Russian Spy Unit Investigated for Links to Bulgarian Explosions

SOFIA, Bulgaria – The Prosecutor General in Bulgaria announced on Wednesday that it was investigating a possible link between a series of explosions in ammunition depots across the country and an elite group of Russian intelligence officials called Unit 29155.

The four explosions were part of a series of explosions that have occurred over the past 10 years, said Siika Mileva, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. At least two happened at a time when members of the unit were frequently entering and leaving Bulgaria, she said, and among the damaged goods was the military material of Emilian Gebrev, a major Bulgarian arms manufacturer that was officially poisoned in 2015, along with his son and an executive in his company, from members of the same Russian unit.

The announcement comes a little over a week after the Czech authorities traced two similar explosions in ammunition depots in that country in 2014 to employees of unit 29155, which specializes in sabotage and assassination. These depots also contained ammunition from Mr. Gebrev’s company Emco.

“A reasonable assumption can be made about a link between the explosions on Bulgarian territory, the attempts to poison three Bulgarian citizens and serious crimes on the territory of foreign countries,” said Ms. Mileva.

If the explosions were the work of Unit 29155, they would be added to an already alarming list of operations attributed to the group. Members of the unit were behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy named Sergei V. Skripal in the UK in 2018 and an attempted coup in Montenegro two years earlier. Last year the New York Times announced a CIA assessment that the group may have been making covert efforts to pay militants in Afghanistan bounties for attacks on American and coalition forces.

Western intelligence agencies say the goal of all of these operations is to destabilize Europe and the United States, similar to the goal of other Russian intelligence agencies meddling in elections and infiltrating government computer systems.

However, recent revelations of ammunition dump explosions suggest a more specific target: to derail Ukraine’s arms and ammunition sourcing efforts at a time when the country was desperately rebuilding its military to deal with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Europe Country to fight.

Ms. Mileva said some of the blown supplies were destined for Ukraine, signaling that Bulgaria would likely be a major supplier to the country after the war began in 2014.

These explosions took place in 2015 in depots of a large Bulgarian arms manufacturer called VMZ Sopot, although Mr Gebrev, who owns a competing manufacturer, had some of its stocks there, according to Ms. Mileva.

Ms Mileva said the Bulgarian authorities are also investigating a 2011 explosion in an ammunition depot owned by Mr Gebrev’s company that destroyed Matériel, which is destined for export to the Republic of Georgia, a country that Russia was with three years earlier had waged a war. An explosion last year at an ammunition depot owned by Arsenal, another Bulgarian arms manufacturer, is also being investigated, she said. No one was injured in any of the explosions, she said.

In a statement, Emco said it had no intention of exporting weapons to Georgia prior to the 2011 explosion and denied any link to the explosion at the VMZ Sopot depot.

However, in an email to The Times last week, Mr Gebrev admitted to having sold ammunition and military equipment to “authorized Ukrainian companies” in late 2014. Although Mr Gebrev insists that he provided only a small amount of military equipment, he would have offered a lifeline to Ukraine at a time when few Western countries were providing weapons.

It has long been suspected that the explosions in Bulgaria, at least from 2015 onwards, were acts of sabotage. Why prosecutors are now resuming their investigations is unclear.

Unlike the Czech authorities, who revealed new details about the explosions there and evicted dozens of Russian diplomats in response, Ms. Mileva provided little new evidence and gave no indication that a response was imminent.

A fire that broke out in an administrative building in Sofia, the capital, in May 2015 destroyed evidence related to these two explosions, Ms. Mileva said.

Bulgaria’s investigation into the explosions comes at a time of escalating confrontation between Russia and the West. Russian troops have been gathering on the border with Ukraine for weeks, although they have withdrawn a little over the past week. This month the United States announced it would expel ten Russian diplomats and impose sanctions as a punishment for a major breach of government computers that the White House accused Russian intelligence.

Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it has long enjoyed friendly relations with Russia, a major energy supplier. Recently, however, there have been indications that Bulgarian officials have grown tired of hosting Russian intelligence operations.

In January 2020, the Bulgarian authorities announced criminal charges against three officers from Department 29155 for poisoning Mr Gebrev, his son and the senior Emco manager. The three fell ill in April 2015, less than two weeks after an explosion in a Bulgarian ammunition depot. An investigation found that they were infected with a substance similar to the nerve agent Novichok, which UK authorities say was used by officers from Department 29155 on Mr Skripal and his daughter in the UK.

After Bulgarian officials announced last month the arrest of six people who they said were involved in a spy ring run by the Russian security services, the country’s prime minister Boiko Borisov spoke to reporters and asked the Kremlin to abandon it.

“Stop spying on Bulgaria,” said Borisov.

Boryana Dzhambazova reported from Sofia and Michael Schwirtz from New York.