prosecutorial impunity and Russia’s continued influence are also among the reasons cited by several EU capitals for blocking Bulgaria’s accession to the border-free Schengen area.

A Ukrainian serviceman checks a machine gun of a tank
A Ukrainian serviceman checks a machine gun of a tank: officials estimate that as much as 40 per cent of the bullets and shells used by Ukraine in its war against Russia are manufactured in Bulgaria © STR/Reuters

Under a recently elected pro-western government in Sofia that has pledged to curb Russian influence, the chief prosecutor was forced out in June and a justice reform has made it harder for corruption and organised crime cases to be dropped. Gebrev said this was a start but that a lot remained to be done.

“The prosecution and the previous leadership of the National Security Service [DANS] were involved in a systematic and massive cover-up of . . . the sabotage acts by Russian operatives, including the explosions in our storage sites and the novichok poisoning attempt,” he said.

DANS said it had “undertaken a number of measures” to limit Russian influence recently and uncovered “an unprecedented number of cases . . . of Russian malign espionage activity”.

Veselin Ivanov, a spokesman for the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office said the allegations of Russian infiltration were “categorically not true” and that the new leadership was committed to reforming his institution. He said prosecutors had documented the GRU agents’ “criminal activity” and held them criminally liable. But since Russia does not extradite its citizens, there was “no way of bringing [them] to justice”.

As for the explosions, Ivanov said his office had registered four incidents which destroyed products destined for export to Georgia and Ukraine. Sofia “has charged six persons, who are known to be officers of the GRU”, he said.

The new government is counting on the country’s arms industry to spur economic growth in the EU’s poorest member. Bulgarian exports jumped by more than €1bn in 2022 compared with the previous year — and a “good portion of that is due to ammunition production”, defence minister Todor Tagarev told the FT.

Bulgarian officials estimate that as much as 40 per cent of the bullets and shells used by Ukraine in its war against Russia are manufactured in Bulgaria.

In addition to direct shipments to Kyiv, “a lot goes to countries that have sent their stocks to Ukraine . . . and we backfill for allies”, Tagarev said. “Directly and indirectly, well over half of our output goes to Ukraine,” he added.

Some 5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product stems from arms sales, according to government officials. Most of the business is conducted by private companies such as Emco and Arsenal, which are now seeking to expand production to Nato-standard equipment.

“The western alliance is interested in producing cheaper and faster, not only for Ukraine . . . Bulgarian producers are trying to switch to western standards,” said Tihomir Bezlov, a military analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. But licensing issues and unease among western companies about outsourcing production to a former Russian ally meant this was a “slow process”, he said.

Former defence minister Velizar Shalamanov said Russian infiltration continued to hamper Bulgaria’s ambitions.

“There are risks [for] Bulgaria getting western knowhow,” he said. “We must reform the secret services. [Nato allies] won’t trust us if we can’t protect the knowhow.”

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