By Stanisław Żaryn, for StopFake
The discussion on the future of relations between the West and Russia is returning to the international arena. Some suggest the need for a kind of reset and a search for common ground with Moscow. They do not seem to notice, however, that Russia’s aggressive stance not only fails to abate but actually grows more aggressive. Take, for example, the recent, Russian government-sponsored cyberattack on hundreds of small and medium-size U.S. businesses that demanded millions in ransomware payments, the Colonial Pipeline attack that caused widespread gasoline shortages, or the hack against Poland that targeted multiple email accounts. These virtual assaults on the West are becoming more commonplace with an emboldened Russia, and Poland, seemingly ground-zero for such attacks in Europe, can offer valuable insights into the Kremlin’s nefarious tactics.
Russia is intensifying its actions with the use of a wide array of so-called active measures, as known as hybrid warfare. These include espionage, information warfare efforts, hostile influence operations, cyber operations, corruption of the financial system, intimidation or elimination of political opponents, sabotage, and subversion, including in the domain of information. As a nation comprising part of NATO and the EU’s eastern flank, Poland is on the front lines of such activities. The Russians remain aggressive while operating below the threshold of war. It is a tricky setting. Hence, intelligence services – as they specialize in operating in such “murky waters” and are empowered to do so – are the most appropriate institutions to respond on behalf of the state.
In late June, Polish intelligence services publically shared the details of a major Russian operation that targeted more than 4,000 email accounts. The group behind this hacking has ties to Russia’s intelligence services. Among the victims was the Head of the Polish Prime Minister’s Office. Having gained access to his emails, these cybercriminals launched a disinformation campaign through which “revelations from the e-mail box of an important minister” are being used to destabilize the political scene in Poland. This course of action fits squarely within Russian tactics.
Modern information warfare cannot be waged without a proper infrastructural base. Not long ago, Poland’s civilian counter-intelligence service – The Internal Security Agency (ABW) – nabbed two men who set such an IT system up and lent it to some foreign intelligence services, including those behind Russian anti-Polish disinformation campaigns.
For disinformation efforts to be effective, it is required that individuals who will undertake activities against the target country be “on site.” Janusz N. and Marcin K. (full names withheld under Poland’s privacy laws), two Poles detained this year by the ABW, were such assets. Inspired and instructed by individuals connected with the Russian intelligence, N. attempted to reach out to Polish and foreign politicians in the European Parliament, among others. His activities were part of Russian efforts aimed at smearing Poland on the international stage. As for K., he would collect and pass military information to the Russians. Findings made by the Polish intelligence services in both cases show that undermining the image of Poland and the military cooperation between Poland and the U.S. are at the heart of Russian activity against Warsaw.
A specific feature of Russian operations is the use of both journalists and diplomats in hybrid warfare efforts. In April, three employees of the Russian embassy in Warsaw were declared “personae non gratae.” They were affiliated with the Russian intelligence services and would undertake activities far beyond their diplomatic status. The Polish services gave a similar assessment about two Russian “journalists” whose names have since been entered in the register of persons threatening the interests of the state. Both men would collect data for the purposes of an aggressive propaganda pushed by Russia against Poland.
The Kremlin’s hostile influence against Poland is also visible in the realm of financial transfers. In June, the Polish authorities dismantled a money laundering group. As a result of the suspects’ activities, over PLN 1 billion from unknown sources (but primarily from Russia) penetrated the Polish financial system. These “funds” went through the accounts of companies set up specifically for that purpose and were then transferred abroad. A similar scheme has emerged in an investigation concerning a foundation operating in Poland. Based on the evidence, said NGO (which is also known for its political involvement in Poland) received money from companies listed in tax havens whose real owners were, among others, Russian citizens.
Western countries periodically report on various manifestations of Russian aggression; the Polish experience does not differ from those reported by our allies. We should all, collectively, provide a robust response. Apart from using intelligence services as a shield, the West should pursue the policy of blocking, not only monitoring, Russian interests globally. The Kremlin is extending its influence in the Arctic, Africa, the Balkans and the Caucasus and deepening its cooperation with China. All of these efforts are directed toward Russia building imperial might, and neglecting the issue will only embolden Russia to set up new outposts. It is important to remember that money earned by Moscow from international mega-deals, such as Nord Stream 2, is then channeled into its anti-Western hostile-activity budget. In the face of such threats, the West should always be on the same page in its assessments of the Russian menace.
By Stanisław Żaryn, for StopFake
Stanisław Żaryn is the Spokesperson for the Minister Coordinator of Special Services