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Tusk’s partisan war on Russian interference Only Putin will win from Poland's political games

Polish farmers protest in Warsaw last month (Omar Marques/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Polish farmers protest in Warsaw last month (Omar Marques/Anadolu via Getty Images)


June 7, 2024   5 mins

Since Donald Tusk was elected prime minister last year, Poland’s security services have had their hands full. One moment they’re busting Kremlin-connected spy rings; the next they’re foiling Russian attempts to hire Polish football hooligans to carry out its dirty work. Tusk himself is certainly not complaining about the positive publicity they’ve garnered. Despite his coalition gaining enough seats in October to depose the Law and Justice Party (PiS) from power, Sunday’s European Parliamentary elections are a chance for PiS to bite back. The fight is currently anyone’s game — Tusk’s Civic Platform party and PiS are in a dead heat in the polls.

To mobilise his base, Tusk has seemingly placed his bets on the reliable call to arms of national security. With Moscow’s escalating its hybrid war against Poland, he has seized on his country’s centuries-deep animosity towards Russia to bolster his own credentials while also raising doubts about PiS’s own loyalties — mirroring very closely the ways that PiS had itself vilified him during last year’s election season.

Almost a year ago to the day, I wrote about PiS’s committee to combat Russian influence, deriding it as an obvious political ploy meant to disparage Tusk as a Russian agent. Surreally, Tusk has now resurrected this committee for a very similar purpose, aiming its barrel at PiS and its political allies ahead of this weekend’s elections. His government has taken other pages from PiS’s national security playbook too — late last month, Poland re-established a border exclusion zone along its border with Russia-aligned Belarus that PiS originally put in place in 2021 and 2022.

The overt reasons for this are not hard to glean. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has continued, at Russia’s behest, to manufacture a migrant crisis at the border, while Russian agents continue to spread disinformation in Poland by, for instance, hacking into its state press service. According to European intelligence agencies, Russia is embarking on a campaign of increasingly more violent acts of sabotage across the continent, and Poland is likely to be in its crosshairs.

But just like PiS utilised this set of circumstances to go after Tusk, so too is Poland’s new prime minister unduly leveraging the Russian threat for political gain today. Fuelled by intense ideological rifts on everything from abortion rights to rule-of-law issues and the authority of the EU, Poland’s ever-expanding conflict between its two dominant partisan camps has inevitably begun to seep into its military and national security architecture — presenting a cautionary tale of political polarisation’s ability to undermine a country’s ability to respond to a potentially existential adversary.

“Poland’s ever-expanding conflict between its two dominant partisan camps has inevitably begun to seep into its military and national security architecture.”

The Russian influence committee Tusk has put in place, which officially started work on Wednesday, has important differences from PiS’s equivalent. It will, according to Tusk, not be an “investigative” body, and rather than sanctioning individuals outright, it will present potential cases of interest to the state prosecutor’s office.

Yet according to Bartłomiej Kucharski, an analyst at the publication Wojsko i Technika, Tusk’s committee will likely be just as partisan as PiS’s version, as it will possess no ability on its own to conduct truly robust fact-finding investigations or to uncover conclusive evidence of wrongdoing. “Perhaps there are such cases of [Russian] influence [among PiS and other parties],” Kucharski told me. “However, this committee doesn’t have the ability to really substantiate this or to punish anyone for it. In reality, this is an attempt to mutually pelt each other with accusations in order to limit support for the other’s political rival.”

Tusk’s committee was created at least in part as a response to the defection of administrative judge Tomasz Szmydt to Belarus last month, where he requested asylum and claimed he had been persecuted in Poland. Since his flight from Poland, a warrant has been issued for Szmydt’s arrest due to his alleged participation in information operations on behalf of Belarus and Russia.

