Poland Pushes Back Against Putin’s Special War

Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz speaks during a joint UK/Poland press conference in London on October 12, 2017. LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

More than any country in the West, Poland in recent years has been ahead of the curve in resisting aggressive moves emanating from Russia. Six months before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Warsaw was embracing territorial defense, fearing invasion from the East. Last year the Polish military, which is in the middle of an extensive defense modernization effort, created a new, part-time force designed to resist Putin’s “little green men” in case Moscow decides to unleash a Crimea-like operation on Poland.

None of this is surprising, given Poland’s long history with its Russian neighbor, most of it unpleasant. Memories of Muscovite occupation remain fresh in Polish minds and motivate Warsaw to take preparations for war more seriously than most of NATO does. For Poles, the threat from the East is painfully real and doesn’t need to be explained: it simply is.

Moreover, Warsaw’s preparations for war include contending with the constant efforts by Russians spies and provocateurs to harm Poland in what I’ve termed Special War—the secret espionage and propaganda struggle at which the Kremlin regrettably excels, as Americans learned to our great political pain in 2016.

It’s no accident that NATO’s new Centre of Excellence for counterintelligence just opened shop in Poland. The Atlantic Alliance runs several Centres of Excellence, specializing in a wide array of military and security subjects, and the creation of a CoE for counterintelligence could not be better timed. The new Cracow-based CoE will provide counterintelligence expertise and training to NATO students, with an emphasis on rising espionage threats. Antoni Macierewicz, Poland’s defense minister, explained forthrightly that the Cracow center is “fundamentally important, especially in the face of threats from Russia.”

In recent years, as Russian espionage against Warsaw has ticked upward and become more aggressive, Polish counterintelligence has pushed back, led by the Internal Security Agency, known as ABW in Polish. Since 2013, ABW operations have unmasked several Russian spies in Poland, many of them working for GRU, that is Russian military intelligence, which has a deep interest in all NATO activities on the Kremlin’s western border.

However, the Kremlin’s main foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, spies on Poland a great deal as well, and one of its operatives has just been expelled from the country for espionage. Last week, the ABW announced the deportation of Dmitry Karnaukhov, a Russian academic whose real job was espionage. Specifically, Karnaukhov was operating as an agent of influence—that is, spreading anti-Polish propaganda while spotting and assessing agents for recruitment by the SVR.

As a Polish intelligence spokesman explained, Karnaukhov “had been conducting activity aimed at jeopardizing the interests of the Polish state, initiating hostile hybrid activities and maintaining contacts with special services of the Russian Federation.” His entrée in Warsaw was his employment with the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI in Russian) which, as I’ve explained before, operates as a front for the SVR. Ostensibly a think-tank, its head from 2009 until early this year was Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired SVR lieutenant-general who started his career in the KGB and became a mystical Putin-style nationalist after the Soviet collapse. RISI’s current director is Mikhail Fradkov, who headed the SVR from 2007 to 2016.

Using his RISI affiliation as cover for espionage, while maintaining close contact with his SVR bosses, according to the ABW, Karnaukhov:

Undertook a wide range of initiatives in order to jeopardize the interests of the Polish state. These included initiating pro-Russian information campaigns in Poland, pushing narratives aimed at exacerbating animosities between Poland and Ukraine, inducing… attempts to discredit Polish authorities both in domestic and international media. In the last year, the group of individuals recruited by [Karnaukhov] has increased considerably.

After months of surveillance of Karnaukhov’s activities, the ABW determined that this Russian spy had to be expelled from the country. “There is zero tolerance for his cooperation with a hostile state,” Warsaw pronounced, and the SVR’s man has returned to Russia while his bio page has been scrubbed from the RISI website.

Karnaukhov’s mission in Poland encompassed a wide range of Special War activities, from agent recruitment to targeted propaganda aimed at harming Poland and its relations with its neighbors. Among the Poles eyed for recruitment by Karnaukhov were several journalists, whom the SVR operative sized up to see who might be amenable to accepting money or gifts in exchange for pushing the Kremlin line in the media.

There were plenty of potential candidates, explained Jerzy Targalski, a Polish expert, about the case: “Identifying agents of influence is not a difficult thing to do. I can spot a hundred or so of them on my own. The problem is something else. There’s nothing that can be done about most of them,” since Poles have freedom of expression—including the right to parrot the Kremlin’s viewpoints.

Russian citizens doing such things can be expelled—as the SVR’s man just was—but it’s much more difficult to do anything about Westerners who push Kremlin lies. “The question is what should be done about Polish citizens who do the same things” as Karnaukov, Targalski added—and there indeed is the rub.

Across the West, citizens are free to express their opinions, even when they happen to be Russian-scripted disinformation. Such lies ought to be discredited in the public square—something that the American government mysteriously can’t get around to doing—while Russian intelligence operatives and disinformation-peddlers need to be identified and expelled, as has just happened in Poland.

As usual, Warsaw is leading the way in resisting Russian threats to Europe and the West. The Karnaukhov case demonstrates an effective way to push back against Kremlin spies and their lies without infringing on the civil liberties that Westerners rightly hold dear. If the rest of NATO follows Poland’s robust counterintelligence lead here, Putin’s Special War will find it tough going rather quickly.

As for Dmitry Karnaukhov, it’s possible we haven’t seen the last of him. The two Russian spies currently awaiting trial for attempting a violent coup last year in Montenegro—NATO’s newest member—are senior GRU officers who were expelled from Poland in 2014 for their aggressive espionage against Warsaw. Karnaukhov is laying low for now, but he may reappear in another Western country, posing as an academic while really working for the SVR. Moscow plays the long game in Special War.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee. 

Poland Pushes Back Against Putin’s Special War