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From a limousine driver to an arms dealer – how a Bulgarian makes a deal for 30 million with Ukraine

Since the deepest antiquity, war has always represented an opportunity not only to achieve some political or other goals, but also a chance for personal economic well-being for all kinds of opportunists.

Conditions of chaos and uncertainty often open up various business opportunities for speculators, mercenaries, fraudsters, thieves, or simply manufacturers and traders who find a market for scarce goods.

And in times of war, weapons are in short supply.

This is exactly what the Bulgarian Martin Zlatev, who lives in the USA, realizes. Until last year, he worked as a limousine driver in St. Louis, but with the beginning of the war in Ukraine, he decided to enter the arms business.

A New York Times (NYT) investigation has come across documents showing how Zlatev and his business partner, Dr. Heather Georgievski, were about to make a $30 million arms deal with the government of Ukraine that included ammunition and weapons made in USA, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is a private initiative in a free market where demand determines supply. In this case, Ukraine is in dire need of a different kind of weapons and equipment to deal with the Russian invasion, with a large part of the supply covered by NATO governments.

The largest share is held by the United States, which has so far provided Kyiv with military aid worth $17.5 billion in a series of deals. However, they are all government-initiated and placed under strict state control so as to minimize the risks of weapons ending up in the wrong place.

This is not the case with private arms dealers and brokers, who fall into a gray area of ​​domestic and international law.

The problem is that although they operate legitimately in the territory where they are registered, they often have to source goods from third parties using numerous other intermediaries and merchants.

Thus, traders often circumvent or directly violate local laws by taking advantage of corrupt practices and other illegal tools.

The other problem is that by passing unchecked through several different intermediaries on their way, many weapons can end up in a completely different place and in the wrong hands.

“In this way, an entire economy is being promoted, which exists in a gray legal space without international borders and with people with dubious motives,” believes Elias Yousif, an expert on the international arms trade.

“It’s like the Wild West. We’re seeing a lot of people who weren’t involved in arms sales before now getting involved because they see opportunities,” said Olga Torres, a lawyer who represents arms exporters and works on the federal Advisory defense trade group.

A Ukrainian soldier with an RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launcher, one of the weapons that have been imported in particular since the start of the conflictPhoto: Getty Images

A Ukrainian soldier with an RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launcher, one of the weapons that have been imported in particular since the start of the conflict

Martin Zlatev is exactly like that. Until late last year, he was in a limousine rental business, but left it after a dispute with his then-partner. For his part, Dr. Georgievski is an osteopathic physician with an office in St. Louis.

The two decided to take advantage of the opportunity to enter the arms business in the context of the war in Ukraine and the fact that the American government significantly eased the procedure for granting licenses to arms dealers.

Washington is allowing more and more such players to operate in the sector because of the need to ease the burden on the government and the fact that various middlemen like Zlatev can more easily and quickly secure Eastern European or old Soviet weapons, which the Ukrainian military is fine with familiar. The US government still gives the final clearances, but it’s much easier now.

Of course, it is not particularly high-tech, but on the other hand extremely important production such as ammunition and ammunition for artillery, grenade launchers and any other light weapons for the infantry.

So is Zlatev and Georgievski’s deal, according to official documents cited by the NYT.

The company of the two entrepreneurs is called BMI, and its address is located in the city of Eureka, on the outskirts of St. Louis. The office is at the same address as a shooting range and next door to a Mexican restaurant.

In the agreement between the Ministry of Defense in Kyiv and BMI, it is written that the Ukrainians must deposit 25 million dollars into BMI’s account. In turn, the company agreed to pay another intermediary for 2.2 million small-caliber rounds from the US military. The munitions in question must be taken by plane to Poland and from there by trucks to Ukraine.

However, the rest of the deal is much more complex and involves many more parties. BMI is to purchase 540 anti-tank grenade launchers and 22 mortars from a manufacturer in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They must reach Ukraine by transiting through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia and Poland.

However, it is not enough to turn the tide of the war

The Bulgarian part of the whole scheme includes the delivery of 900 missiles. The total value of the grenade launchers, rockets and mortars is $5 million.

The whole problem in this case is that the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria do not officially allow the arms trade with Ukraine, and for this reason Zlatev presents incorrect documents, according to which the final destination of the arms is Poland.

It’s not entirely clear what the status of the $30 million deal is, but according to the NYT, it’s close to happening.

For Elias Yusif, such agreements can hardly change the situation at the front, but instead create conditions for other long-term problems by building a network of illegal channels and middlemen.

And when the war is over, Ukraine will become a huge black market for weapons.

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