Szmydt’s actions triggered a wave of finger-pointing by Tusk — in comments last week, he suggested that Szmydt’s connections to Poland’s enemies raised red flags about the man who hired him, PiS-era Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. Yet the individuals who have garnered the most scrutiny from Tusk’s government lately have been former PiS Minister of Defence Antoni Macierewicz and one of his trusted deputies, Colonel Krzysztof Gaj. When announcing his new committee against Russian influence, Tusk claimed a “noose of information” was tightening around Macierewicz, accusing him of “disarming” the Polish armed forces during his tenure and surrounding himself with people allegedly tied to Moscow, like Col. Gaj, an infamously anti-Ukrainian military leader.

Investigators reportedly conducted a search of Gaj’s home last year, during which they found an extensive archive of military documents. However, no charges have been brought against him, and no investigation has been launched into Macierewicz’s alleged connections to Russia. Misconduct by such leaders is certainly possible — but experts believe Tusk’s increasing proclivity to suggest guilt by association in his campaign against Russian infiltration, often without any solid evidence, has the potential to rattle the rank-and-file of Poland’s military and security services.

“I imagine that certain officers who were promoted by Macierewicz may feel uneasy,” Marek Świerczyński, head of the security desk at the Polish research institute Polityka Insight, told me. “It would be a risk to the system if some suspicions about Macierewicz were to be automatically applied onto the officers who were appointed by him.”

Such politicisation of Poland’s armed forces would undermine critical components of their cohesion, hampering their ability to function meritocratically at a time when Nato’s security hinges on it. Beyond such practical concerns, though, Tusk’s accusations and the resurrection of his committee present reputational risks for Poland’s security architecture as well. As Kucharski told me: “The very institution of the state becomes less reliable if a committee arises that is really for nothing, that does not have clear goals, doesn’t carry out real work, and could really be replaced by two or three paid publicists who would argue that those on the other side are Russian spies.”

In tandem with political mudslinging, Tusk’s government has utilised every possible opportunity to underscore its credentials as a bulwark against Russian infiltration, even in cases where none exists. After a fire destroyed a shopping centre in Warsaw last month, Tusk claimed the incident was “likely” connected to Russia and arrested several suspects in the case — even though, according to Kucharski, the event was more probably the result of arson related to localised mob-style score-settling. In an interview with the Polish press, a former Polish lieutenant colonel dismissed the Russia connection a conspiracy theory.

Of course, Russian acts of sabotage are indeed taking place in Poland, and pose a serious security threat to the country. But like his committee, Tusk’s politically motivated speculation undermines the real work of Polish counterintelligence services working to uncover Moscow’s influence in the country, cheapening legitimate charges of Kremlin infiltration in the process. Ask supporters of either Tusk’s ruling coalition or PiS, and you’ll find people in both camps who are convinced the other side is working for Russia. This reality is emblematic of Poland’s political divide today, and explains why encouraging such theories plays well with both sides’ core voting blocs. Already, Macierewicz has shot back at Tusk with claims of his own about the prime minister’s cooperation with Moscow.

The truth, however, is that, regardless of the reality of Russian influence in Polish politics, its wholesale politicisation has only served to benefit Moscow, whose core aim in its operations against Europe is to foment doubt, discord and intransigence among its rivals. A polarised Poland where matters of national security are treated as mere tools to garner votes ultimately favours none of Poland’s actors. Generating anti-Russian headlines may help Tusk win a few more seats this weekend — but at what cost?


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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A D Kent
A D Kent
11 days ago

Having closely followed (possibly to an unhealthy degree) the development of the Russiagate conspiracy theories in the US and the Cambridge Analytica furore, Syria chemical weapons hoaxes and, most especially, the Salisbury Poisonings on this side of the Atlantic I now give pretty much zero credence to any claims of Russian interference anywhere. I’d likely only now be convinced if a T-90 parked itself in our East Sussex front garden.

Do any of the Polish allegations come anywhere close to matching the it-would-be-hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-serious preposterousness of the UK Establishment’s Skripal fairytale I wonder?

