WARSAW — The sun-splashed streets of Warsaw in late August, periodically pelted with surprise rain showers looked, sounded, smelled and felt like any other modern, international city.
Men and women in business suits rushed along to their appointments, dodging puddles, talking on their mobile phones. Trains, buses and cars snaked their way through the city.
Young couples, tourists and students strolled slowly, reveling in the sophisticated, yet historical texture of Poland’s capital.
The city of almost two million is a colorful, trendy, destination for a growing, widely diverse group of international travelers.
It’s also a magnet for spies.
That’s nothing new. What is new, is evidence that indicates it’s now a destination for saboteurs, terrorists and assassins sent there by Russian intelligence.
In the last week, a 44-year-old foreign national, according to a statement from Poland’s domestic security agency (ABW), pleaded guilty to spying for Russian intelligence. His task was locating and documenting details about “specific facilities belonging to institutions responsible for the state internal security,” said the statement.
ABW said the yet-to-be-identified man acted independently, but “was getting instructions directly from the territory of the Russian Federation.”
This is the latest in a string of recent spy arrests, all of which are connected to Russia.
In March, the Polish Prosecutor’s office announced that six people had been “charged with spying for Russia and taking part in organized crime.”
The detainees, according to a statement from the prosecutor’s office, were foreign nationals from countries east of Poland’s borders.
Since then, approximately a dozen others have been taken into custody on similar charges.
It all began, earlier this year, with innocuous, online job postings that offered modest wages to desperate, unemployed people in Poland that were willing to post signs in public places.
But, what the employment ads didn’t say is that the signs they were to post, would promote Russian government propaganda.
It’s geostrategic location, membership in the European Union, NATO and it’s prominent role in Ukraine’s existential fight against Russia have made Poland a key target for Russia’s intelligence services.
A top Polish security official said there is little doubt about the origin of the threat.
“We are pretty sure that this is a Russian network of spies,” Stanislaw Zaryn, Deputy Minister of Special Services, told a group of reporters in late August.
“Russia was forced by our decision, to change their modus operandi,” he said.
He was referring to a crushing blow that Warsaw delivered to Moscow’s spying capabilities inside Poland in March of 2022.
Dozens of diplomats were kicked out of the country on suspicions of spying.
Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on Twitter, “Poland has expelled 45 Russian spies pretending to be diplomats. We are dismantling the Russian special services network in our country.”
According to Zaryn, “we decided to expose every single intelligence officer that we identified among the Russian diplomats.” The move he said forced Moscow to look for new ways to spy on Poland.
Moscow’s new, aggressive intelligence activities are believed to be the most substantial in Poland since the war in Ukraine started.
The main objective
When the amateurish plot to recruit ordinary, untrained people to spy inside Poland started to unravel, Moscow’s main objective was exposed. It was comprised of several key elements.
The most pressing was to cut off the pipeline of weapons being sent to Ukraine to use against Russia in the brutal war raging there.
The plan involved the identification of key transit hubs, placing cameras and tracking devices on military cargo. It even included a scheme to derail trains carrying those weapons across the Polish border into Ukraine.
The transit network, according to retired U.S. Army Colonel, Ray Wojcik, who lives in Poland, “is vital.”
Wojcik, a consultant with the Kosciuszko Chain, said the vast majority of weapons being sent to Ukraine, arrives via a Polish transit link.
“About 80% of the equipment’s coming through Poland. So that’s why it’s really important for the Pols to protect it,” said Wojcik.
A second significant concern is forced migration.
In April, Zaryn said, Russia and Belarus were jointly orchestrating a hybrid warfare operation to funnel illegal migrants through Poland. The maneuver, which he called “coordinated and systemic” dates back to 2021 and reflects a tactic being deployed throughout Europe.
“The Russians are deliberately using foreigners to weaken Western countries. The operation to destabilize Europe has been discussed many times by Russian military experts and strategists,” Zaryn said.
The most ambitious item on Moscow’s to-do-list appears to be a plan to influence voters in upcoming elections.
“We have some analysis that indicates Russia is looking for opportunities to destabilize the situation using cyberattacks to put political pressure on Poland during the preelection period,” said Zaryn.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Poland for October 15th.
Moscow’s breathing space
The danger of Russia’s growing utilization of hybrid warfare is something some Western governments and populations don’t seem to fully understand.
The latency in comprehending the connection between Kremlin-sponsored election interference; widespread, anti-government protests in the U.S. and other NATO countries, and full-blown kinetic war in Ukraine, has provided Moscow, according to multiple defense and intelligence sources, with breathing space.
One U.S. intelligence source said, “this allows them to gradually plan and execute schemes that could have deadly outcomes, like the plot to disrupt Poland’s transit hub.”
NATO’s inability or reluctance to take stronger action against malicious Russian activities, some of which of are just below the threshold that would trigger Article 5, is frustrating to many government and military officials in countries bordering Ukraine.
Article 5 is the cornerstone of the NATO charter. It essentially means that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies. And all would respond.
Debris from Russian-launched drones was found in NATO member country Romania, Wednesday.
A Russian missile killed two Polish farmers in November of 2022.
NATO has not responded in either case. But in the future, that may change.
Speaking at the Karpacz Economic Forum near Wroclaw, Poland this week, General Rajmund Andrzejczak, Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces warned that NATO needs to essentially wake up and more aggressively execute its responsibility to deal with Russian belligerence.
He compared the current NATO response to Russia’s behavior to a fictitious meeting scenario between the Kremlin and NATO where Russians show up looking and acting like “gangsters,” with weapons and NATO shows up unarmed, wearing a Panama T-shirt.
“What is wrong with us,” he asked rhetorically. “Russia is still the same and we have a situation in a neighboring country where Russia is saying publicly it is putting nuclear systems in Belarus, and what are we doing in our Panama T-shirt?”
I don’t want to escalate too much, but what is wrong with our vocabulary? NATO is a nuclear organization. Full stop.”
Poland has successfully launched an aggressive operation to round up the spies and track down their handlers.
But given Russia’s inability to achieve its military goals in Ukraine, “it’s likely,” said the U.S. intelligence source, that “Moscow’s espionage and hybrid war campaigns in neighboring countries will continue to grow, as a means of distraction.”
JJ Green reported from Warsaw and Rzeszow, Poland, for this story.