While Poland sends thousands of more troops and combat helicopters to its border with Belarus to head off a possible conflict with Russia’s Wagner Group, a more insidious threat is rankling top Polish officials, The Daily Beast has learned.
The Kremlin has kicked its influence arm targeting Poland into high gear in recent days, with Russian and Belarusian operatives and officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, pushing propaganda at Polish society with messages that stoke skepticism about supporting Ukraine, a Polish official told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
The warning that Russia is working to destabilize Polish politics coincides with Warsaw setting its election date this week for Oct. 15. As the thinking goes, the Russian influence operation appears aimed at exacerbating divisions among Polish people and stirring up rifts in society in advance of elections, all while weakening Polish support for Kyiv as Russia continues its war in Ukraine.
“Popular support for Ukraine is very high in Poland for a society. It’s almost unanimous when it comes to our view of conflict, who is the bad guy, who really is responsible for everything that is going on, and why we have to take care of the Ukrainian refugees,” the official said. But “there is also some element in Polish society that is rather skeptical… I think the Russians might believe that this kind of messaging might appeal to the skeptical audience in the runup to the elections.”
While a majority of Polish society supports helping Ukraine in its fight to stave off a Russian takeover, there are pockets that are less enthusiastic about the amount of help going towards the Ukrainian cause. Approximately 65 percent of Poles want Warsaw to keep supporting Ukraine, while roughly 34 percent want Poland to be neutral, according to survey results from a May-June poll from the Centre for East European and International Studies released early this month.But the portion of those surveyed who said they support helping Ukraine has dwindled in recent months, dropping nearly 20 points from 83 percent support in the same survey last year.
Russia sought to dampen Western support for aid to Ukraine since the early months of the war. According to multiple intelligence memoranda obtained by The Daily Beast last year, the Kremlin has been waging an online operation aimed at cratering Western support and boosting Moscow’s war effort.
For Ukraine and the security of Europe, the stakes of the sweeping Russian influence operation in Poland are high: Poland has served as a hub for funneling Western aid to Ukraine. That has been key to countering Russian aggression, which makes it an obvious target for Moscow to go after.
The End Times
One of Russia’s primary goals for influence schemes targeting Poland is to dissolve popular support for Ukraine in Poland, Givi Gigitashvili, a researcher focused on the Caucasus and Eastern Europe at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Daily Beast.
The various prongs of the Kremlin-Belarus influence operation include multiple social media platforms, blunt statements from leadership in both Moscow and Minsk, and hybrid cloak-and-dagger operations meant to stoke political turmoil in Poland.
The issue of Poland hosting Ukrainian refugees has been top-of-mind for the Kremlin’s influence operation. A slew of Polish-language Telegram channels with telltale signs of a coordinated Kremlin operation have been focused on amplifying anti-Ukrainian refugee and pro-Kremlin sentiment in Poland in recent weeks, Gigitashvili told The Daily Beast.
With channel names like “News of the End Times” and “The last Frontier of the Republic of Poland — Q POLSKA,” the posts are focused on painting Russians as heroes and liberators, while casting the refugees as somehow aggressive. One post identified as part of the network accuses the refugees of getting “everything for free,” while Poles have to work hard to earn money.
They are “trying to capitalize on some of the existing vulnerabilities, or let’s say sentiments, in the society, like for instance… if Poland should continue accepting more refugees,” Gigitashvili said.
Other prongs of the influence operation are more blatant. The chairman of the State Duma of Russia alleged that Poland is growing tired of helping “insatiable” Ukraine counter Russia this week.
“In the West, there is growing fatigue with both him and the insatiable Kyiv regime. His ingratitude has become a dominant theme in European politics. This is openly stated at the official level, not only in Britain but also in Poland,” Vyacheslav Volodin said. “The fate of Washington and Brussels puppets always ends the same way – they are disposed of. Zelensky is next in line.”
And while some of the ongoing Russian influence operation appears aimed at weakening Warsaw’s support for Ukraine and stirring up pressure on Polish lawmakers running for office, the Russian operation harbors aims to amplify divisions more broadly in Poland as well, to create general instability, particularly as elections approach, according to the Polish official.
“We have to see it also in the context of the Polish political situation, we’ll have parliamentary elections in about two months, October 15. And both Lukashenko and Putin are clearly aware of that,” the official said.
Some goals of the ongoing Russian influence operation appear aimed at creating a general environment and understanding that leans into a prolonged, ever-present conflict or possibility of conflict, making way for possible mobilizations, according to Warsaw.
Tensions have flared between Poland and Belarus in recent days, after Russian Wagner mercenaries funneled into Belarus following a failed mutiny in Russia. And with the lines of command between Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin blurrier than ever before, concerns have grown in recent days that the two leaders might allow or lean on Wagner fighters to provoke or attack Poland.
