Is a Bulgarian battalion fighting in Ukraine or is it only on social networks?

Is a Bulgarian battalion fighting in Ukraine or is it only on social networks?

Dressed in camouflage military fatigues, helmets, heavy black boots and holding what appear to be automatic weapons, the group pose for a photo with a Bulgarian flag unfurled in a field surrounded by a row of trees.

The photo was uploaded on March 24 to the Facebook page of the so-called Macedonian-Bulgarian foreign battalion “Todor Alexandrov”, a reference to a leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) who was active during and after the period ottoman. rule in the Balkans. According to this social media account, the group is deployed in Ukraine to fight against invading Russian forces.

Shortly after the Facebook page was posted, articles about the group appeared in the Bulgarian media, including interviews with members of the alleged fighting force, talking about their mission and calling for donations.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to foreigners willing to help defend Ukraine and join the fight. The government has even created a website for them to join the international squadwhich are now thought to number in the thousands.

The Macedonian-Bulgarian foreign battalion, however, does not appear to be one of them.

Grilled in parliament in April over the alleged fighting force, Bulgarian Defense Minister Dragomir Zakov said the Facebook photos were fake.

Some analysts and commentators analyzed Zakov’s words, noting that he said the photos were fake but did not explicitly state that the battalion was also fictional.

Most, if not all of the clues to the group’s existence come from social media posts.

The adage that truth is the first casualty of war seems even truer in the age of social media. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fake news metastasized on social media, much of which doctored videos of battles that never happened or in the past elsewhere.

RFE/RL’s Bulgarian service examined the images uploaded to the group’s Facebook page and found that they were all from years ago or appeared to have been stolen from other sites.

One image, for example, purporting to show Bulgarian or Macedonian fighters, actually appeared to be Belarusians. “Hello, we are in Ukraine! Greetings from us and our Georgian and Ukrainian brothers! reads the text accompanying the photo uploaded to the group’s Facebook page on March 24.

A Facebook post from the alleged Macedonian-Bulgarian battalion in Ukraine.

However, RFE/RL found the photo to bear a striking resemblance to another of what appears to be the same group. Instead of a Bulgarian flag, a white banner with red stripes of the Belarusian opposition is unfurled, as well as a black anarchist banner.

The image appears to have first appeared on a Telegram channel of a group of Belarusian fighters inside Ukraine on March 23, a day before it appeared on the Bulgarian battalion. Facebook page.

Another photo, released on May 16, shows fighters from the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps of the Nationalist Right Sector pledging allegiance to the Ukrainian people.

The original image is from at least two days before it was added to the post of the “Macedonian-Bulgarian Battalion”.

Coincidentally or not, the colors of the Right Sector banner – red and black – are the same as those of the VMRO, an early 20th century group founded by anti-Ottoman Macedonian-Bulgarian revolutionaries.

The Facebook page of the Macedonian-Bulgarian Foreign Battalion also uses images that have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.

Photos of drones, for example, that a March 19 post claims have been submitted by a donor, can be found on various hardware selling sites, such as this one.

Krasi Panchev, who has worked as a contractor for a private military company for 14 years, appeared in a photo uploaded to the battalion’s Facebook page. Panchev told RFE/RL that the photo was taken in Bulgaria, in Plovdiv, and not in Ukraine, as the Facebook page claims. Moreover, it was not a group of volunteers but Bulgarian military personnel, Panchev said.

Curious as to who might have been responsible, Panchev and others dug deeper, an investigation that led to 22-year-old airsoft enthusiast Ivan Belishki, a team-fighted airgun game. Eventually, they contacted him and asked him to remove the photo. Although Belishki denied any role in the Facebook page, the photo eventually disappeared from the social media site.

“It’s kind of his concoction,” Panchev said of the Facebook site, pointing to Belishki. “There is absolutely no such thing, it doesn’t exist,” Panchev added.

Contacted by RFE/RL, Belishki, who set fire to a Russian flag during a demonstration in Sofia in support of Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion, denied any role in the Facebook project.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Belishki said. “Such allegations are not serious, and if anyone makes such allegations, I would like to know so that I can take legal action,” he added.

RFE/RL contacted the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense to find out if it was investigating the misinformation being spread on the Facebook page. The ministry said it could not share more than was disclosed by Defense Minister Zakov in parliament.

RFE/RL also turned to the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, which declined to comment on whether an investigation into the case had been opened. “Certainly, since this information has been officially released, certain measures have been taken,” the ministry said.

While the battalion may be nothing more than a social media creation, sources tell RFE/RL that individual Bulgarians – between 10 and 100 – may be fighting in Ukraine.