Allies and partners in countering the hybrid threats against the countries from the Black Sea and the Adriatic regions.

Thursday, 11 October 2018




The Eastern allied nations and the Alliance’s efforts to guarantee their national security and defense”

Sofia, 28.09.2018, Ceremonial Hall, Central Military Club 




The aim of panel 3 was to share the experience of the Black sea partner nations and Bulgaria in the applied Russian instruments for hybrid influence and hybrid war against them, as well as measures and strategies to neutralize them. At the very beginning of the discussion the moderator stressed the recentness of this broad theme of the panel as the hybrid threats and actions against the nations of this region are the biggest current challenge to their national security, as well as to the security and defence of NATO and EU.


Summary of the main points of the speakers and participants in the panel


Viorel Cibotaru, former minister of defence of the Republic of Moldova, outlined the main challenges to the security of Moldova and especially the separatism in Transnistria. His presentation highlighted several points.

He reminded the audience that a Bulgarian community in Moldova is in the autonomous region of Taraklia         and has a visible role in the development of the country. The geographical position of Moldova and the geopolitical steaks have turned the country in a complicated case with big unknowns.

The key problem of Moldova today, in the context of the hybrid threats, is the separatism – a problem which has been existing for the last 27 years. The presence of Russian troops in the separatist regions creates also a spillover effect to the Odessa region in Ukraine. The attempt to create a separatist republic in the Odessa region in 2014 failed and the creation of  Novorossiya also. Despite this failure however, Russia continued with her attempts and more specifically with the creation of the Bessarabia Rada, another separatist instrument in the region, with the help of the Russian military and intelligence personal involved once in Transnistria, then in Crimea and Donbas, the Eastern Ukraine.

Today in Moldava there are so deep divisions in the society that we can already talk at this moment about a lack of perspectives of reconciliation and societal cohesion. At a political level, there are three fundamental active components: a socialist pro-Russian party which succeed in winning the Presidential elections through Igor Dodon; a self-assumed pro-European Government and a pro-European Opposition from the streets, with a weak presence in the Parliament. There are also a pro-European  and Pro-Romanian unionist group of parties, as well as a group with a strictly pro-Russian orientation. These realities should be kept in mind when we considering political components of the hybrid war.

The majority of the population in Moldova now opts for a European path and another part seeing the future together with Russia in a Eurasian or Customs Union. Mr. Cibotaru reminded the audience that the former communist president Voronin opted for the development of relations with NATO and during his term Moldova adopted its Individual Partnership Action Plan with the Alliance. The current president Dodon however is entirely anti-American and anti-NATO, and this is the key point in his public messages.

On the future of the Republic of Moldova exist a number of views on a national level, ranging from coming back as a part of a neo-imperial Russia, via a type of bi-polar orientation and a dual vector policy of the country between Russia and the West; there is one option claiming the path towards getting closer to the EU and NATO, with the perspective of joining the European Union; and there is also the option of the reunification with Romania in a common state.

In Cibotaru’s view, the new mixed election system, criticized by the opposition, EU and the Venice Commission could undermine the legitimacy of the next authority/government.

The biggest threat is the drift of the Republic of Moldova after the next elections towards the East as a result of pro-Russians taking over the Government, creating a new Kaliningrad or a bigger Transnistria on the EU borders. A small Russia on the EU/NATO’s borders and behind Ukraine would create huge pressure and important challenges to both neighbor independent states as well as to Romania, the EU and NATO.

The perspective of a Pro-Russian Socialist Republic of Moldova could come with the harsh reorientation of the national policies, and even a clear and open demands to Russia for a direct military support, military presence on the ground and even a possibility to take control of the border of the Republic of Moldova. This will create long-term obstacles for any perspectives for the European integration of the Republic of Moldova.

The other very important threat comes from the separatist conflict in the Eastern districts of the Republic of Moldova, the so-call Transnistria: either a Russian push to reintegrate the region or Russia will exploit Transnistria to exert pressure on the political decision-making in Moldova. In this case the threat will be that Transnistria will break away from the Republic of Moldova and Russia will unilaterally recognize the new self-proclaimed proto-state.

There is a risk from an authoritarian rule in Moldova, which threatens the relationship with EU. The next step could be the transformation of this authoritarian rule, under the Russian control, into dictatorship, which could lead to sanctions against the country.

Mr. Cibotaru shared his assessment that today Moldova is the weakest part in the chain of the three states – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

In an interview for the YouTube channel of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria, Mr. Cibotaru added some additional points to his presentation. The president Dodon came in power due to pro-Russian narratives and Soviet Union nostalgia.

