The USS Forest Sherman, a guided missile destroyer of the Sixth Fleet, visited the Bulgarian port of Varna in early August and carried out joint naval exercises with the Bulgarian navy. This event would normally be seen as routine. However, the announcement of an American troop deployment to a number of Bulgarian military facilities (as well as in Romania) has raised concerns in two traditional hegemons of the Black Sea region: the Russian Federation and Turkey.
The developing security relations between Washington and Sofia, therefore, add a new dimension to the routine visit of the American destroyer, as it signifies the United States' "arrival" in the Black Sea.
During the Cold War, Bulgaria was widely seen as a staunch Moscow satellite under the leadership of Todor Zhivkov. Fifteen years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is on its way to joining the West through N.A.T.O. and European Union membership (although much later than other former Warsaw Pact nations).
On April 28, 2006, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed the Defense Cooperation Agreement, a ten-year agreement that allows for up to 2,500 U.S. troops to be stationed in Bulgaria. During rotation, troop number may increase to 5,000 for a period of 30 days. The American troops will be stationed in four Bulgarian bases: the Novo Selo Training Area, the Bezmer Air Base, and the Graf Ignatievo Air Base. The U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria explains that there will be no "U.S. military bases" in Bulgaria. These are and will continue to be Bulgarian bases under Bulgarian flag and under Bulgarian command, which will be shared by U.S. troops for training purposes.
Not all Bulgarians are in favor of having American troops in their territory, Volen Siderov, the leader of the nationalist Ataka party, has declared that "the U.S. bases will make Bulgaria a target for terrorists." N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has also shown skepticism about the U.S. bases. Speaking to Bulgarian National Radio 1, he declared that, "the agreement on the establishment of U.S. military bases on Bulgarian territory is a bilateral agreement between Bulgaria and the United States. I cannot see how N.A.T.O. could benefit from those bases at present…At this stage, I do not envisage N.A.T.O. utilizing those military facilities."
In addition, the U.S. State Department announced last year that the United States and Bulgaria signed an agreement to support joint law enforcement projects in Bulgaria. That June, members of Oregon Air National Guard's 173rd Fighter Wing traveled to Bulgaria for air-to-air exercises with local units at the Graf Ignatievo air base.
Why Bulgaria Matters
The size of Bulgaria's military is not the reason for Washington's interest in befriending that Slavic country. Geographically speaking, Bulgaria provides the U.S. (and N.A.T.O.) a greater presence in the Black Sea, through which there are plans to build oil and gas pipelines. Also, it is close to the former Yugoslavia, a place of constant tensions, particularly in the last decade. More importantly, the Balkans are a transit zone for illegal narcotics into Europe. In addition, it is relatively close to countries of the Caucasus, like Georgia, an ever-more important friend of the United States.
The bases allow the U.S. to keep increased control of the country and the Greater Middle East region, as Washington now has a military presence in the south (America's 5th fleet is based in Bahrain) and will have a presence in the north through nearby Bulgaria.
Another reason for befriending Bulgaria had to do with a "what if" scenario. Namely, what would have been the future of Bulgaria if it had not joined Western European organizations? Bluntly put, if Brussels did not accept Bulgaria as a N.A.T.O. member, there was the possibility that Bulgaria could have fallen into another country's sphere of influence, namely Russia.
In recent years, Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan have slowly moved back toward Moscow's protection after a short romance with the West. In Uzbekistan's case, this was prompted by the condemnation Islam Karimov received because of the Andijan massacre in May 2005. Other countries, such as Belarus, still see Moscow as their natural ally. If Bulgaria had not been accepted into N.A.T.O. in 2004, a possible scenario is that it could have floated back to being Russia's trusted ally in southeastern Europe, which in turn could have made the country a security issue for the West.
Russia, thanks to its wealthy coffers, is once again pushing for an aggressive foreign policy by looking for potential allies throughout the world. The recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is one example of these new developments. When it comes to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, it would not be surprising if Moscow were to attempt to strengthen its position by strengthening the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.). In a hypothetical scenario, Russia perhaps would have gone as far as inviting Bulgaria for C.I.S. membership, had Sofia not joined N.A.T.O. and the E.U. Geopolitics and alliances with powerful nations are important, particularly for small countries like Bulgaria.
