- The munitions shown in a TikTok video are not banned, they are produced and sold legally by a Bulgarian manufacturer;
- The video published on the platform is originally more than a year old and does not prove any export of Bulgarian munitions to Ukraine during the war;
- The munitions in the video were imported into Ukraine before the war began and are of no relevance for the public debate on military aid from Bulgaria in 2022-2023.
A video published on TikTok claims that ‘banned Bulgarian munitions’ were found on Ukrainian territory invaded by Russia. In the video a person in military gear, standing in a trench, displays a box in front of the camera. In the box there are VOG-17 grenade launcher rounds. According to the man in the video the rounds were found at captured Ukrainian positions and they were made in Bulgaria. The original speech in the video is in Russian but in the upper right part of the screen a caption in Bulgarian has been added. It reads: “Ukraine is using banned Bulgarian munitions.”
The video was published on TikTok on 9 April 2023 and has over 150,000 views. It was also shared on a Facebook group with about 15,000 members.
The original Russian text of the video does not say the munitions are banned but it does indeed say they were made in Bulgaria. „These are the same Bulgarian VOGs about which there have been so many lies,” says the person in the trench.
Factcheck.bg found that the video was first published on 27 February 2022 on “Boevoj Listok Z O V” – a pro-Russian website reporting news from the frontline in Donbas. The man showing the munitions found in the trench is Dmitry Astrakhan, a journalist with the state TV channel of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR ) and war correspondent for the Kremlin-controlled newspaper Izvestia.
Grenade launcher rounds like the ones shown by Astrakhan in the video are indeed produced in Bulgaria by the private-owned weapons manufacturer Arcus. They are not banned and can be found on the company’s website as part of its product list. From the photos published on the website it can be seen that Arcus products are indeed marked with the code 33 inscribed in two concentric circles – the same as the mark on the munitions seen in Dmitry Astrakhan’s video.
The authors on the Bulgarian military blog De Re Militari also confirm in a Facebook post that the munitions in the video are legal and not banned, and that grenade launcher rounds of that kind are manufactured in Bulgaria and have been delivered to Ukraine.
Bulgaria is a substantial producer and exporter of weapons and ammunition. Although private companies also operate in that sector, the export of their products is controlled by the state in order to ensure compliance with international law and sanctions regimes, and make sure weapons do not end up in the hands of terrorist or criminal groups. In Bulgaria the government body granting export permits for defence-related products is the Interministerial Commission for Export Control and Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction under the minister of the economy.
The commission’s annual reports before 2020 show that Bulgaria did export defence-related products to Ukraine. The value of the transactions varies from year to year – in 2013 and 2014 it was between 2 and 2.5 million euro but in 2015, for example, it was 16.7 million euro.
It is also possible that some of the Bulgarian products exported to other countries were resold to Ukraine. This kind of indirect exports were described in an investigation by Euractiv published in March. That means that the actual amount of Bulgarian-made weapons and ammunition reaching Ukraine could be substantially higher than the one reflected in the interministerial commission’s reports. According to those reports, in 2018 and 2019, for example, Bulgaria exported weapons and ammunition worth 59 million euro per year to the United States and 20.5 million per year to Poland.
The interministerial commission has not published reports for 2020, 2021 and 2022. To an enquiry by Factcheck.bg the government body replied that their reports for 2020 and 2021 had been approved by the Council of Ministers but not by Parliament, because of the limited time Bulgaria has had an active parliament over the last two years. The reports could therefore not be officially published yet. The 2022 report had not yet been reviewed by the Council of Ministers.
In April 2021 the Bulgarian public prosecution announced it was investigating 4 explosions at weapons depots in Bulgaria between 2011 and 2020 on suspicions of sabotage carried out by six Russian citizens. According to the published information the weapons stored at the depots were to be shipped to Georgia and Ukraine. The accounts of indirect exports via other NATO countries were also indirectly confirmed by the blowing up of a weapons depot in Czechia in October 2014, which was storing munitions made by the Bulgarian company EMCO. The company’s owner Emilian Gebrev said in a letter to the New York Times that EMCO was delivering weapons to Ukraine after the Russian invasion in 2014.
The munitions shown in the TikTok video are not banned. They are manufactured and sold legally by a private-owned Bulgarian company. The video was recorded in the first days of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. That means the munitions were imported into the country before the war began and their discovery is of no relevance for the public debate on Bulgarian military aid for Ukraine in 2022-2023.