Bulgarian Factories and Secret Task Forces: How the West Hunts for Soviet Arms

KOSTENETS, Bulgaria — The job is straightforward, dangerous and will soon be open to applicants: filling a 122-millimeter Soviet-style artillery shell with explosives that will turn it into a lethal projectile.

For the residents of Kostenets, a dying mountain town in western Bulgaria, it’s a welcome opportunity despite the risk of death. It means more jobs at the Terem ammunition plant on the outskirts of town.

The factory stopped making the 122-millimeter shells in 1988 as the Cold War came to a close. But soon the assembly lines will be running again. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Soviet-era arms and ammunition into critically important matériel as western nations seek to supply Ukraine with the munitions it needs to foil Moscow’s assault. 

And so in January, 35 years after the last 122-millimeter shells left the Terem plant, the company recommissioned production.

Small towns in Bulgaria, with its large pro-Russian population, might seem unlikely linchpins of Ukraine’s military effort. But one year into the war, despite an influx of sophisticated western arms, the Ukrainian military still relies primarily on weapons that fire Soviet-standard munitions. The United States and its NATO allies don’t produce those munitions, and the few countries outside Russia that do are mostly in the former Soviet orbit.

That has Western countries scrambling to find alternative sources, pouring millions of dollars into workarounds that keep the transactions quiet and avoid political fallout and Russian retaliation. And that brings them to some of the more remote areas of Eastern Europe, like Kostenets, and the small town of Sopot, roughly 50 miles to the northeast, which is home to another state-run arms factory.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy quietly attended the ribbon-cutting last month for the new production line in Kostenets, which took place outside the plant, a rundown low-slung building in a corner of the town. With the new jobs it’s adding, the plant could become one of Kostenets’s biggest employers.

“This is a big deal for the town,” said Deputy Mayor Margarita Mincheva.

Sopot, too, has seen its fortunes improve since the invasion. It is home to VMZ, an arms company that employs much of the local work force. On a recent Friday the dull thud of explosions rattled windows — they were likely tests of freshly made munitions, the town’s mayor said.

Over the years VMZ has been a main source of income for Sopot’s residents, the mayor, Deyan Doinov, added. “Probably there isn’t a single family in town whose members haven’t worked or are not working at the plant,” he said. “Virtually we have no unemployment — only those who do not want to work are jobless.”

Bulgaria has historically close ties to Moscow, though it has been part of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the early 2000s. Last summer, revelations that Bulgaria supplied weapons to Ukraine, despite a strong opposition toward arming Kyiv, ignited a furor in the country’s politics.

Bulgaria’s projected arms exports last year soared, exceeding $3 billion, around five times the sales abroad in 2019, according to government estimates from data gathered in October.

But it is hardly the only country quietly contributing to Ukraine’s war effort. Luxembourg is supplying Ukraine with arms that originate in the Czech Republic. Brokers with cash from the U.S. are scouring factories in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Romania for shells. And Britain has formed a secret task force to arm Ukraine, according to a document The New York Times obtained and officials familiar with the task force’s work.

The importance of such sources is growing as Ukraine burns through ammunition at an unsustainable rate — one that Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, said last week was “many times higher than our current rate of production.”

“This puts our defense industries under strain,” he added.

In recent months, Ukraine has fired between 2,000 and 4,000 artillery shells daily, but would like to fire more so it can retake territory captured by Russia. At one point last summer Russia was firing as many as 50,000 shells a day. But that number has dropped since then, and Russia, too, is suffering from an ammunition shortage.

The U.S. is boosting its own production of artillery shells sixfold to fill the gaps. But it mostly makes ammunition for the NATO-standard howitzers it has sent to Ukraine.

Once the invasion began last year, Ukraine and its allies started buying up Soviet-style arms wherever they could find them. State-owned Ukrainian companies asked brokers in the U.S. and elsewhere for tanks, helicopters, planes and mortars, according to documents obtained by The Times.

Would-be suppliers emerged from the recesses of the global weapons trade to meet demand. Last June, a Czech arms seller offered Ukraine ammunition and a dozen Soviet-model ground-attack jets built between 1984 and 1990 for about $185 million, the documents show.

