The forthcoming visit to Bulgaria by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is extremely significant, Defence Minister Dragomir Zakov told Bulgarian National Radio on March 15.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that Austin would be in Brussels on March 15 for a meeting of Nato defence ministers, after which he would travel to Slovakia.
Austin had added a third stop to the trip, Bulgaria.
Austin would have a chance to meet with senior civilian and military leaders in Bulgaria “also a key stop in terms of the eastern flank of the Alliance,” Kirby said.
Zakov said that Austin’s visit showed the strong commitment of the US to security in Nato.
Bulgaria’s Defence Minister said that the formation of the country’s new battalion battle group was at a very advanced stage.
The government previously has said that the battalion battle group would be under Bulgarian command, with participation from Nato allies.
Zakov said that Bulgaria used its MiG-29 fighter jets for air policing, but they were few and insufficient “so we will rely on our allies”.
“We are looking for options for Bulgaria to continue its air policing mission. We are not only protecting the Bulgarian sky, we are also protecting Nato space. If necessary, we will do so with our allies,” he said.
On March 14, President Roumen Radev, meeting senior military officers, raised the issue of “taking urgent measures to ensure the protection of our air space by Bulgarian aircraft with Bulgarian crews”.
Radev’s statement raised eyebrows in some quarters, given the long-standing shortfall in Bulgaria’s ageing Soviet-made MiG-29s, uncertainty when it will take delivery of the F-16s it has paid for, and the practice of years for Nato allies to provide fighter jets to assist in guarding Bulgaria’s air space.
The US embassy in Sofia said that US Vice President Kamala Harris had spoken by phone with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on March 14 “to discuss the next steps in our collective response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.
Harris had “underscored the US commitment to the security of our Nato allies and expressed support for collective efforts underway to reinforce Nato’s defence and deterrence,” the embassy said.
A Bulgarian government statement said that Harris had thanked the Bulgarian government for the humanitarian aid Bulgaria was providing to Ukraine, as well as for the reception of those fleeing the war.
(Photo of Zakov: Ministry of Defence)
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