The Bulgarian prosecutor’s office announced on Friday (19 March) that it had broken up a Russian spy ring which includes officials of Bulgaria’s defence ministry and its intelligence services, after an extensive police and counter-intelligence operation in and around Sofia.
Five defence ministry officials were arrested, and one more person was released apparently after agreeing to collaborate with the investigation. The alleged spies are believed to have succeeded in transmitting important information affecting the security of Bulgaria, the EU, NATO, and the United States.
The hunt for suspected Russian agents in Sofia continued throughout the day on Thursday. The police stopped and checked all cars at the exit of the Trakia highway from Sofia to Plovdiv. One of those arrested was detained near the Russian embassy building.
On Friday, Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev announced that the operation was “unparalleled since 1944”, referring to the time when Bulgaria fell under Soviet influence during World War II. He said that the information the spies had provided to Russia was “of particular importance for Bulgaria’s national security, the EU, NATO, and the United States.”
Geshev expressed hope that “the case will not be used to divide the nation”, given the large number of Bulgarians who sympathise with Moscow for historic reasons, as Russia liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman rule in the 19th century. Some political forces in Bulgaria openly back Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies.
Geshev particularly praised Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov and the head of military intelligence, Colonel Velko Atanasov, for helping to break up the spy ring.
The arrests come ahead of Bulgaria’s general elections on 4 April and take place amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia. Two days ago, US President Joe Biden gave an interview in which he indicated he considered Putin a “killer.”
A spy code-named “The Resident” was said to be the leader of the group in Sofia. His name has not been released, though media said he was a former head of military intelligence who graduated from the intelligence school of the Russian Central Intelligence Agency in Moscow.
The prosecution claims that the other group members had also been well-trained people – servicemen in senior government positions. A large number of suspects are thought to still be at large.
One of the recruited spies was reportedly involved in planning the budget of the defence ministry. Two further members of the group work for the Military Intelligence Service, which deals with the fight against hybrid threats and risks, including from Russia, while the fourth is a former Military Intelligence officer.
Working for peanuts
The Bulgarian authorities say the “Resident” held frequent meetings with his agents in restaurants, on sports grounds, or in his car. He gave them mobile phones and SD cards to extract sensitive information from their computers.
Authorities showed video footage apparently showing agents taking photos of their office computer screens with their phones. The arrested employee of the Ministry of Defense reportedly spent four and a half hours one day taking photos of the screen on his computer.
The remuneration for the spies was paid in envelopes containing different currencies. The participants were filmed changing it at currency exchange offices. The amount per month was between BGN 2,000 and 3,000 (€1,000 and €1,500).
The great spy hunt
In the last two years, the Bulgarian authorities have carried out several actions against alleged Russian spies, but most of them have focused on the staff of the Russian embassy in Sofia. Many of the “spies” uncovered were accused of gathering military information.
In mid-December last year Bulgaria expelled the Russian military attaché in Sofia. The Russian embassy stated that the actions of the Bulgarian authorities were unfounded. The prosecutor’s office said the diplomat had collected different kinds of military information, including the number of US servicemen stationed on Bulgarian territory during military exercises.
Spy hunts in Sofia often overlap with bigger events on the Moscow-Washington axis. The expulsion of the first secretary of the Russian embassy came days after Bulgarian prosecutors accused three Russians of poisoning arms businessman Emilian Gebrev. Shortly before that, the heads of the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office paid a visit to Washington.
Gebrev, his son, and their employee were poisoned in 2015 in circumstances similar to the case of the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia.
How it all started
The Sofia spy thriller began in the fall of 2019 with the arrest of the chairman of the Bulgarian National Movement “Russophiles” Nikolay Malinov, who was the first accused of spying for Russia. There has been little progress in his criminal case so far, but it gained much international prominence after Moscow and Washington both intervened directly.
Nikolai Malinov was allowed to travel to Moscow by Judge Andon Mitalov, who lifted his ban on leaving the country. Putin personally awarded the Bulgarian accused of espionage with the Russian Order of Friendship. The Order is awarded for the strengthening of peace, friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding between peoples.
A few months later, the United States declared Judge Mitalov corrupt and banned him from entering American territory.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]