Poland's Internal Security Agency has exposed members of the largest network of Russian agents in the country's history. The detained saboteurs were supposed to organize sabotage to disrupt the supply of military aid to Ukraine and work to deteriorate relations between Ukraine and Poland.
Ukrainian special services were also involved in this operation to neutralize Russian agents, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) told LIGA.net.
Poland is the No. 1 target for Russian intelligence, Grzegorz Kuczyński, director of the Eurasia program at the Warsaw Institute, tells LIGA.net.
Our brief analysis looks into how Russia is attempting to disrupt military aid supplies to Ukraine, with a focus on targeting Poland's role in transfers.
In the last days of August, journalists revealed the details of the exposure of the largest network of Russian agents in Polish history. They recruited mostly young people – most of the agents were in their 20s – through ads on Russian-language Telegram channels looking for work or housing.
REFERENCE. According to Gazeta Polska, from March to July 2023, 15 people were detained and charged with spying for Russia’s Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU). They face up to 10 years in prison.
The tasks were performed for the promise of quick money. At first, they were doing tasks that seemed completely innocent: posting leaflets and drawing graffiti. Then, more serious ones: collecting and transmitting information about railway stations, airfields, and seaports in Poland.
The network of agents was uncovered by accident: a passerby noticed a camera lens on one of the strategically important routes for supplying weapons to Ukraine. The device was seized and the rest of the cell was found.
The Polish intelligence services planned to monitor the pro-Russian agents in order to identify their supervisors in the Russian GRU. But when the risk of sabotage became more real, they decided to detain those involved immediately.
The investigation is now focused on identifying the Russian operatives who oversaw the network of agents in Poland.
Neither the Ukrainian nor the Polish special services can disclose any more details, the Security Service of Ukraine told LIGA.net.
The core of the exposed network were Ukrainian citizens, The Washington Post reports. Citizens of Belarus and Russia were also among the recruits. Polish special services note that not all of them performed tasks because of their ideology. Most simply wanted to make money.
The reliance on young people is easy to explain, military expert and former SBU officer Ivan Stupak tells LIGA.net. Young people may be more susceptible to certain activities promised as "safe" and lucrative, as they tend to be less suspicious of motives, and less cautious about compromising safety or values for perceived quick financial gains – especially for seemingly safe actions (such as graffiti or handing out propaganda). The recruits may not even know that they are working for the special services.
It should also be borne in mind that Russian security forces in the occupied territories have seized many Ukrainian passports that they could distribute to their people. Then, under the guise of refugees, they could send them to perform tasks in the EU countries, Stupak adds.
Information about logistics hubs in Ukraine is extremely valuable to the Russians, and they spare no resources to obtain it, he says.
There are at least a dozen similar organizations in the country, confirms former Polish Army Commander General Waldemar Skrzypczak.
Another goal of these operations is to spoil relations between Ukraine and Poland, Stupak adds: "Russian intelligence services can work in different directions – economic, political, religious, ethnic – to divide society and turn it against supporting Ukraine."
They can – and are already working, Andriy Deshchytsia, Ukraine's former ambassador to Poland, told LIGA.net. Since 2014, Russia has been trying its best to create tension between Ukraine and Poland. In particular, by speculating on history.
"This should be taken into account and acted upon proactively," he notes.
Poland is a key country in the process of transferring military aid to Ukraine, Grzegorz Kuczyński, director of the Eurasia Program at the Warsaw Institute, tells LIGA.net. "From the beginning of the war, it was clear that this would make Poland the No. 1 target for Russian intelligence.
Especially given the anti-Russian policy that the Polish authorities began to pursue long before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
According to him, it was clear that Russian intelligence would use Belarusian and Ukrainian migrants: "Polish counterintelligence is coping well with this threat. There have been no serious sabotages."
This is all the more important because, after all, some Russian agents enter Poland from other EU countries on Schengen visas, Kuczyński adds.
Disrupting the supply of military aid to Ukraine remains the main task of Russian agents at various levels, Oleksandr Danyliuk, a corresponding member of the Royal United Services Institute focused on defense studies (RUSI, UK), tells LIGA.net. He is a co-author of a RUSI study on the activities of Russian special services.
The Russian Federation wants to deprive Ukraine of its combat potential, Vladyslav Selezniov, a colonel in the Armed Forces and former spokesman for the General Staff, tells LIGA.net.
Danyliuk is convinced that Russians are unlikely to succeed in scaling up sabotage or diversions in Poland or other European countries. In particular, thanks to the vigilance of the special services.
"It is unlikely that any large groups will act to derail Bradley or Challenger trains heading to Ukraine every day. Even the hypothetical scale of such sabotage actions will not lead to Ukraine being deprived of aid," he said. "Therefore, the main efforts of the Russian special services will be realized in other dimensions.
First of all, political influences to try to achieve a reduction in the amount of aid and the exclusion of certain types of weapons from the list. Additionally, the Kremlin allegedly targets public institutions and trade unions in an attempt to shape discourse and opposition to continued military support of Ukraine.
Inherited from the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence services have well-established agent positions in trade union organizations around the world. They can still exert influence through them, Danyliuk says.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russians have been trying to inspire strikes and protests in different countries through these organizations.
For example, they were involved in the strike of port workers in Italy who tried to block the shipment of aid to Ukraine. They also tried to change the agenda of the winter protests in Britain from purely social to political and include cuts in aid to Ukraine in their list of demands.
"Another example is the current strikes at the factory in North Ayrshire (Scotland), where Storm Shadow missiles are produced. The workers were supposed to strike because of unsatisfactory working conditions," says Danyliuk. "At the moment, they are not causing problems with the supply of missiles to Ukraine. But this may change. Therefore, we have to closely monitor the developments."