The choice of the F-16 is neither foregone, nor irreversible

The choice of the F-16 is neither foregone, nor irreversible


An indirect benefit of a possible F-16 deal for the Bulgarian Air Force is that the Kremlin’s visible agents of influence will emerge on the surface – individuals like Rumen Petkov, Parvanov, Mareshki and Siderov. Borisov’s GERB will have to, at least temporarily, subdue their pro-Russian hedge. One of the largest problems of Bulgarian democracy has been that membership in the EU and NATO did not succeed debate over, or a search for, common ground on the costs and benefits and the risks and the challenges that the budget and the people will face. To a large extent, geopolitical arguments supersede an elaborate and discrete process that often ends in troubled waters. The rare instances when trying to engage in winning hearts and minds by the reborn nomenclature, motivated by expediency, purpose and convenience, rather than duty to inform, ended up in failure. Thus, the Eurasian or pro-Putin line in Bulgarian politics persisted within its vague modalities, seemingly navigating the curves of the search for the new identity of Bulgarian society.


There is little doubt that the drawbacks in the reverse migration from the Soviet, and more recently from the inherited Russian-centric system, to Eurocentrism, consoled and provided grounds for revanchist forces, building on myths of unspecified fictional predestination of Bulgaria’s relationship in order to challenge membership in the EU and NATO. The longer the prejudice is in circulation, the greater the lack of self-esteem and self-confidence in contemporary Bulgarians. Whatever you are told about the penetration and power of the Kremlin’s influence in Bulgaria, it is grossly overstated, resting not so much on absolute indicators, but on superficial and hyperbolized notions of milestones in Bulgaria’s history. This old narrative drags on without a proper reality check. Putin may be sympathetic to many Bulgarians, but just because of his Russian track record and exploits, my compatriots will not give up free travel, education, or alternate business with the EU or turn away NATO’s defense shield. Faced with a dichotomy, Bulgarians pick pragmatism and rationality over emotions.


That is why it is a timely opportunity to measure the actual influence of the Kremlin, its capacity to reverse the F-16 deal and finally debunk the myths of the perceived omnipotence of the Russian fifth column. We will also be able to understand the who’s who and who’s what within the cohort of Kremlin agents of influence, including their ability to capture and shape our relations with the EU and NATO.


Brinkmanship, which is perceived as Borisov’s forté, is now in full swing, including both actions to free space for maneuvers and proactive policies, as well as a series of moves appealing to Moscow – from the gas hub and the transit of Russian gas through the Belene NPP to the hundreds of millions of dollars, approved by the government, bypassing parliament, to fund repair of antiquated Soviet aircrafts. In this case, however, Borisov starts from an underdog – inferior – position, assuming that challenging the Kremlin in the open on Bulgarian soil will always end up in defeat and personal loss. Finally, in the act of balancing between its membership in western alliances and Russia, Bulgaria loses on both fronts, in Washington and Brussels on one side, and in Moscow, on the other. Putin treats weak leaders with disrespect.


This balancing on the edge is a big drawback as the ultimate outcome is not balancing and optimizing between different benefits, but a route to loss synergies and shrinking opportunities.


This time, the PM tries to trade in the right to close the F-16 deal, with par benefits to Moscow – natural gas, NPP, fighter jet repairs. The Kremlin, however, has recently nurtured few illusions and understands that the purchase of a US aircraft will be a game changer, setting Bulgaria out of Russia’s reach. It is not difficult to predict that Moscow will consider this deal as a make or break line, a Rubicon for Borissov’s government and will put up a “tough” bout, opting to attempt to derail the process of contracting the new fighter jet at any and every possible junction.


There will be plenty of time for the opponents of the deal to call in the troops, as we are at a fairly early stage and negotiations are ahead. That does not mean that rest of the candidates would not be involved at a later stage. This is a key element in Borisov’s game plan – keeping the U.S. involved in the arms deal while negotiating parallel deals with the Russians, which would prolong the monopoly of Gazprom in natural gas and other projects within the energy grand slam package.


The MRF and Ahmed Dogan are unlikely to oppose the F-16 deal. I believe they have already pledged support.


The Socialists and their leader Kornelia Ninova will hardly miss a new opportunity to undermine GERB and the government, gaining an upper hand in the race for the Kremlin’s benevolence. I’m not convinced that after the F-16 deal the ‘patriots’ will stay together, as Siderov cannot afford to lose face in some quarters in Moscow.


Certainly, the Kremlin will try to build on its last success, the Reshetnikov coalition, and mobilize around Radev all callable resources in order to block the deal, using mostly pro-EU and anti-US arguments. The Russian military intelligence, GRU, is most likely to coordinate the covert and hybrid operation, coordinating the efforts with the president’s office.


