Moscow’s ambassador to Bulgaria has threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Sofia by closing its embassy amid an escalating row over the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats on espionage concerns.
Bulgaria, a Nato and EU member which has in the past had closer ties with Moscow than most EU allies, this week said it would expel 70 Russian diplomats — the largest number sent back from any European nation since the invasion of Ukraine.
Sofia has since February sent home about two-thirds of the prewar Russian diplomatic contingent, as the government of outgoing premier Kiril Petkov takes a hard line on Moscow in response to the Ukraine war.
These latest expulsions provoked a furious response from Eleonora Mitrofanova, Russia’s ambassador to Bulgaria, who called on the government to reverse its decision.
When a Friday deadline went unheeded she threatened to close the embassy altogether — a move she said would inevitably be reciprocated by closing the Bulgarian embassy in Moscow.
Petkov asked Mitrofanova to reconsider, adding that despite the expulsions Russia would have more than three times as many diplomats in Sofia than the dozen Bulgarian staff at the Moscow embassy.
“Our diplomatic relations should continue,” Petkov told reporters on Friday. “We have history . . . but no country should think that some diplomat could give ultimatums to independent and free Bulgaria.”
Petkov, whose administration supported European sanctions and participated heavily in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, was forced to resign in a no-confidence vote last month, a situation that experts said may expose Sofia to increased Russian influence.
Nato and the EU rushed to Sofia’s defence. “Bulgaria’s . . . is a sovereign decision which must be respected,” the alliance said. “Nato allies strongly condemn Russia’s longstanding pattern of coercive behaviour, attempts to interfere in our democratic processes and institutions and to target the security of our citizens. We stand in solidarity with our ally Bulgaria.”
The European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, said it regretted “the unjustified threat of the Russian Federation to sever diplomatic ties with Bulgaria in response to Bulgaria’s decision, fully in line with international law, to expel 70 Russian Embassy staff who were acting in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” diplomatic language for espionage.
“Such a disproportionate step by Russia would only serve to further isolate it internationally,” the EEAS added.
Bulgaria has ironed out differences with neighbouring North Macedonia in recent weeks, lifting a veto over Skopje’s EU membership talks as Brussels urged an increased effort to continue enlargement in the Western Balkans and prevent growing Russian influence in the region.
The stand-off increases tensions between Russia and western alliances in the war’s fifth month as fears of a “war of exhaustion” escalate.