Both Britain and the U.S. have financed deals using third-party countries and brokers in cases where manufacturing countries don’t want to be publicly identified as providing weapons to Ukraine, people familiar with the effort say.

The secret task force created by the British defense ministry focused on getting Soviet-style ammunition, say people familiar with the effort, a task that became harder as the war went on and big suppliers ran out of stock.

Last June, Britain made a deal with to buy 40,000 artillery shells and rockets made by the government-owned Pakistan Ordnance Factories. Under the terms of the deal, Britain would pay a Romanian broker to buy the Pakistani weapons, documents show. The transaction’s official paperwork said the weapons would be transferred from Pakistan to Britain, with no mention of Ukraine, a document obtained by The Times shows.

The deal fell apart after the Pakistani supplier was unable to deliver the ammunition, said Marius Rosu, the export chief of the Romanian broker, Romtehnica.

Such problems are common in deals relying on brokers and far-flung manufacturers. Mr. Rosu said his company does not send weapons to Ukraine. He said customers elsewhere may buy weapons from Romtehnica and later send them to Ukraine.

“That is not our problem,” he said.

Officials from Pakistan Ordnance and the government ministry that oversees it did not respond to questions about the proposed deal.

Bureaucratic loopholes and pass-through arrangements give Bulgarian officials political cover while fueling Ukraine’s war effort — though the cover is thinly veiled.

“Given that the war in Ukraine is still raging, where do we think that the shells are going to be exported to?’‘ said Lyuba, a 41-year old grocery store saleswoman in Kostenets who declined to provide her last name. “It’s not rocket science to figure out that its production is going to Ukraine.”

Bulgaria’s arms industry has occupied a peculiar role since the waning days of the Soviet Union. It provided arms to both sides of the Iran-Iraq war and to Libya, among other customers, and after the Soviet Union fell it supplied rebels in Angola and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

Even after Bulgaria joined the European Union and NATO, its arms industry continued pumping out Soviet-caliber ammunition. That created opportunity after the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. American allies in those countries used Soviet-era weapons, and the U.S. bought ammunition from Bulgaria to supply them.

After Syria’s civil war began in 2011, Bulgarian munitions appeared there — likely part of the campaign to arm groups fighting the Syrian regime.

That put Bulgaria at odds with Russia, which supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian assassins poisoned a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, and since then a series of unexplained explosions have rocked Bulgarian arms companies.

Lyuba, the saleswoman, said the presence of the Terem arms factory, which was shaken by an accidental explosion in 2014, makes Kostenets a Russian target.

“We are ordinary people; we will probably never know what exactly they are making there,” she said.

A fortuitously timed election helped ease the way for Bulgaria to become a major supplier to Ukraine. In the fall of 2021, during Russia’s buildup to the invasion, a new, reform-oriented party took power. Kiril Petkov, the Harvard-educated prime minister, decided it was a moment that Bulgaria could turn away from Russia and toward the west.

“We wanted to be on the right side of history,” he said in an interview this month.

Mr. Petkov’s governing coalition included an historically Russia-friendly party that balked at sending arms to Ukraine, so they came up with a workaround that would let Bulgaria deny, officially, that it was arming Ukraine: The government would approve exports to other European Union countries, including Poland. Once there, the weapons could travel to Ukraine without Bulgaria being involved.

Sales picked up and factories boosted their output. Bulgarian ammunition soon accounted for one-third of Ukraine’s supplies, Mr. Petkov said.

Mr. Petkov’s government fell a few months later, when another party left his coalition. But by then, there was enough momentum that exports continued, even as other politicians in Bulgaria criticized the decision to help fight Russia.

Across the jagged snow-covered mountains in Sopot, residents who worked there said VMZ has increased production since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the plant now runs from Monday through Saturday.

“VMZ has been and is an integral part of the town’s life,” said a 63-year-old employee who has been working there for more than four decades and who declined to provide his name for fear of retribution. After all that time, he said, his body still tenses up on days the company tests explosives.

And like VMZ, whether the people of Sopot decide to acknowledge it or not, the war in Ukraine has become a part of their day-to-day lives.

“It’s going to sound cynical if I tell you that I want peace,” he said solemnly. “But at the same time I work at an arms factory.”

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