Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 16

The Polish government did some lashing out of its own this weekend, warning Moscow that its retaliatory move will create “unnecessary tensions” between Russia and Poland, placing responsibility for this threat to bilateral relations squarely on Russia. Polish Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz, meanwhile, told reporters on January 21 that Russian espionage in Poland has increased since Warsaw joined NATO last spring. He suggested that Russia has stepped up its spying activities in other NATO states as well, adding, in fact, that the threat posed by Russian agents in Poland probably does not exceed that faced by other NATO countries (AP, January 21). Polish officials also denied that they had been pressured by NATO into expelling the Russian diplomats. Although a Foreign Ministry spokesman intimated that the allies had been consulted, one Polish official was quoted as saying that Warsaw “doesn’t act on behalf of the West; Poland is in the West.” A member of the Polish parliament’s Secret Service Committee said that the government had consulted with lawmakers for several months on the case, and suggested that the government action had come only after careful consideration (AP, January 21; Washington Post, January 22).

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on January 22 that Poland’s expulsion of the Russian diplomats had come soon after the Russian government had resolved to improve and expand relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Ivanov provided no details, but suggested that the spy wrangle could complicate parallel Russian plans aimed at boosting ties with Poland. “I hope the Polish leadership will think seriously about the situation and act in the interests of the development of relations between our countries, which meets the interests of European stability,” he was quoted as saying. A Russian Foreign Intelligence Service official was less diplomatic. He charged that the timing and scope of the Polish action demonstrated Warsaw’s desire both to “radically revise the nature of Russian-Polish relations” and to “isolate Russia in the international arena.” (Itar-Tass, January 21-22).

It is not clear whether the Russian-Polish spy row has fully run its course. At least one report over the weekend intimated that there could eventually be arrests in Poland involving Polish citizens compromised by their involvement with the expelled Russian diplomats (Itar-Tass, January 21). That would surely keep tensions simmering. Warsaw, meanwhile, has reasons for seeking improved relations with Moscow. Poland would like to increase its export trade to Russia, which has dropped since Moscow’s 1998 economic crisis (AP, January 21; Washington Post, January 22). At the same time, relations will undoubtedly continue to be tested both by Warsaw’s growing integration into the Western military alliance–something which Russia vehemently opposes–and by strong Polish opposition to Russia’s war in Chechnya. In early December Poland joined with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia in issuing a call for Russia to observe the human rights of civilians in Chechnya (Reuters, December 3).

In this same context, it is worth noting that Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin is himself a former head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, and that earlier in his career as a KGB officer he served in what was then East Germany. Putin’s own rise to the pinnacle of power in the Russian government has been paralleled, moreover, by a broader influx of intelligence personnel into key government positions. All of this has strengthened the influence of the intelligence establishment on Russian security policymaking, and is undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind what appear to be stepped-up espionage activities by Russian agents in Poland. and elsewhere. Whatever the outcome of the current Russian-Polish spy wrangle, it seems unlikely that the increased aggressiveness of Russian operatives overseas will decrease any time soon.