As Russian president Vladimir Putin tries to make up for his army’s underperformance by terror and brutality on land, there’s also disinformation and blockade by sea, with far-flung and vulnerable countries faced with the prospect of hunger and soaring food prices. It’s all part of a diversified hybrid war being waged by the Kremlin. Bulgaria can play its part in countering this. Its timid leaders must find the courage to do so.
On February 24th, in a decision that he himself announced to the world with bizarre pomp, Vladimir Putin ordered the villainous invasion of Ukraine, taking on the responsibility for bringing a new tragedy upon the Russian and Ukrainian peoples – one unparalleled since the years of World War II.
Now as then, the world was astonished by the cynicism and brutality of the aggression. However, shock soon gave way to surprise and admiration for the resilience and defiance displayed by the young country. Ukraine is not a threat, and could never be a threat, to the Russian people. But with the example of democratic state-building it provides in the region, it is a mortal threat to the autocratic regime in the Kremlin. That regime’s struggle against democratic Ukraine is a struggle for its own survival.
It was inevitable that an all-out military conflict between two countries of such significance to the world order as Russia and Ukraine would reverberate around the world. Yet as they watched the unfolding nightmare during the last week of February, few people imagined that the landmines in Ukraine’s fields and the blockade of Ukraine’s coastline would portend hunger in faraway places in Africa and East Asia. Unsuspecting citizens of countries like Tunisia and Senegal, too, have to suffer because of Mr Putin’s crazy conviction that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, who love each other very much – and that Ukrainian residential buildings must therefore be bombarded by Russian artillery!
Ukraine’s ports found themselves under blockade in the opening days of the war. The last NATO ships belonging to non-Black Sea countries had vacated the area some months earlier. Russia’s Black Sea fleet – based at Sevastopol – was master of the seas. The port, as the peninsula itself, had been cynically grabbed from Ukraine back in 2014.
The disregard for human life and dignity that has been common among barbarian chieftains and dictators throughout history made it a foregone conclusion whether Mr Putin would allow neutral ships to evacuate from Ukrainian waters. He did not, so they remained stranded in ports, where their crews were subjected to danger. Merchant ships such as the Bangladeshi bulk carrier MV Banglar Samriddhi were hit with missiles, with crew members being killed as a result. On March 3rd the Estonian general cargo ship MV Helt sank, most likely after contact with a sea mine. Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service accused the Russians of using the ship as a shield, hiding behind it from Ukrainian anti-ship weapons.
Terror on the Black Sea
In an official statement on March 20th, Russian intelligence accused Ukraine of mining the approaches to several of its ports. The statement was the first source of the later widely quoted number of “around 420”. Around 420 sea mines, of old models, had been laid in breach of the Hague Convention of 1907, it was claimed.
Naturally, in times of war official statements from the intelligence headquarters of participating countries are not to be accepted without consideration. On March 22nd the information offensive developed in the NAVTEX message of a Russian coastal station. The message directly quoted the part of the FSB’s message about “around 420” sea mines of two different types, but now in the context of an unknown portion of them coming loose from their cables “because of storm conditions”. This became the reason for the UK government accusing Russia of endangering shipping by abusing the NAVTEX communication system to distribute disinformation.
News of the suspicious message was followed by the discovery of three mines in the period 26-28 March. One was found off the coast of Romania and two in Turkish waters (one of the latter was near the boundary with Bulgaria’s territorial waters). The news of sea mines being found in the Black Sea received international attention, and blame was generally laid on Ukraine.
It fell to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to respond to the speculations. In his address to the Norwegian parliament on March 30th, Mr Zelensky accused Russia’s armed forces of laying the mines which were now drifting freely, endangering all Black Sea shipping. According to Ukraine, significant quantities of old sea mines had been captured by Russia during its illegal annexation of the Crimea in March 2014, and were now being utilised by Russia for carrying out false flag operations. This, said the Ukrainians, was being done with complete disregard for the safety of neutral shipping, with the resultant danger to commercial shipping even seemingly welcomed by Russia.
