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What to Make of Russia’s Saber-Rattling Toward Poland
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What to Make of Russia’s Saber-Rattling Toward Poland

Dmitry Medvedev has published an anti-Polish screed and Russian propagandists are suggesting Poland might stage a false-flag operation.

Poland borders both Russia and Ukraine (thanks to the Russian enclave at Kaliningrad). Only one other country shares borders with both belligerents, the Russian satrapy of Belarus (which may wind up as a belligerent itself). For geographic and historical reasons Poland has an immense interest in the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and it is already a major exit point for Ukrainian refugees and a major hub for humanitarian and probably also military aid flowing into Ukraine. There are worrying signs from Russian messaging that Russia may be eyeing an expansion of the war to Poland—not necessarily by openly attacking, but war all the same.

In mid-March Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv, along with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Upon his return, Morawiecki announced his government’s intention to “de-Russify” the Polish economy in response to Russia’s expanded invasion. This will not be an easy feat, especially when it comes to energy. For reasons of geography and politics (having a lot to do with the routes of pipelines built during the Soviet era) Poland has been quite dependent on Russian hydrocarbon exports. The Poles got a head start on weaning themselves off of Russian energy starting in 2014. In 2012, Russia accounted for 95.9 percent of Poland’s oil imports; by 2018 that was down to 67.2 percent. Some of that oil is from Kazakhstan and probably travels through Russian and Belarusian pipelines to get to Poland, and that will probably end and be difficult and expensive to replace. 

Morawiecki also called for the end of economic activities between Europe and Russia. If Poland can manage to de-Russify its economy, then almost any European country can. 

Three days after this announcement former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, posted an anti-Polish essay on his Telegram account. Calling Poland “our most beloved European country” Medvedev angrily denounced the “de-Russification” economic initiative. Medvedev insisted that he saw no reason for Poland and Russia not to have excellent relations, but that Poland was in the grip of an insane Russophobia, writhing from “phantom pains.” In what is probably the most infuriating passage for a Pole to read, Medvedev wrote that while Russia does not “hush up even the darkest pages of our common history,” he skips any mention of the Hitler-Stalin pact and instead complains that Poland has forgotten the Soviet liberation of Poland from the Nazis. “Polish propaganda is the most vicious, vulgar, and shrill critic of Russia. It is a community of political imbeciles.” 

This diatribe was penned by or posted in the name of a former president and prime minister of Russia, a man who was once feted as a Westernizer, a liberal sequel to the strong-man Putin. It appears that Medvedev no longer sees a point in maintaining that fiction. 

Taken together, Morawiecki’s announcement and Medvedev’s screed signal a major downturn in Polish-Russian relations. This is not to imply that everything was hunky-dory before mid-March. Poland has been warning the world about Russian aggression for years, but already poor relations are getting worse as Russia’s attempt to crush Ukraine continues to fail. It is possible that some Russian military thinkers are starting to regard Poland in a way analogous to how some American military thinkers saw the role of Pakistan in our Afghanistan war: as the almost untouchable rear area of their Ukrainian foe. They may entertain fantasies that if Poland were somehow taken out of action or too afraid to help, then Ukrainian resistance would collapse. This can easily transform into an excuse for failure; i.e. “The Ukrainians can’t resist us alone. Without Polish help their economy would have cracked by now, their soldiers would have given up hope, and we would be victorious!” 

Russia regularly threatens to attack weapons shipments bound for Ukraine, which implies possible attacks on Polish soil. Would Russia be so bold as to attack a NATO member like this? It is not only possible, it happened recently. In 2014-15 Russian military intelligence conducted a number of sabotage operations in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, trying to blow up ammunition destined for the Ukrainian military (which was then defending Donbas from Russia). One of these explosions killed two people at an ammunition depot outside of the Czech town of Vrbetice. After the Czechs announced the conclusions of their investigation into this deadly incident, Russia faced no serious consequences beyond the expulsion of some diplomats. They got away with it then, they might think; why not try again in 2022, when the stakes for Russia are so much higher? 

Subversive Russian warfare in Europe has been taking place for years, and it is unlikely that the Russians will stop because their invasion of Ukraine expanded. Quite the opposite. If Russia is going to conduct sabotage in Poland, then its spies already in Poland under diplomatic cover could provide key facilitation to the attackers. On March 23, Poland announced the expulsion of 45 Russian diplomats, a wise precaution, and other European countries still hosting Russian diplomats should follow Poland’s example. 

Even if there are no further Russian attempts at subversive warfare in Poland, Poland’s security could still be threatened by Russia’s invasion. The war has been going surprisingly well for Ukraine so far, but its fortunes could change. Putin could use nukes, chemical weapons, non-nuclear EMP weapons, or some other atrocious surprise to terrorize and bludgeon the Ukrainian state into collapsing. There are many indications Putin wants to turn Ukraine into Syria, a nation he helped to crush along with Iran, Hezbollah, and the tyrant Bashar Assad. If Poland were suddenly faced with a collapsed state on its border, it would probably have to move quickly to prevent the spread of chaos and direct the flow of refugees. There are reports that Polish planners are looking at the possibility of a Polish peacekeeping mission in western Ukraine

This reporting has been seized on by Russian propagandists as both evidence of the perfidious Polish imperialist plans and the possible early signs of a NATO-Russia war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Polish peacekeepers in Ukraine would result in a “direct clash between the Russian and NATO armed forces” and that the Polish moves were “aimed at provoking a big disaster.” He then went on to say that Poland could take Lviv and western Ukraine, just like it had when western Ukraine was Polish territory. Illia Kyva, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who is currently on the run,  posted a map of a division of western Ukraine between Poland, Hungary, and Romania. The former leader of the Russian irregulars in Ukraine (in 2014), Igor Strelkov, said that Poland could open a “second front” against Ukraine

Do these Russian and pro-Russian voices really believe that Poland is thrusting for war with Russia, or is about to carve off a piece of Western Ukraine for itself? This kind of messaging might be a cynical attempt at comforting Russians that the war will soon be over, that Ukraine will be “stabbed in the back” by its Western allies (actually, her neocolonial masters) as Russia attacks from the east. Even if Russian leaders don’t really believe that Poland itself has sinister intentions they may still believe that Poland is a pawn in a bigger (American) game. Accusations of Polish imperialism, of Poland stabbing Ukraine in the back, or Poland being a pawn is part of a regular theme one finds in Russian propaganda: that there is no justice or right in international affairs, that all is force and spheres of influence. The only difference between Russia and China and the West, the story often goes, is that the West has better camouflage for what it is up to. 

This argument for “camouflage” and hypocrisy also helps Russia deny its crimes and lay them at the feet of secret Western plots. Alarmingly, two senior Russian state-affiliated academics recently stated that Poland might stage an attack on its own soil to justify sending Polish peacekeepers into Ukraine. This could be an early attempt at creating a narrative of deniability for upcoming Russian attacks. Opening a “Polish Front,” even just through deniable, subversive warfare, would be a risky and absolutely insane move by Russia. It would be as insane as attempting to decapitate the Ukrainian government on the first night of the war with airborne troops, or using nerve agents to kill people in another NATO member country, or blatantly interfering in an American election.

Andrew Fink received his Ph.D. from the law school at Leiden University in 2020 on the history of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and violent extremist ideologies.