Up to now he visited Russia 11 times. Currently he is isolated by the parliament and government. He is deprived of a number of presidential rights/powers, as the nomination of ministers, powers associated with his functions as Commander-in Chief of the armed forces, which is an exotic situation. If the president did not respect the law and declined to approve, for instance, the appointment of a minister, then he is temporarily deprived of some of his powers for an hour, which are then transferred to the speaker of the parliament or the prime minister, who in turn sign the appointment of the given minister. Mr. Cibotaru, as a representative of the civil society and the opposition, does not see such a practice as lawful and fair, and prefers the president to resign or to be removed from power instead.

Regarding NATO membership, he reminded that Moldova is a neural nation, but in the last years it developed good partnership with the Alliance. The pro-NATO support however is decreasing each year due to pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, coupled with the mistakes of the pro-European government (corruption, abuse of finance, etc.)


Olexandr Polischuk, retired major-general and a former deputy MILREP at the Ukrainian Mission to NATO, discussed the challenges of the hybrid war and its future, focusing on the Black sea region. His presentation highlighted several key points.

The capability to apply hard power will remain a key characteristic of the hybrid war. The Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014 proved that Russia will use regular military forces, paramilitary forces and criminal and terrorist groups for achieving political objectives.

Currently Moscow aims at disrupting the unity of the Alliance through its traditional policy “divide and rule”, using the political corruption and the energy pressure.  Russia seeks to use the frozen conflicts in the region and support of separatist and puppet political regimes.

In the midterm perspective Russia will continue to militarize the Black sea through deployment of sophisticated weapon systems and equipment. Russia is trying to provoke an arms race, even at the expense of its own social and economic security, striving to maintain real defence expenditures at the level of 6% of GDP, which are significantly higher than NATO declared mandatory 2% of GDP. In this respect Mr. Polischuk stressed the necessity the sanctions against Russia to be strengthen and enlarged.

The Russian strategic aim in the Black sea is a total military domination and it can be assumed that it is achieved. Today Russia has absolute military superiority over the military potential of the regional nations. He defined the region as the most militarized zone in Europe and presented slides with a number of data about the military imbalance in the Black sea in favor of Russia, on the basis of a reference to a study of an Ukrainian NGO on the militarization of Crimea.

Russia is also strengthening its nuclear missile potential. Having in mind this reality, combined with the unpredictable development of the Iranian nuclear program and the capabilities of the missile arsenals of other countries, the Black sea region becomes especially vulnerable to missile attacks.

According to Mr. Polischuk, the regional NATO members are happy and relaxed under the Article 5 shadow. This explains the actual lack of a clear NATO strategy toward the region. In spite of the measures NATO is undertaking to strengthen its Southeastern flank, there is still no allied consolidated position for balancing the power of Russia in the region. As NATO is lacking a clear Black sea strategy, Ukraine is considering the idea to take the initiative for the development of such strategy.

Mr. Polischuk doubts that currently Russia has enough capabilities to reinforce its deployed forces in the region and NATO should take such a consideration in mind. The Alliance however has at its disposal enough reinforcements to augment its military potential, if it is required.

The lecturer noted that as an assessment of the future strategic context in the Black sea is needed, what has to be taken into account is the project of building of parallel channel to the Bosporus, connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black sea. Thus Turkey will strengthen its control over the access of foreign military forces to the region. It can cause reasonable concern taking into account the current rapprochement between Turkey and Russia.

Currently Ukraine cannot supply the necessary armament and equipment for its armed forces due to Russian impediments. This is the reason why Kiev does not have access to the arms markets of Israel, Germany and France.

In most of its military exercises Russia trains the capture of Ukraine.

According to the Ukrainian guest, the Russians are indefatigable in their search for new hybrid forms of aggression. He presented an example with Russian procedures for inspecting civil vessels following Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, thus limiting the free access of Ukrainian vessels to this sea region. Delay of ships to the entrance to the Sea of Azov can reach 57 days or more. At the same time, vessels going to the Russian ports are not delayed at all. At the same time the prevention of the free access of Ukrainian ships to their national port in the Sea of Azov is a demonstration of power and training of the Russian Black sea navy and could provoke a war between the two countries.

Except the free access to the Ukrainian sea coast, another form of hybrid actions are the frequent Russian military exercises. Russians are also testing a scenario for the capture of the Ukrainian Snake Island, and it also set up reconnaissance buoys.

The true goal of all these military actions is to marginalize sea transport communication with Ukraine, to disrupt regularity of deliveries of raw materials and shipment of goods to/from Ukrainian ports, to slow down the production processes at industrial enterprises of Ukraine in the region, and to provoke social tension in the seaport cities.

Last but not least, as an instrument of hybrid war Mr. Polischuk presented on a slide ten Russian private military companies and their presence in Ukraine, Syria and other places in the world. He expects such companies to be used for a destabilization of Ukraine through direct military operations or sabotages.

