Weapons found on both sides of the Donbas front lines
The @DFRLab recently reported on the commercial sale of American-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers to Ukraine, which occurred with the approval of the U.S. Departments of Defense and State. With so much international attention focused on the delivery of lethal American aid to Ukraine, we investigated how other Western governments already delivered lethal aid to Ukraine to assist in its ongoing war against Russia and Russia-led separatists in the Donbas.
In this #MinskMonitor, we analyze how Bulgarian-made grenades are exported to Ukraine, and are being used by both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
One of the earliest official mentions of Bulgarian-made lethal weapon exports to Ukraine since the outbreak of the conflict occurred in 2015, when Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov shared information on new arms being introduced to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Avakov described how DRTG-73 anti-tank grenades were being exported to Ukraine, “for the tanks and BTRs of the aggressors.” These rocket-propelled grenades are produced by Bulgaria’s largest defense manufacturer, Vazovski Mashinostritelni Zavod (VMZ).
Along with the text, Avakov attached a photograph of a rocket-propelled grenade.
However, Avakov’s photograph was not of a DRTG-73 grenade, as described in the text of his post, but instead the ROG-22 rocket fragmentation grenade, also produced by VMZ.
The DRTG-73 rocket-propelled grenade, as described by VMZ, “a disposable individual weapon” that comes with a launcher. The weapon can be seen below, differing from the photograph posted by Avakov on Facebook.
Avakov later posted a photograph of the imported weapons, which included the Bulgarian rocket-propelled grenades and their launchers.
These rocket-propelled grenades and launchers were VMZ-made RPG-22 systems, as seen in comparison between the displayed weapons with a photograph on the VMZ website.
In sum, in his Facebook post and subsequent comments , Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov either directly referenced or posted photographs of all three of VMZ’s rocket-propelled grenade launchers: the DRTG-73, ROG-22, and RPG-22 disposable systems.
Bulgarian weapons used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces
In November 2017, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Directorate of the People’s Militia published a video, which claimed to show Bulgarian weapons fired by the Ukrainian Armed Forces near the village of Zaitseve.
These rocket-propelled grenades were manufactured by the Bulgarian Arsenal factory, as seen in the number ten within two circles.
Other Bulgarian weapons used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces were found in November 2017, produced by both VMZ (11 enclosed by a double-circle) and Arsenal (10 enclosed by a double-circle). Photographs of these grenade cases were posted onto the VK page of Mikhail Andronik, who works in the press service of the so-called DNR’s armed forces.
Among these cases were the VMZ factory’s rocket-propelled grenade, which were previously found in Avdiivka’s industrial zone (Promzona) by the same photographer.
Though arms recently exported to Ukraine from Bulgaria have been sent to the front lines, most of the Bulgarian-made grenades and shells that have been used in battle were manufactured before the fall of the Soviet Union. The production dates of some of the shells photographed by the so-called DNR’s press service are 1984, 1988, and 1989.
These weapons delivered to Ukraine from Bulgaria — both before and after the outbreak of the ongoing conflict — are a far cry from the expensive and modernized weapons being provided by the United States, including Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Separatists’ Bulgarian weapons
The Ukrainian Armed Forces aren’t the only forces in the country with Bulgarian weapons, as Russian-led separatists have also added some Bulgarian weapons to their armaments. In December 2016, the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) published photographs of weapons that were seized from a separatist weapons cache near the village of Berdyanske in the Donetsk Oblast. Among these weapons were the RPG-22 produced by the Bulgarian defense manufacturer VMZ. The weapon includes an eleven with two circles around it, signifying the VMZ factory, along with “РПГ-22” (RPG-2) in Cyrillic.
The proliferation of Bulgarian-made weapons in eastern Ukraine should be entirely expected, especially with the frequent sightings and documented usages of Soviet-era rocket-propelled grenades. The Bulgarian defense manufacturers VMZ and Arsenal are notorious for how freely their weapons have fallen into the hands of rebel groups and Islamic extremists .
Additionally, Bulgaria is one of the world’s largest weapon exporters, with over one billion Euros of licensed exports in 2016, which makes exports to Ukraine expected. In 2015 alone, Bulgaria exported over 16 million Euros of arms to Ukraine and emerged as a key trading partner for Ukraine defense spending. Thus, we should not be surprised by the the presence of Bulgarian-made weapons on the both sides of the front-line in the Donbas.
Next week, @DFRLab will continue our ongoing survey of Western lethal exports to Ukraine over the past four years and publish research on Lithuanian weapons exported to Ukraine.
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