Indeed there are a number of problematic details in the Russian narrative that Ukraine is responsible for the deployment of the sea mines drifting in the Black Sea.
- Russian supremacy in the Black sea and the Russian fleet’s control over Ukrainian territorial waters have been undisputed facts since the beginning of the war.
- Ukraine does not possess the means of laying sea mines from the air or from submarines. It is possible that Ukraine used tugboats to lay mines near its shoreline in the opening days of the war. However, it doesn’t seem plausible that Ukraine laid hundreds of mines without the Russian fleet noticing.
- The publicised number of “around 420” in the FSB’s statement raises interest, given that, since that statement, no verifiable data such as footage or images has been released, such as could be examined by experts. Due to military activity in the area, it is only Russia that can collect and present such evidence, for the time being.
- Russia claims that Ukraine is laying sea mines in violation of the Hague Convention of 1907, but as far as we know Russia has not filed a complaint with the International Maritime Organization.
- In an appearance on CNN on April 4th, US Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton said that he had seen reports that “Russians are laying mines outside of Bulgaria”. There has been no follow up on this information from the Bulgarian side, neither have questions been addressed to Bulgarian military or political officials.
- Sea mines reaching the Bosphorus from Odessa, or the Turkish-Bulgarian maritime border, within 6-7 days of the FSB issuing its warning is deemed “interesting” by a specialised Turkish media outlet. Experts there claim that, if this were so, the mines would need to have traveled around three times faster than could have been expected even in conditions of continuous northern winds and currents.
Given all the information we have, it appears much more likely that the whole “sea mines affair” was a propaganda/terror operation ordered by the Kremlin. If so, its goal would be obvious: to degrade trust in the safety of shipping anywhere in the Black Sea, with deniability for Russia. And its methods would, as usual, be marked by disregard for international law, safety, and basic integrity.
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Against the grain
Russia’s war against Ukraine caused the halt of operations in ports which are key to world supply chains for a country which is one of the world’s largest grain producers. Yet chaos is welcomed by the Kremlin, where they swim better in murkier water. In Putin’s reading he is already at war with “The West”, while Ukraine is merely the arena of the conflict, and the puppet of the US and the EU. From his point of view, the West is a legitimate target, to be hit with any weapon he can get his hands on. If he can strike with crowds of thousands of people uprooted by poverty and starvation, arrayed along the EU’s borders, then he will not hesitate to create such masses of people, and they will be his weapon, hitting targets that he can’t reach with his missiles.
One direct consequence of the war and of the threat to the security of commercial shipping has been a ten-year global record in daily freight rates. In some cases fees for tanker transport have increased by almost 300%. Combined with the surge in insurance premiums in areas affected by fighting, the additional costs are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per voyage.
Before the war Ukraine was among the biggest grain suppliers in the world. The country accounted for 14-16% of global exports of corn (maize), around half of those of sunflower oil, and 10% of those of wheat. Ukraine and Russia combined, indeed, accounted for 30% of global wheat exports. In the opening days of the war the world grain market experienced the biggest global supply shock since the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s.
Today the world is approaching a new stage of food-price inflation, and it appears that some of the poorest countries in the Middle East and Africa will be the ones to suffer most. In terms of the percentage of their grain imports that come (or came) from Ukraine and Russia, some of the most vulnerable countries in the world are Egypt (around 85%), Turkey (about 75%), Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan and Tunisia.
Since the times when “export of revolution” was a state policy, Russia has had a tradition of pursuing political aims by “asymmetrical” means. It is this unique blending of propaganda, diplomacy, and pressures of economic, terrorist and military natures – all with apparent deniability, and with utter disregard for all the written and unwritten rules of diplomacy and war – which has come to be known as “hybrid warfare”.
