Poland’s counterintelligence service has been busy hunting down spies. Faced with an evolving espionage threat, it has developed a toolkit to push back against those who want to steal the state’s secrets. And it has proven successful.
In recent years, the Internal Security Agency, or ABW, has detained several individuals suspected of espionage. In March 2018, Marek W., whose name is withheld pursuant to Poland’s privacy laws, was arrested on charges of spying for Russia. At that time Marek W. was an employee of the Ministry of Energy. A year later he was sentenced to jail and imposed a 10-year ban on working in public administration.
In January, the ABW nabbed two men — Wejing W. and Piotr D. The former, a Chinese national, was identified as an agent of China’s civilian intelligence service. The latter, a Polish national, was caught collaborating with Wejing W. Both men are awaiting their trial.
Most recently, this October, the agency apprehended an individual poised to cooperate with Russian secret services. In an earlier operation, dating back to May 2016, Polish spy-hunters detained Mateusz Piskorski, a leader of the pro-Russian political party Change. He faces charges of collaborating with Russian services — the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service — and participating in the activities of China’s spy agency. In return for pushing a Russian agenda in Poland, Piskorski had been found to obtain money. All those arrests were preceded by time-absorbing, counterespionage operations and joint efforts by analysts and investigators, including prosecutors.
Apart from conducting undercover operations, the ABW has mastered the use of legal measures to neutralize threats. Those foreigners, whose presence in Poland is reasonably suspected of threatening national security, have had their permission to stay revoked. For example, in October 2017, at the request of the agency’s chief, Poland expelled a Russian scholar. Dmitry Karnaukhov, representative of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies — the Foreign Intelligence Service-affiliated think tank — had been found to conduct hostile information activities against Poland. Similarly, in May 2018, two Russian women — Yekaterina C. and Anastasia Z. — were detained and deported. Meanwhile, another three Russians were banned from entering Poland. As found by the ABW, all five had made repeated attempts to engage pro-Russian circles in the country in hybrid activities against its interests. Those activities — high on the Kremlin’s agenda — included stirring up Polish-Ukrainian animosities, questioning the current government’s historical policy and replacing it with Russian narratives. In March 2019, based on information provided by the ABW, Russia’s deputy consul-general was declared persona non grata. The diplomat left Poland shortly after. His name is now listed in the Schengen Information System.
The ABW’s chief is also empowered to give opinions on the applications for Polish citizenship. Each time a negative opinion is issued (19 cases since 2016), it is substantiated by the agency’s findings, including the exposure of the true motivations and goals of the applicants.
The public opinion hardly ever learns about the successes of the Polish counterintelligence community. But recently, details of the ABW’s counter-spy operation from two years ago have emerged. In late 2017, upon the agency’s warning, three Russian agents posing as researchers were banned from entering the Schengen zone. Oleg Bondarenko is a deputy director of a Moscow-based think tank, head of the Russian-Ukrainian Information Center, and a self-proclaimed international counsel to the leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen. Dmitry Kondrashow is a political scientist and columnist closely tied to Regnum news agency, which serves the Russian secret services as an outpost for information warfare in Central and Eastern Europe. Finally, Aleksei Martynov — an officer of the Russian intelligence service disguised as an expert in international relations — was a mastermind behind pro-Russian projects pushed in Poland. The trio had a leading role in moderating Russia’s hybrid activities in Europe.
As the biggest country in Central and Eastern Europe, and the most important NATO member on the alliance’s eastern flank, Poland is under the constant threat of espionage from foreign powers. That is why counterintelligence is crucial for national security. But we can also rely on our NATO allies. Over the years we too have become a solid partner for them. This cooperation proved fruitful in 2018 when the ABW engaged in a vast allied response to the poisoning of the Skripals by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. In a show of solidarity with Western partners, Poland expelled four Russian spies working under diplomatic cover.
In 2018, an officer of the Chinese civilian intelligence service was convicted by a Swedish court of spying on Tibetans. The ABW had provided crucial pieces of evidence in the case, including the reports on the convict’s visits to Poland for meetings with a Chinese operative. Polish spy-hunters had also helped their Swedish counterparts identify the man’s modus operandi and the manner by which he was tasked with the espionage mission. This high-profile trial in Sweden would not have been possible without the ABW’s engagement. In Poland, it was a double success. Firstly, the authorities recorded the way the Chinese intelligence service operated on Polish soil. Secondly, the man identified as a Chinese spy was eventually expelled.
The ABW conducts a series of counterintelligence activities on an ongoing basis. It employs investigative methods and applicable legal measures. It keeps in touch with and is kept up to date by the most important allies. It also shares its expertise with public institutions during espionage-prevention training. The agency’s efficiency is a major contributor to building a safe Poland.
Stanisław Żaryn is a spokesman for Poland’s minister-special services coordinator.