Mr. Polischuk shared its impression that in Sofia there are many squares, boulevards and street named after Russians. He made a comparison with Kiev, where they were renamed after Ukrainian national heroes. Ukraine has also limited the Russian broadcasting propaganda channels. To his understanding, Russians feel themselves very comfortable in Bulgaria.

He proposed an approach to counter the hybrid threats by development of the regional and bilateral cooperation amongst the threatened nations as well as the development of a Black sea strategy by NATO.

In an interview for the YouTube channel of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria, Mr. Polischuk complemented his presentation with additional points. Putin exploits the literature, the language and the church as tools to undermine and disrupt the Ukrainian identity. He builds his strategy on the return to the past and defines the break-up of the Soviet Union as the biggest historical mistake and he is trying to restore it.

The bulk of the Russian propaganda is aimed at people of the older generation, who have difficulties to adapt to the market economy. The strength of Ukraine is in its young people.

The Russian and Ukrainians have common historical background which must be respected, but it is the right of Ukraine to shape its future. Both nations have to work for the development of bilateral relations equal in their rights, without Russian dictation.

It was difficult for the Ukrainians to free from the suggestion that they are brothers with the Russians. This was the case until the annexation of Crimea and the killing of the first Ukrainian soldier. Then the people of Ukraine understood that they are not brothers with the Russians.

The Russian people are manipulated from the leadership of their country. Now the efforts are directed towards the objective reading of history, as the power is in the truth.


Mr. Shota Gvineria, Deputy Secretary of the National Security Council, Georgia, discussed the security in the Black sea, which he assumes as the frontline of the Russian revisionism. This is a region where Russia tests its hybrid tactics before exporting them to Europe.

To his understanding, the Russian revisionism today manifests itself in Crimea, Donbas, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabah and Syria. These are zones of exclusive Russian interest, in which she challenges the West. Russia feels itself unpunished for its activities in Georgia and Ukraine. In such a way the basic principles of the European security are undermined.

Mr. Gvineria stressed that Moscow wants to fix its own spheres of exclusive interest in the Black sea. At the same time, Moscow is cautious not to cross the red line for activation the provision of the collective defence, in accordance with article 5 of the Washington treaty.

His assessment is that the military balance in the Black sea is changing and Russia is already an existential threat for Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Mr. Gvineria pointed out that Georgia, together with Ukraine and Moldova, consider the security in the Black sea indivisible. It cannot be divided in two –  more security for the regional NATO nations and less for the the three partner nations.

He underlined that currently there is no unified vision of EU and NATO for the security in the Black sea and for the future of the region. As possible solutions, he suggested to build cooperation following the model of the Northern and Baltic states. An unified Eastern flank of NATO is needed, to include Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The three nations have to be invited to contribute in the building of the enhanced and adapted forward presences of NATO.

Mr. Gvineria shared his assessment that the hybrid war in 21st century is a state of “the new normal”. It is permanent and can neither be won or lost. This situation requires the nations to build resilience and to find a way to limit the damages, caused by the hybrid tools. His understanding is that Russia does not create, but exploits the existing vulnerabilities of the attacked nations. That is why the nations must realize well their weak spots and to build capabilities for counteraction, bringing together the government, the society and the private sector.


Iliyan Vasilev, former ambassador of Bulgaria to Russia, paid a special attention on the economic tools that Russia exploits in the hybrid war against the European nations. He stressed that the Russian companies are used as a instrument of the policy of the Kremlin. He referred to the miserable situation in Bulgaria due to the extremely high percentage of the GDP generated by Russian business entities, which is in practice under Russian control. In this respect he referred to a study on the subject of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Mr. Vasilev pointed out also the problem with the Russian private military companies and the expansion of their activities around the world, as well as the different methods for concealing their real owners. Concerning Bulgaria,  companies as “Wagner” may not operate directly in the country, but the security of the Russian firms here is entrusted to private structures, which can be associated with Russian capitals. He reminded that in Bulgaria private guarding firms protect MoD’s installations and depots, but it’s questionable who really stands behind them. His understanding is that the National State Security Agency does not have control over the private security firms in the country.

His assessment is that Russia will not undertake direct military attack against NATO nations, but will act to permanently erode their capabilities to protect their independence through influencing their electoral and political processes.

Mr. Vasilev underlined that Bulgaria was not able to identify who really stands behind some significant economic and trade deals. Russia already actively use its own dummy companies, registered in EU, to acquire assets in Bulgaria and will rely more and more on them.

Last but not least, Mr. Vasilev took notice of the paramilitary organizations in Bulgaria. He said that these structures have elaborated plans to sabotage the deployment of NATO forces in the country, in case of activation of article 5 of the Washington treaty.