A D Kent
A D Kent
11 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

 Re the UK’s Skripal fairytale, seeing it evolve in real-time wasn’t so much a ‘red pill’ for me as it was a London bus suppository such was my amazement at our Establishment media’s complicity at the time. Here are some fun facts that you have to accept to believe the UK government’s version of events:

That a 60 year old diabetic man and a 30 year old, fit and healthy woman received a dermal dose of a nerve agent from a door handle. The two remained symptom-free and in health good enough to go for a drive, a walk in a park, feed some ducks, have a few pints in a pub and a multi-course Italian meal before collapsing on a park bench four hours later. The collapses were so simultaneous that neither was able to raise the alarm for the other.

No one in the Establishment media has asked, let alone, received an answer to, any question regarding the physiological mechanism behind this, hitherto unknown to science, delayed-action nerve-agent effect. (Please post links if you have any – I’d love to be corrected on this).

The first medic at the scene at the park bench was a nurse, a non Salisbury resident who happened to be passing by doing some shopping after a birthday party with her daughter. This nurse just happened to be Colonel Alison McCourt – the most senior nurse in the entire British Army – and one who had received training in the treatment of the effects of nerve agents. No one in the Establishment media has questioned the likelihood of this amazing coincidence.

Despite there being no suggestion that the two alleged Russian agents ever entered the Skripal’s house or did anything other than spray the nerve agent on the door handle, the roof was so badly contaminated with the nerve agent that it later had to be removed, replaced and destroyed. Only the roof – not the storeys in between. No one in the Establishment media has questioned this.

The perfume bottle of novichok that killed Dawn Sturgess weeks after the poisoning of the Skripals, was found by her partner, Charlie Rowley, unopened in a charity bin four weeks after the original poisoning. A later BBC dramatisation of the events obfuscated this fact with cutting that made it appear that Rowley had found the perfume in the days after the Skripals were found. No one in the Establishment media has questioned the likelihood of this occurrence.

This perfume bottle was found on the worktop in Sturgess’s house eleven days after the police had begun a thorough search of the property looking for just such an object. No one in the Establishment media has questioned the likelihood of this occurrence.

Despite Salisbury council having recently installed an expensive, city-wide CCTV system – the recordings of which were seized by the Met Police – the UK authorities claim not to be able to account for the movements of the Skripals or the two alleged Russian agents on the day of the poisoning. FoI requests (from local citizens, not the Establishment media) have confirmed that all the cameras – including one pointed directly at the bench where the Skripals were found – were functioning on the afternoon of the events. No one in the Establishment media has questioned the likelihood of this occurrence.

I could go on – there’s the videos of un-gloved security personnel using the doorhandle in the 48 hours before the doorhandle story became public, the DSMA notices, there’s the not at all ill children the Skripals handed bread to to feed the ducks, there’s the hotel room in London that was allegedly contaminated with novichok that the British authorities didn’t bother to warn was a potential health risk for months after the event and the BBC’s Mark Urban’s ‘news’ that he’d been interviewing Skripal in the months prior to his poisoning which he kept to himself until months after the globe was focussed on this furore and much, much more.

But this is all accepted and acceptable by our Establishment media because to do otherwise would render them wild conspiracy theorists and/or apologists for Putin.  

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
11 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Has it occurred to you that your inability to understand things doesn’t means it’s a conspiracy. Just that you don’t understand.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

That’s certainly a possibility…but very slight.

The chances of the best person to be in attendance at such a “poisoning” actually being there are diminishingly small…in fact so small as to be unbelievable…but not impossible…just very very very unlikely…

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

What makes you so sure that the most senior nurse in the British army is the absolute best person to deal with novichok poisoning? I mean, it’s not bad, but generally a doctor would be regarded as a better option than a nurse. Nurses provide treatment, they don’t diagnose.

And she’s recieved training in nerve agent casualty care! A senior medic in the army has received training in nerve agents – extraordinary!

