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Bulgarian Factories and Secret Task Forces: How the West Hunts for Soviet Arms

Ukraine has long relied on Russian weapons for its armed forces. Now it is scrambling to get Soviet-era ammunition for those weapons, with the help of manufacturers even in rural corners of Eastern Europe.

KOSTENETS, Bulgaria — The job is straightforward, dangerous and will soon be open to applicants: filling a 122-millimeter Soviet-style artillery shell with explosives that will turn it into a lethal projectile.

For the residents of Kostenets, a dying mountain town in western Bulgaria, it’s a welcome opportunity despite the risk of death. It means more jobs at the Terem ammunition plant on the outskirts of town.

The factory stopped making the 122-millimeter shells in 1988 as the Cold War came to a close. But soon the assembly lines will be running again. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Soviet-era arms and ammunition into critically important matériel as Western nations seek to supply Ukraine with the munitions it needs to foil Moscow’s assault. 

And so in January, 35 years after the last 122-millimeter shells left the Terem plant, the company recommissioned production.

Small towns in Bulgaria, with its large pro-Russian population, might seem unlikely linchpins of Ukraine’s military effort. But one year into the war, despite an influx of sophisticated Western arms, the Ukrainian military still relies primarily on weapons that fire Soviet-standard munitions. The United States and its NATO allies don’t produce those munitions, and the few countries outside Russia that do are mostly in the former Soviet orbit.

That has Western countries scrambling to find alternative sources, pouring millions of dollars into workarounds that keep the transactions quiet and avoid political fallout and Russian retaliation. And that brings them to some of the more remote areas of Eastern Europe, like Kostenets, and the small town of Sopot, roughly 50 miles to the northeast, which is home to another state-run arms factory.

Source : The New York Times