Take to the skies as soon as an unknown aircraft approaches

Colonel-General Dennis Luyt, commander of the air force, that is clear. On the platform of the Graf Ignatievo military base in Bulgaria, against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, he begins his speech with a look at Ukraine. Russia’s invasion is forcing NATO partners to maintain the security of NATO’s eastern borders, Luyt says. “We must keep in mind that while we are now at large here, the people of Ukraine are suffering from brutal Russian aggression. We should think about them today. “

Luyt spoke Thursday at an air base north of the city of Plovdiv at the start of a Dutch operation. By the end of May, four F-35 fighter jets, coupled with Bulgarian MiG-29s, will monitor Bulgarian airspace. The F-35, formerly known as the JSF, has just been ordered by the Air Force. The mission, which includes 100 Dutch troops, is making progress in steadily reinforcing NATO on the east side: from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. The reason is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ‘Eastern flank’ is now high on the agenda of every NATO meeting. Following the example of the Baltic countries and Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria battle groups stationed. In early June, at the NATO summit in Madrid, talks will be held on permanent reinforcements on Europe’s eastern border.

Light and Freedom

Read also this commentary on NATO and Eastern Europe

However, the speaker who preceded Luyta had heard nothing about it. In the speech of Admiral Emil Eftimov, Commander of the Bulgarian Armed Forces, “Ukraine” and “Russia” did not appear. Eftimov noted Bulgaria’s co-operation with NATO partners in airspace surveillance (air policing) from 2014 and left out geopolitical current events. Also in conversation with NRC he cautiously states: “The mission is timely, especially because of Ukraine.”

The difference between the two speeches is significant. While both countries point to how harmonious co-operation with the Dutch mission is, views on the war differ. The Netherlands is convinced of Russia’s debt and the need to support Ukraine. In Bulgaria, traditionally closely associated with the Soviet Union, this is much less clear. Attitudes towards Russia are a politically sensitive issue.

Monument to the Soviet Army

The Ukrainian capital is looking for the Ukrainian flag or other yellow and blue expressions. There are almost no visible signs of solidarity with the besieged country, as in other European cities. An Alpha Research poll conducted four days after the invasion shows that Putin’s popularity has halved compared to last year, but 32 percent of the population still thinks positively of the Russian president.

In the center of the park is a 45-meter-high Monument to the Army of the Soviet Union, built in 1954 in honor of Soviet support for the expulsion of Nazi Germany from Bulgaria. Three Stalinist-style tower figures on a pedestal: a Soviet soldier surrounded by a worker and a peasant woman with a child. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, requests to remove the monument have been in vain. The mayor of Sofia now wants to succeed. Other Soviet statues are housed in a somewhat remote sculpture garden museum – where cups with Stalin on them are sold in the shop.

Both pro- and anti-Russian activists use the Soviet monument as a gathering place. There was no fear of conflict between the two groups after the invasion. Apart from anti-Russian graffiti on the pedestal – the famous curses on the now sunken warship – there are no signs of protest. Young people on BMX bikes perform stunts on reliefs painted in yellow and blue in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

Corruption and nepotism

His communist legacy is reminiscent of the days when Bulgaria was a loyal satellite state of the Soviet Union, with a leader who wanted his country to become ’16. Soviet Republic ‘. The thirty years that have followed show “a very slow development towards democracy and prosperity”, as the journalist of the independent weekly said Capital formulates. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union.

From the end of 2021, there is hope for improvement, thanks to a new government that wants to break with the political tradition of corruption and nepotism. Pro-European Prime Minister Kirill Petkov, an entrepreneur with a past in Canada and an education at Harvard, will have to implement radical political and economic reforms.

However, Petko’s four-party coalition is vulnerable, especially when it comes to relations with Russia. The Socialist Party has announced it will leave the government if Bulgaria donates weapons to Ukraine. Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, a non-partisan, was forced to resign in early March after complaining to media outlets writing about the “war” rather than the Kremlin’s euphemism for a “special military operation”. He had previously turned against several NATO troops in Bulgaria and Romania. Petkov immediately appointed former NATO ambassador Dragomir Zakov as the new defense minister.

In late March, Russia’s ambassador to Sofia added fuel to the fire, saying in an interview on Russian television that most Bulgarians would not support Petkov’s policy. According to her, most Bulgarians want their country to remain neutral. Petkov condemned her comments and invited the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow for consultations.

Marine tent camp

It is not a problem for Colonel-General Luyt that Bulgaria has a complex relationship with Russia. “I do not want to bypass it. What is happening in Ukraine is terrible, and that is because of Russian aggression. The fact that Bulgarians may see it differently, or formulate it differently, has no consequences for our efforts. We are professionals. ”

Read also this analysis of NATO and Ukraine

Luyt praises the reception at Graf Ignatiev. “We’re here to help, but they’re standing in our way.” A tour of the base shows that the mission includes more than four aircraft of Squadron 322 from Leeuwarden – two for joint flights, two as a reserve. Tents were made for the F-35, and dozens of containers and vehicles arrived. In addition to the six pilots, there are people for maintenance, logistics and fire service.

Marines with 35 people take care of safety. They set up their tents in the corner of the base, along with a PlayStation, gym equipment and loud music. They had to hand over their private phones, he says unit commander Thomas, to prevent leaks of personal information and blackmail. Someone has already received an offer to share information about the F-35 for a fee.

The deployment of a new fighter jet in Bulgaria is exciting, everyone involved says, as the air force is still in the process of switching from the F-16 to the F-35. After years of preliminary phases of political decision-making and training, it is now real. The Netherlands bought 46 F-35s for almost 6 billion euros, 18 of which have now been delivered. The device is characterized by its ability to be almost invisible (secretly) and by collecting a lot of information through sensors.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated deployment, even ahead of Bulgaria. Luyt: “We have already talked within NATO about what we could contribute. We were in the air for hours after the invasion began. ” By mid-March, four F-16s and four F-35s were overseeing Poland, with daily flights from Volkel and Leeuwarden.

Fighter pilot Pascal also flew there, but due to its location, Bulgaria is his first real obligation. The purpose of the flights is a warning: as soon as the command center in Sofia discovers that an unknown aircraft is approaching Bulgarian airspace, F-35s are being launched. Pascal: “Not with a knife between your teeth. Our goal is de-escalation. Show that we are here to see him. Then he will escape. “

The Dutch contribution to strengthening the eastern flank is not limited to Bulgaria. On Thursday, a unit of 150 soldiers with the Patriot air defense left for Slovakia for six months. The number of military personnel in Lithuania is increasing. Isn’t that sending people and equipment at the expense of the security of the Netherlands? Luyt: “NATO is our guarantee of security. The Dutch border is irrelevant to me. Our real border is here in Eastern Europe. ”

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