How Bulgaria's Enthusiasm Affects Mediterranean and Balkan Geopolitics
Bulgaria's friendship with the U.S. must be put in the context of how it has affected the balance of power and national interests among other regional states.
A close Washington-Sofia relationship comes at a time when there is a major change going on in the Russian Federation. Now that oil and gas revenues, combined with Vladimir Putin's tough leadership, have managed to put Russia back in order (compared to the troubled 1990s), Putin is beginning to look to his foreign policy and his military in order to project Russian interests abroad and re-establish Russia's traditional spheres of influence.
Recently, a number of Russian military officials have discussed bringing the Russian navy back to the Mediterranean, which would, by default, mean a reinvigorated presence in the Black Sea. "The Mediterranean is an important theater of operations for the Russian Black Sea Fleet," Russian Admiral Vladimir Masorin said. He also noted that the fleet's zone of control extended through the Black and Mediterranean seas toward the Atlantic Ocean. "We must restore a permanent presence of the Russian navy in this region" he added. Russia, understandably, wants to keep U.S. military personnel away from the Black Sea region and maintain the status quo, through which it shares influence over the area with Turkey.
Even though Turkey is a N.A.T.O. member, it also wants to keep Washington away, as it sees itself as a regional power in the Mediterranean and Black Seas and does not want to lose its influence. It is too early to tell if there will be any repercussions to the Washington-Ankara relationship when the U.S. brings its troops and influence to Bulgaria and the Black Sea. A possible outcome, unlikely, but nonetheless a scenario worth considering, is that Turkey, feeling its traditional influence threatened and with no signs of joining the European Union in the near future, may turn to befriend other countries, mainly Russia.
Turkish and Russian officials may even argue that an American presence in the Black Sea is unnecessary, as there is already a regional initiative to keep the Black Sea region secure, namely BLACKSEAFOR. This initiative began on April 2, 2001 between Turkey, along with Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine to promote peace and stability in the Black Sea region, as well as to boost regional cooperation activities and develop good neighborly relations.
On August 6, Turkish naval forces took over the command of BLACKSEAFOR from Russian Naval Forces with a ceremony at Golcuk Sea Base. Ironically, this occurred almost in parallel with the USS Forest Sherman's docking in Bulgaria.
Likewise, by becoming too close to the U.S., Bulgaria may be putting at risk historical ties to other countries as well as possible friendships with new allies. Throughout the 1990s and the early part of this decade, Bulgaria, much like Romania, was split between befriending the U.S. and "old Europe" (namely powers like France, Germany and Great Britain) and retaining historical relations with both Russia and the Arab world. Befriending Washington could very likely put these relationships at stake, which would jeopardize commerce, foreign investment and future political relations.
Putting Bulgaria in Perspective
In many ways international relations are like a geopolitical chess game where governments have to think of the consequences of every move they make. During Soviet times, Bulgaria was Moscow's trusted ally in southeastern Europe, so much so that Washington hardly ever made attempts to improve relations with the country. In reality, Todor Zhivkov's decision to remain an ally of Moscow meant that he could stay in power indefinitely, and he probably realized that trying to break away from Soviet Moscow would have earned his dismissal. Hence, he decided to keep his allegiance to the Communist cause. Today, policymakers in Sofia have decided that "the West," meaning membership to organizations like N.A.T.O., the European Union and befriending Washington, is in their best interest.
Due to Bulgaria's unique geopolitical location, policymakers in Sofia will have to balance very carefully whom they befriend in the future, namely relations with N.A.T.O./European nations and with the United States. Every government has its own interests and it is important for Sofia to remember that what pleases Washington does not necessarily make leaders in Brussels and around Europe happy. In addition, Bulgaria should not forget its historical ties with countries around the Balkans, the Arab world and Russia.
It is unlikely that Bulgaria will become a target for terrorists because of its acceptance of U.S. troops, but it is certain that the Kremlin will keep its eye on developments in the country for years to come. Sofia needs to keep in mind that Washington's main interest in Bulgaria, just like Moscow before, is because of the country's geographical location in the Black Sea.