Russian 'hybrid' war threatens NATO's eastern flank, Poles warn

Russian ‘hybrid’ war threatens NATO’s eastern flank, Poles warn

WARSAW, Poland — Russia is expanding its use of “hybrid warfare” — including cyber attacks, border disruptions and disinformation campaigns — in a bid to destabilize NATO’s eastern flank, the Polish government’s top national security official warned on Tuesday.

With Moscow’s conventional military bogged down in Ukraine after 18 months of war, the Kremlin is increasingly bent on sowing regional chaos via unconventional tactics, said Jacek Siewiera, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau.

Western European nations, he added, should be more vigilant about the “broad spectrum of activities” Moscow is launching with help from ally Belarus to intimidate front-line NATO members such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for supporting Ukraine. The threat exists even though NATO and Russian forces have carefully avoided direct conflict so far.

“No one in NATO should be convinced that the hybrid threat doesn’t affect his life,” Mr. Siewiera, who also serves as secretary of state in the government of Polish President Andrzej Duda.

“In Europe, in France, Spain in many other countries, if they are not facing hybrid threats right now, I’m sure that they cannot exclude it in the nearest future,” Mr. Siewiera told a group of international journalists visiting Poland on a trip sponsored by the Polish Foreign Ministry.

His comments coincide with weeks of rising tensions between the Russia-aligned government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and NATO’s easternmost member nations, where fears have swirled for months that the war in Ukraine could spread eastward.

Poland has deployed thousands of troops to its border with Belarus, a country military and security officials here openly characterize as a pawn in the Kremlin’s widening hybrid warfare plan.

“We assess that Belarus is nothing more than just a tool in the hands of Russians,” Gen. Wieslaw M. Kukula, the commander general of Poland’s Armed Forces said Tuesday.

The unease between Warsaw and Minsk has risen dramatically since the still-unexplained death of Russian Wagner Mercenary Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and other top company officials in a private plane crash last week.

Mr. Prigozhin had relocated a large contingent of Wagner mercenaries to a site in Belarus as part of a deal to end his abortive uprising against Russian President Vladimir Putin in late June. The Lukashenko government has said it hopes to use the Wagner forces for Belarus’ own security interests.

With Mr. Prigozhin gone, it is unclear who will take command of the mercenaries, battle-hardened after it took a major role in the fighting in neighboring Ukraine.

Gen. Kukula said Tuesday there has already been an uptick in provocations from the Belarusian side of the border, including the use of lasers pointed at the eyes of Polish border forces. He did not say specifically who inside Belarus was using the tactic.

Russia has for years sought a military advantage over the U.S. and its allies through the use of hybrid warfare — an approach often credited to Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces.

In 2013, the general published a journal article now widely considered the strategic foundation for the Kremlin’s subversion policies in the years since. The “Gerasimov Doctrine of Hybrid Warfare” blends conventional and unconventional warfare, essentially expanding military battlefield options infinitely — including into cyberspace.

“In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace,” the general wrote. “Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template. The very ‘rules of war’ have changed.”

U.S. national security experts have anticipated a surge in Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare for months, when Mr. Putin tapped Gen. Gerasimov to personally take command of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

Apart from the current border tensions, Polish security officials there is no doubt Russia is driving the hybrid warfare campaign, and that a range of other tactics are already being used inside Poland, the key staging ground for much of the NATO equipment being provided to Ukraine.

Poland has “become a playground of Russian spy games,” one counterintelligence official told the visiting press group Tuesday.

Officials said Polish security authorities have detained 16 people in recent months on suspicion of involvement in a Russian espionage ring operating inside the NATO country. The ring’s key mission was to monitor Polish military facilities and track road and rail routes for NATO equipment moving across the border into Ukraine.

At the same time, the officials said, Russia and Belarus are pushing a “full-fledged propaganda campaign” to undermine Poland-Ukraine relations and amplify domestic divisions ahead of Poland’s October parliamentary elections.

“We are in the pre-election time, it’s very tense,” said one of the officials. “This hybrid war against Poland will continue, … especially during the election period.”