What I really don’t get though is what ADK thinks actually happened? Did the British poison the Skripals? If so, why put the nurse there? And unless she had all the medical equipment required to treat nerve agent poisoning with her, which she didn’t, what benefit did she bring apart from dialling 999? Were they not actually poisoned? In which case it’s of no relevance that she’s there. Was it the actually the Russians that poisoned them but the British found out and put the nurse there to help? But then why not just get them off to hospital ASAP?

What exactly is the alternative story? What’s the motive for whatever the alternative is?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

So..let’s say “not the best”…but certainly much better than a “passer-by”…so still extremely fortuitous…

And the point is not “what actually happened” because we are never going to find out but that what we are told is extremely unlikely to have happened…in fact the chances are vanishingly small…

In short we are being fed a load of b s…presumably to blame “the Russians” but again who knows? No doubt the Skripals had many personal enemies not just the Russian state…

Incidentally where are they now…and in what state if health considering the toxicity of the poison?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

So again, you’ve come to the conclusion that it is unlikely because there are things you don’t personally understand, and some things you haven’t been told. So you just think it’s a lie.

Who knows where they are or what state of health they’re in. There’s a pretty obvious reason why they won’t be announcing where they are now.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

The story being officially peddled doesn’t stack up for umpteen reasons as set out.
If a story is being put out, but some things “aren’t told” the credibility of the story is called into question.
That has happened in this case. It was made a major story but somethings “not told”. Of course it is unlikely to be believed.

A D Kent
A D Kent
11 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

 Why is it up to me to present an alternative story? What I know for certain is that, for the reasons I gave above (and more), the UK government’s story is utter cobblers. I know too that our media has done nothing to challenge it, nor has our Parliament (see the way Corbyn was shouted down by both Parliamentary cheeks when he had the temerity to suggest it might be best to wait for a proper investigation before we blamed the Russians).

FWIW I think what actually went on has something to do with Skripal’s UK intel handlers – the identity of whom was specifically restricted by the DSMA notices. One of them may have been a partner of Christopher Steele – of the Trump hotel-wee-wee Dossier fame. That both Sergei and Yulia have essentially been disappeared since the event is telling. Also the fact that the government is doing all it can to hide any details from the inquiry it is using to replace the usual coroners investigation into Dawn Sturgess’s sad death. You do know that’s going on at the moment don’t you? The lawyers for Dawn’s family have already complained about the delays and lack of information they’ve been given and it’s 7 years after the event already.  

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
11 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

But as I said before, you think it is utter cobblers because there are aspects of the story that you don’t understand. Whilst some of them aren’t so easy to explain, others really aren’t as incredible as you make out.

For example the ‘delayed action nerve agent’ is really quite simple – the skin is generally a pretty good barrier and it takes time for chemicals to permeate through it.

From https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10828135/
“The skin’s barrier properties are such that fluids and precious chemicals are reasonably retained within the body, while foreign chemicals are restricted from entering the systemic circulation.”

Or, a bit more specific to nerve agents, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15605929/ (the epigastrium is skin over the stomach)

“VX on the epigastrium resulted in a marked delayed development of toxic signs, reduced toxicity, and reduction in the rate of cholinesterase depression”

I found both these from quick Google searches. It really isn’t at all remarkable that there was a time lag between exposure and symptoms.

A D Kent
A D Kent
10 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Thanks for the google search, but it’s you who doesn’t understand. It wasn’t a delay between exposure and symptoms – it was a delay between exposure and near-simultaneous collapse after hours of showing no apparent ill effects at all. And that’s a collapse of 2 people of different size, general health and sexes (women have more subcutaneous fat just for starters). The chances of this are. like much else in this case, vanishingly small.