Associated professor Alexander Yordanov, former speaker of the Bulgarian parliament and member of the Steering committee of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria, presented a deep analysis of the cultural ties and the reading of history, used as tools of the Russian hybrid activities against Bulgaria. He gave a number of examples for a noteworthy behavior of Bulgarian cultural personalities in the period before and after the wars and during the communist dictatorship.

His assessment is that Bulgarians still do not know well themselves and that is the reason their European identity is still in a process of self-knowledge. He also pointed out that the national identity of each Bulgarian is a target of the Kremlin’s hybrid strategy. According to him, the aim of the Russian hybrid war is to take the Bulgarians out of their European cultural identity and to impose them the Eurasian way of development. Russia does not export culture to Bulgaria, but propaganda, which crushes the culture. The Russian hybrid war has been ongoing for more than a century and it is simultaneously against the Bulgarian patriotism and the European cultural identity of the people. It characterizes the Bulgarian patriotic and pro-European people as Russophobes. Moscow uses the Slavophile doctrine to attack the European choice and the democratic traditions of the Bulgarians.

Some Bulgarian politicians and intellectuals often visit Russia and even the occupied Crimea for participation in Russian political and cultural events. Some Bulgarian schools send boys and girls to Russian families to study the language and culture of the Russian state.

Mr. Yordanov presented also a number of examples haw Moscow throughout the years had attempted to impose a favorable to his interests manipulative interpreting of the works of prominent Bulgarian authors-patriots. He concluded that for many years Bulgaria was ruled by Russian and Soviet citizens.

He also raised the issue of the numerous sites that are named after Russians, but not after Bulgarian heroes. The center of Sofia city with the Russian names of squares, boulevards and streets resembles more of a Russian governor’s city.

According to Mr. Yordanov, the Russian strategy is to replace the national identity of the Bulgarians with one close to the Russian identity and for that purpose Russia exploits the history and the culture as hybrid tools for its realization.


Mihail Naydenov from the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria made the case for drafting and adopting a Bulgarian National Strategy to Counter Hybrid Threats, and he proposed structure and contents of the document.

Such a strategy should consist of eight chapters.

  1. Introduction, which must clearly state why such a strategy is needed now and how the country understands hybrid warfare.
  2. In-depth analysis of the security environment, with a srtong emphasis on the Black Sea region and South Eastern Europe;
  3. The existing areas of Bulgarian vulnerability to hybrid threats, i.e. where the country’s greatest weaknesses can be seen now. At this point comes the greatest challenge to the team who will write the draft of the document. Here it is required to be maximum concrete and precise content. The problems and their sources must be identified and explicitly named. The latter could require making a part of the document classified information.
  4. Solutions and remedies. State what exactly should be done across all the areas of national vulnerability, so as to be able to effectively counter hybrid threats;
  5. Structures and procedures for countering hybrid threats. Focus on interagency cooperation and coordination;
  6. Interaction with NATO and EU. Mechanisms;
  7. Resources that are needed to implement the Strategy;
  8. Process of Review and Update of the document. Iterations.

Concerning Chapter 3, which covers the national areas of vulnerability, based on practical observations and experience, Mr. Naydenov outlined the following more substantial ones:

  1. External penetration into the internal Bulgarian political processes and the national decision-making;
  2. Activities of foreign intelligence services in Bulgaria;
  3. Media manipulation and the use of social networks in the hybrid war against Bulgaria; promotion of anti-NATO, anti-EU and pro-Russian narratives;
  4. The state of mass media in Bulgaria – concentration and transparency of ownership; who are their real owners?
  5. Use of cultural links and the Orthodox Church for carrying out hybrid operations against the state and the society;
  6. Use of economic instruments to exert influence on internal political decisions;
  7. Energy dependence on Russia; Lack of diversification. Diversification of routes of transportation only, but not of the sources of energy (Russia) in reality represents no diversification at all;
  8. The deficit in Rule of Law as the perfect breeding ground for hybrid activity;
  9. Corruption and organized crime as hybrid war instruments;
  10. Paramilitary formations in Bulgaria; pro-Russian and their potential subversive role in case of an Article 5 scenario;
  11. The Russian subversion activity against the Bulgarian defense;
  12. Critical infrastructure vulnerabilities;
  13. Cyber-attacks;
  14. The risk of using the fears of mass migration for implementing hybrid operations against the country. The role of the paramilitary formations and the (in) action of the law enforcement services.

Mr. Naydenov shared his assessment that albeit Russia will not invade Bulgaria using military instruments, Moscow will seek to “capture” the political elite of the country and thus to establish full control over the national decision-making process.




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