Staging US Troops in Bulgaria is Unnecessary and a Liability

Opinions |Author: Iveta Cherneva | March 22, 2022, Tuesday // 14:15|  views


This weekend, US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin visited Bulgaria and held a joint press conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov. Lloyd also addressed US and Bulgarian troops.

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Lloyd and Petkov announced that the US is providing Stryker company to be staged in Bulgaria. The Stryker is an armored combat vehicle unit. The US is establishing a battlegroup of up to 1,000 troops under the operational command of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe.  

The position of the US Department of Defense is to help NATO bolster its eastern flank amid Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. But as usual, having US troops on a country's territory is a liability.

This is a 180 turn. Former Bulgarian Defense Minister, Stefan Yanev, expressed a position back in February that American troops in Bulgaria were not necessary and the move has to be avoided.

Allowing US troops in Bulgaria is an unnecessary risk and a liability. The presence of US troops usually presents a risk for the locals. It also rests on the assumption that there is a scenario in which President Putin could invade Bulgaria, and that's a risky message to be sending. Russia is not invading Bulgaria, under any circumstances, and the Bulgarian leadership's position needs to reflect that.

Previously, in December 2021, I expressed the opinion in Novinite that staging US troops on Bulgarian territory would be a disaster. The former Defense Minister Yanev held the same position. Yanev was sacked quickly after pushing a more measured position vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine and on what Bulgaria's foreign policy has to be.

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In line with Prime Minister Petkov's policy towards Russia, US troops is a move that escalates Bulgaria's position by creating unnecessary risk in terms of the message the Bulgarian leadership is sending President Putin.

Also, just like the presence of UN peacekeepers, US troops' presence is often bad news for the local population. In June 2021, US troops randomly stormed and raided a Bulgarian factory. More armed US troops on Bulgarian soil will open more risk-prone situations. Despite what the US Department of Defense position states – that Bulgaria is "now leading a NATO multinational battle group" – it's clear that Bulgaria won't have command over the US NATO troops in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev warned against supplying weapons to Ukraine and involving Bulgaria more directly in the conflict. What's more, there was talk before Austin's visit, with reports in the international media that Bulgaria might hand over Soviet-designed S-300 air defense system to Ukraine – that's military equipment that Bulgaria obtained from Russia from the time of the Soviet Union. The Financial Times reported that the purpose of Austin's visit was actually to request exactly that -- Russian-made anti-aircraft systems from countries that have similar types of weapons, such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, to be sent to Ukraine for use by Kyiv's military. Slovak defense chief Yaroslav Nad said in Bratislava that Slovakia was ready to provide its C-300 systems if NATO allies provided a replacement system. Many Central Europe countries are eager to go deeper even if it means a slap in the face such as this one. Bulgaria, on the other hand, will not be so easy to convince.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Petkov was firm and said that Bulgaria will not be sending Ukraine weaponry, the way other Eastern flank NATO and EU countries are. This was the right choice. Despite efforts to boost NATO's eastern flank, Bulgaria and the US clarified, in the end, that they do not plan to provide lethal military equipment to Ukraine.

Bulgaria will continue to provide humanitarian support to Ukrainians. Austin earlier praised Bulgaria's aid to Ukraine and response to refugees fleeing the war. This is absolutely necessary.

Bulgaria promised to continue sending humanitarian assistance to Kyiv and to accepting thousands of Ukrainian refugees. And this is how far the Bulgarian involvement should go.

There are layers of engagement in this situation and the Bulgarian leadership needs to be aware that on some decisions you can't backtrack because President Putin will retaliate accordingly. Bulgaria has the right to have reservations vis-à-vis joint EU sanctions, especially in the context of Bulgaria's clear energy dependence on Russian gas. Bulgarian dependence on Russian gas is nearly 90%, according to some estimates. These are realities that have to be factored in.

As Bulgarians, we can't be sending President Putin the message that we think he could invade Bulgaria and we need to arm. That's a dangerous assumption to signal. And more US troops would signal exactly that.
/Iveta Cherneva

Iveta Cherneva is an author and political commentator.

More from Iveta Cherneva: Is President Putin a Rational Actor? Yes, Of Course

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Tags: Bulgaria, US, troops, Kiril Petkov


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