And then there’s the fact that those symptoms were not matched by those of policeman Nick Bailey who also touched the doorhandle – he got progressively more ill over the next 48 hours, but that’s just another of the glaring inconsistencies of this case that went completely unchallenged by our Establishment media.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
10 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

It’s not simultaneous though is it – it developed over hours as you yourself have stated. The first symptoms will have been mild – feeling nauseous etc – and come on gradually, probably one before the other. So they sat on a bench for whichever started to feel ill first to have a rest, then the other began to feel unwell also, and gradually felt less and less like moving and then became less and less capable of doing so even if they wanted too.

There’s a lot of factors involved with how quickly they fall ill – dose, permeability of skin, body size, age, sex, general variation in susceptibility to nerve agents etc etc. Some of these will favour Skripal becoming ill first, others will cause Julia to become ill faster. It’s a balance that you can’t know and if you just thought about it rationally you’d realise that it’s nothing like a vanishingly small possibility.

As for Bailey all the same factors apply but he presumably got a much lower dose (most of the agent having got onto the Skripals hands first). The media doesn’t challenge it because there’s not much to challenge.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
10 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Let’s assume you’re right and it was nothing to do with the Russians. The British Govt decide to frame a couple of Russian spies that happened to have visited Salisbury, for whatever reasons. A couple of days later those same Russian spies decide to help out the British Govt by doing a comedy video appearance and say they were just visiting Salisbury to view it’s ‘world famous’ cathedral. Now that really is a vanishingly small possibility, which for some reason you’re totally ignoring.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

I’ve no idea what htey were doing – could have been trading secrets, could have been peddling BS to Skripal’s ex-handlers (the details of whom were DSMA noticed), could have been importing/trafficking all sorts of things (steroid/body building drugs have been suggested by some). What I do know, for all the reasons above, is that the Bozo Johnson/Theresa May story is c**k and bull.

Re your point on their illness – they were perfectly well and symptom free enough for at least 3 hours, probably 4. There is no explanation for this directly ANYWHERE in the western media. Nowhere. Link to it if you can.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
9 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

A good acquaintance of mine, a Russian woman living in London and following the events much more closely than I did, soon after the Scripal case drew my attention to the following:
Scripal was hardly of any interest to the Russian authorities, because he had spent many years in prison before going to the UK. Hence, he had no access to up-to-date, relevant information that he could forward/sell to anyone in the WestIf the Russian authorities really had wanted to kill him, they would have done it while he was in prison. Going to prison in Russia, even for minor crimes, is tantamount to a death sentence. One might be killed by inmates or the guards and the murderes would enjoy full impunity for thisand, if he had been really a valuable source of information, he would not have been allowed to leave Russia, under whatever pretext, anyway (overlaps with the first bullet point)I think that all this makes quite a good sense, too.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago

This time round Poland’s problems should be Poland’s.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

The idea that the UK entered WW2 to assist Poland is risible. Poland’s problems have always been Poland’s.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

History suggests otherwise…

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
11 days ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Britain certainly declared war on Germany because Germany invaded Poland and Britain was committed to defend Poland. That was the casus belli. The strange thing was that Britain did not mind the Soviet Union invading eastern Poland, not to think of the Baltic States and Finland. .

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

I think it did…but could do nothing about it…the bluff had been called by Germany…obviously the other players took note that the threat had no substance behind it…
However had the Soviet Union been aboard the matter would have been somewhat different…

Naturally Poland would not agree with that…

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

At this point I think Russia would be more successful invading Britain rather than Poland

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
11 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Why ever would it want to do that? The UK is broke…and Russia isn’t…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
11 days ago

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — > Which happened completely out of the blue, right?, totally unforeseen by anyone. Well, except for the people whose lives could not bear the thought of no more Cold War. I realize the genie does not go back into the bottle and the Polish political intrigue lines up with current events, but I also realize that financing the deaths of more Ukrainians is not a solution. End this thing before something monumentally stupid happens.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
11 days ago

I wonder why Poland has a ‘centuries-deep animosity towards Russia’. Could it be anything to do with the Russians’ habit of overrunning Poland?