Wagner fighters in the last several days have marched closer and closer to Poland’s border, training with Belarusian soldiers, according to Warsaw. Earlier last week, Belarusian helicopters violated Polish airspace, earning a swift response from Poland, which sent combat helicopters to the border and redeployed troops from the west of the country to prepare for possible Belarusian or Wagner aggression.
Poland’s prime minister warned early this week that Wagner troops are headed towards the Suwalki Gap, a territory between Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, threatening to create yet another military flashpoint in Europe.
But the apparent influence plot isn’t just about on-the-ground movements, and also relies on a messaging component from Minsk, according to the Polish official who spoke with The Daily Beast.
“It’s not the first and surely not the last case of Russian espionage.”
Lukashenko has hinted in recent days, for instance, that Wagner mercenaries are preparing to head towards Warsaw and Rzeszow, with some news outlets reporting he delivered the assessment in a “joking” tone. But making stuff up about Poland and possible confrontations is a classic move on the part of Lukashenko and Putin to spin a false narrative, the Polish official warned.
“There is this perennial topic in Russia, that has to do with this alleged desire by Poland to retake western Belarus. So they use Poland as a scapegoat,” the Polish official said, adding it is necessary to take what Lukashenko says with a massive grain of salt. “Lukashenko surely uses our country to mobilize his political base in Belarus and to show his people that there is this real threat from Poland.”
In another turn, Putin warned in recent days that Russia will soon “remind” Poland that its western territories were a gift from Russia, by his telling.
Other narratives that Russia may latch onto moving forward include false claims that Poland has been seeking to occupy Ukraine, claims Warsaw has said are false and aimed at roping in additional countries into war or placing the blame on the West for the war in Ukraine.
As the thinking in Warsaw goes, these kinds of territorial messages are coordinated in Russia and Belarus to foment tension in Poland. And after spreading rhetoric about possible provocations, Belarus and Russia are currently working to discredit Polish authorities that are attempting to simmer tensions, according to Warsaw.
“The operation of destabilizing the Polish border, controlled and organized by Belarussian and Russian security services, is constantly accompanied by disinformation and manipulation aimed at discrediting structures defending the integrity of the Polish territory,” Deputy Minister-Coordinator of Special Services Stanisław Żaryn said Thursday.
The propaganda is aimed at getting Warsaw to give up its efforts to defend the border, Żaryn said.
“Propaganda pressure exerted by Belarus and Russia in the context of the artificial route of illegal migration to Poland is intended to put pressure against PL and to inspire susceptible groups in Poland to force the Polish Government to give up defending our border,” he said, referring to Polish government officials’ concerns that part of the Belarusian and Russian destabilization campaign includes an effort to force a migrant crisis on Poland.
The accusations harken back to Belarus’ 2021 efforts to send migrants and refugees from the Middle East to Poland to stir up pressures in Warsaw.
The sweeping influence operation against Poland isn’t just coming from inside Belarus and Russia, though. Polish authorities have been working to wrap up a Russian espionage network in Poland that has been focused on propaganda, authorities say. The investigation is ongoing, The Daily Beast has learned.
“It’s not the first and surely not the last case of Russian espionage or Belarusian espionage in Poland,” the Polish official told The Daily Beast.
Poland’s Internal Security Agency arrested two Russian citizens for distributing Wagner propaganda in Krakow and Warsaw last week, the agency announced Monday. In Moscow, the two men had prepared “over 3,000 propaganda materials promoting Wagner Group,” the Internal Security Agency said Monday. They were communicating with their handlers on a regular basis, and were expected to be paid 500,000 Russian rubles—about US$5,000—according to Polish authorities.
Last week, posters that claimed to be Wagner recruitment posters with QR codes appeared in Warsaw, according to posts on Twitter or X. It was not immediately clear if they were legitimately from Wagner or from other actors trying to stir fear inside the country about Wagner mercenaries infiltrating Poland.
While the Russian influence operation is sweeping, it appears to be ineffective and sloppy so far, and the majority of Poles likely will not be swayed toward pro-Kremlin narratives, said Gigitashvili. But the influence network in Poland is not poised to wind down anytime soon, and instead, looks to be growing.
“The number of these actors who are acting on behalf of the Kremlin or Belarus is growing in Poland, unfortunately,” Gigitashvili said.
Moving forward, Belarusian or Russian actors working to destabilize Poland will likely resort to hack-and-leak operations, Gigitashvili predicted—some of which have already taken place. Hackers working for a Minsk- and Moscow-aligned team researchers call “Ghostwriter” hacked into lawmakers’ emails and leaked documents and emails.
“We should expect cyber-attacks. We may also expect hack-and-leak operations… Election interference is a long game.”