In February 2018, the small town of Uzhhorod in southwestern Ukraine bore witness to unusual events. To be more specific, there was an attempt to set fire to the office of the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association.
The alleged perpetrators had arrived to the town with one goal in mind: to destroy, record their action and vanish into thin air. The plan worked, despite some problems early on. As it turned out, the arson attack was not necessarily an act of vandalism. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it could be a part of a complex hostile influence operation fitting in the modus operandi that Russian special services employ in their activities against the West.
In the aftermath of the Uzhhorod arson attack, a part of Hungarian infrastructure was damaged, the Ukrainian state was ridiculed and its capability to guarantee security was questioned. And all this happened in the middle of a harsh dispute Kiev and Budapest had been involved in for months over the right of minorities living in Ukraine, to use their language.
Additionally, the attack was meant to undermine relations Poland maintains with Ukraine and Hungary, as direct executors of the plan turned out to be Polish citizens.
This incident deserves a thorough analysis because it shows that Russian “hybrid activities” against NATO go well beyond spreading fake news or pushing manipulated narratives. The Russian hybrid warfare toolkit has more to offer, including aggressive activities or even inflicting physical harm.
Western countries have been waking up to the aggressive methods Russia uses against NATO members. Unfortunately, many people still have a limited understanding of what the term “Russian activities” really means. Their first thought would be “propaganda campaigns” or “spreading lies and disinformation through the media.” And they could not be more wrong. Such simplification is a huge mistake, potentially leading to the underestimation of a really serious threat.
In fact, apart from information activities per se, Russia carries out so-called hostile influence campaigns. These consume more resources and require the use of a multitude of methods. Main tasks are performed by Russian special services which — given the realities in Russia — are able to force any institution in the country to push its agenda. They carry out intelligence work, and “intelligence work” Russian-style quite often translates to “launching kinetic operations.” These aggressive measures can be used as part of hostile influence.
The Uzhhorod incident of 2018 prompted a response from Polish authorities. Poland’s domestic counterintelligence agency, ABW, soon identified the alleged perpetrators and the mastermind behind the attack. Their trial in a Polish court is pending.
As testified by the accused and found by the ABW, the arson attack had been meticulously planned. The group had communicated via encrypted messaging apps, they had used mobile phones purchased exclusively for the needs of that action and they had traveled in such a way so as to lose potential tails. During all that time they had been in touch with the brains behind the attack who had evaluated their every step, as well as the final effect.
The statements made by the accused and the findings of facts provide enough evidence to conclude that what happened in Uzhhorod was a well-planned operation intended to cause an international political sabotage. Presumably, it was carried out for propaganda purposes on the one hand, and for political ones on the other.
The trial also revealed the international background of the case. Michał P. (full name withheld under Polish privacy laws), a Pole in charge of recruiting the thugs for the attack and the “big fish” on the Polish side, stated that the order to engage in Ukraine had come from Germany. More specifically, Michał P. named a German journalist with ties to Germany’s far-right party, AfD, as the mastermind behind the operation. The journalist was supposed to have shared the plan of the attack with Michał P. The plan’s main points involved setting fire to the building of the Hungarian center in Uzhhorod and painting fascist symbols on its walls. So the version of events presented by Polish suspects — subject to initial verification within the investigation — indicates that the order to escalate tensions between Poland, Ukraine and Hungary may have originated from a German political party often accused of being pro-Russian.
The wicked plan had landed on fertile soil in Poland. The Polish trio engaged in the provocation turned out to sympathize with marginal or even almost nonexistent yet extremist groups active in the country. In fact, Michał P. himself used to have ties to the Zmiana (Change) party whose then-leader, Mateusz P. (again, full name withheld), has been awaiting trial for espionage and collaboration with Russian and Chinese intelligence services. The remaining two Poles belong to a far-right organization believed to be vulnerable to Russian influence and often exploited to undermine Polish-Ukrainian relations.
The Uzhhorod arson attack should raise the question about the extent of Russian influence in Western European countries. In fact, there are groups supporting the actions Russia undertakes against the Central and Eastern European countries, their sovereignty, and relations between Brussels and Washington. Members of such groups act in a way that is congruent with the Kremlin’s political aims. These include the polarization of political sentiment in particular countries, preventing them from entering into a close cooperation in areas the Kremlin deems as strategic, and impeding regional consolidation. Oftentimes, the said groups receive funding from Russia. The ultimate goal of its activities is to fuel tensions between particular countries (both locally and centrally) and, consequently, to undermine their bilateral and multilateral relations as well as make particular Central and Eastern European countries lean toward Russia.
The case presented herein is just the tip of an iceberg. However, it is an important tip, as it clearly shows that with the politics of Russia come real-life threats that go far beyond mere disinformation Western countries are so willing to point at. The Uzhhorod operation originated from a third country; it was well-planned and designed with the intention to spark political quarrels between at least three states; an exemplary kinetic operation in support of the Kremlin’s interests in Central and Eastern Europe.
In recent years, Moscow has become more and more brutal in subordinating the countries of the region to its political and business goals. It has been using as proxies those groups that for different reasons would be eager to help push its agenda against the West. We must be aware of the nature and methods of the Kremlin’s actions. Narrowing down Russia’s hostile activity to spreading lies in the media is a losing battle.
Stanisław Żaryn is a spokesman for Poland’s Minister-Special Services Coordinator.