All throughout the transition period, Moscow has persistently made it clear that the red line for Bulgaria’s elite is US arms, as in most cases that correlate with the entry of integrated services, enhancing defense capacity as an integral part of NATO’s Command, Control and Communication assets in the Black sea and the region. With the old MIGs and SUs, the Bulgarian Air Force was good for a history museum, basically stuck within the national border, henceforth more of a liability, and certainly a liability in the NATO-Russia military balance.


When President Radev’s candidacy was announced, he confronted me in public, in one of the alleys of the Doctor’s Garden in downtown Sofia, angry that I was questioning his loyalty to NATO and to Atlanticism. Today no one bears illusions on that, as he has openly challenged the F-16 choice and has instead heavily lobbied on behalf of the Gripen fighter. Although Mr. Radev holds the highest post in the state, he does not command significant authority and resources on his own. Instead he has to again rely on the Socialists and the strange blend of different Moscow acolytes.


The pro-EU wing in the Bulgarian Socialist Party is too weak to challenge the pro-Kremlin line of Ninova and Radev. Under a more dramatic scenario, developments could include the BSP leaving Parliament in protest or other street demonstrations, and violence should not be ruled out.


The main talking points against the F-16 deal have already been tested – the price is high; the costs are socially unacceptable; accusations of lobbying; highlighting the merits of competitors; and finally the ultimate Russian scare tactics of fake stories – these planes are meant to engage Bulgaria in war with Russia – an old adage in the arsenal of Soviet-Russian foreign policy. Procedural flaws will also be widely used, implying that the tender metrics allowed for a clear choice on merits and criteria, instead of political and geostrategic considerations.


The above set of talking points is just a small “visible” part of the forthcoming anti-Americanism that the pro-Russian circles will unleash with many known faces taking up center stage in the hysteria – recalling the protests against shale gas by Chevron, against the extraction of any oil and gas in General Toshevo, and involving subversive assets in paramilitary, nationalistic, Russophile organizations, and even ultras, radicals, anarchists and criminal elements. One should not be surprised if they are allowed to borrow from recent EU protest practices and put on yellow vests, chanting social justice slogans and calling for the cancellation of the deal, among other things. The anti-corruption theme is certain to loom high.


Since Bulgaria’s secret services, meant to defend the country against foreign and domestic threats to national security, are idling and are perceived as impotent, including the General Prosecutor’s office, one should expect more attacks on the deal and a prolonged negotiation process with an open end. The hybrid warfare engine will be in full throttle – mass cyber attacks, anti-American campaigning on social networks and in media controlled by them, including a surge in troll activity.


We should anticipate targeted anti-US public action in Black Sea coastal towns, with large concentrations of Russian citizens who hold Bulgarian passports or permanent residence permits.


On the other hand, the GERB government has won, as long as it is being perceived as under attack from the Kremlin and its associates, a short time off from critique at home, and will certainly enjoy the support from all pro-European and Atlantic circles in our country.


The F-16 deal will not serve as an indulgence for the ruling coalition for all its governance sins, but the stakes and the long-term consequences involved are far too high for the democrats to ignore and override them.


Borisov is unlikely to get a free pass for a long period, though, as he has lost the trust of the majority of the Bulgarian people. Repetitive government failures have shot up his disapproval ratings above 65 percent, beefing up protest energy to an all-time high. Accumulated anger is so intense, and the low credit ratings of those that support the deal in the governing coalition could bury the deal for US fighter jets at any time, aligning unrelated or even conflicting interest groups against the ruling coalition. It is poignant that President Radev chose to attack, not the prime minister, but the leader of the parliamentary group of GERB, Tzvetan Tzvetanov as the key driver behind the decision to pick F-16s, which might invite attempts to discredit the deal via discrediting its main proponents, including by publishing kompromats. This could redirect debate from real national security grounds to political bickering and personal attacks. On top of that, the GERB party and Borisov himself are not known to have won any significant public debate involving substantive NATO and US interests. It is suffice to trace back his record on the treatment of Chevron – the government invited the company via an open and competitive tender, then deliberately allowed protesters with dedicated media and political backup, including from his own circles, to launch and sustain a campaign that unfolded unabated with the government standing by, expecting the US company to fight Borisov’s own battles. Then finally, he claimed as an excuse that the public is not convinced, backtracking on the already signed contract. The PM is not known for predictability and unswerving support when his power is at stake.


If the debate spins out of his control, Borisov might simply opt for his favorite play – resign and postpone indefinitely the decision on the fighter jeta, leaving the modernization for the distant future, while engaging in costly repairs of obsolete Soviet planes and reaching out on energy grand slams on his own.


By Ilian Vassilev

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