Russia’s hybrid warfare against the West has been with us for over a decade, but it has received worldwide attention only since the annexation of Crimea. Now Russian measures are intensifying. On one hand, there is the ever more evident disaster that Russian conventional warfare efforts are facing. On the other hand it is evident that growing Western engagement with, and support for, Ukraine’s victory is a major contributor to Russia’s failure to subjugate Ukraine.
In these circumstances, the Kremlin is taking hectic action to increase pressure in existing areas of concern to the EU and the US, as well as to create new ones. The examples are numerous – Kosovo, Iran, Mali, Taiwan, etc. The aim is to divert the attention and concerns of the general public away from the subject of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Ideally (from the Kremlin’s standpoint), new and independent military conflicts would spring up, in theatres far from Europe.
The engineering and encouragement of a food crisis across multiple regions, with a high potential to lead to political turbulence, upheaval, and migrant waves, is completely in line with Russia’s adopted strategy, once summarised as “the worse [it gets], the better” – an expression widely attributed to Lenin.
It should be kept in mind that the weaponisation of immigrants as a tool of extortion against the EU is not a Russian invention. It was patented by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and used by him since the beginning of active warfare in Syria. Russia, however, has also tested the EU’s borders with migrant pressure, conducting a little experiment along those lines courtesy of Mr Putin’s Belarussian stooge Alexander Lukashenka in the latter half of 2021. The threat of releasing masses of migrants – or conversely, the offer of loosening the commercial shipping blockade on Ukraine – may at some point become a bargaining chip in negotiations for reducing the economic sanctions against Russia.
Can Bulgaria muster the courage to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare?
With the threat now looming over millions of people, an agreement reached on April 28th by Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov and Ukraine’s president Zelensky may be more significant that it appears at first glance. This envisages the diversion of a portion of Ukraine’s wheat exports through the Bulgarian port of Varna.
Now, the mainstream media made much more of another element of the talks between the two leaders – namely the repairs of Ukrainian military equipment in Bulgarian facilities. Yet it’s this logistical alternative, which Bulgaria is in an unique position to offer, that could be of vital significance to countries in the region and outside it, and also for the EU as a whole.
Ukraine is already rerouting its grain exports through Romania and Poland, but adding Bulgaria to the mix makes it possible to bring Ukrainian wheat to the poorest and most dependent markets at lower (or at any rate less-increased) prices.
In fact, it is surprising that this possibility and value that Bulgaria can bring is not being more widely touted within the country. Indeed, it is being mentioned least of all by representatives of the governing coalition, who currently appear divided and diffident in the debate on the usefulness of Bulgarian aid to Ukraine and on the formulation of “national interest” in the context of the war.
The Kremlin propagandists’ positions and talking points in Bulgarian public discourse are remarkably weak, and exposing them is – or should be – an elementary exercise. A mission, clearly explained and easy to accept by all parts of Bulgaria’s society, would be to protect itself, as well as the rest of Europe, from migrant waves, while at the same time saving other countries from food crisis, price spikes, or even famine.
It’s hard to find a better example of the truth that, in the global world of today, there are no “foreign conflicts”, there is no “this doesn’t concern us”, there are no “small states”. All these phrases belong to the vocabulary of passive Kremlin supporters and opinion makers at various levels of Bulgarian public life. And they are notions that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is this kind of short-sighted thinking and avoidance of engaging in public debate that turned Bulgaria into a de facto Trojan horse for Vladimir Putin with the construction of the South Stream pipeline, sealed by former prime minister Boyko Borissov, who untied Mr Putin’s hands for his present attack on Ukraine. Today’s assurance “there is no threat to our country” could prove very costly tomorrow. Evaluating threats takes a professional approach, deep understanding, and interdisciplinary efforts. And not trite phrasemongering.
At the end of the day, freedom cannot be force-fed to anyone. But we do have the tools to win it for ourselves. Bulgaria and Ukraine, each in its own way a victim of the Kremlin’s imperial coercion – and each striving for independence – are both armed with that truth. It remains for Bulgaria’s government to stand up with the courage to use the weapons at its disposal.
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