WARSAW – On Friday morning Poland awoke to reports of a nighttime raid on a NATO-linked training center on Polish soil. Yet the perpetrator was not a hostile foreign power, but rather Poland’s own defense ministry, led by new minister Antoni Macierewicz.
The move, which aimed to replace officials appointed by the previous government, is part of Poland’s new right-wing Law and Justice government’s attempt to consolidate its hold over Poland’s defense and security apparatus. One of its first moves after taking office in mid-November was to replace the heads of the intelligence services.
At 1.30 am on Friday morning, defense ministry officials and military police entered the temporary premises of the Counter Intelligence Centre of Excellence in Warsaw, the Polish capital. (It will ultimately be based in Kraków, a city in southern Poland.) According to liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza, they had a copy of the key. The raid ended with the removal of officials appointed by the previous government, including the Center of Excellence’s head, Col. Krzysztof Dusza. Later that day, the ministry of defense announced on its website that a new acting director, Col. Robert Bala, had been appointed.
"This is probably the first time in NATO's history that an alliance member has attacked a NATO facility", said Tomasz Siemoniak, the previous defense minister, who held the job until the centrist Civic Platform party lost parliamentary elections in October to the right-wing Law and Justice Party.
The Center is not actually part of the NATO command structure. Rather, it is one of twenty-four Centers of Excellence set up by one or more Alliance members to train specialists and provide expertise. This one was set up by Poland and Slovakia in September and has yet to be accredited by NATO. A NATO statement describes it as “the primary hub of NATO expertise in military counter-intelligence”.
“Polish representatives working at the Center lost access to classified material and had to be replaced with new ones who have that access,” said Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski, speaking on public radio. Also speaking on radio, the ministry of defense official for setting up the Center [Bartłomiej Misiewicz] said that employees had been “occupying” the Center “illegally” for over a week.
Poland’s new defense minister, 67-year-old Macierewicz, is a divisive figure in Poland; 61% of Poles distrust him, according to a recent poll. Prior to the elections in October voters were reassured that another, milder politician would become minister of defense if Law and Justice won. Yet two weeks later, the party gave the job to Macierewicz, raising eyebrows at home and abroad. Macierewicz is a leading proponent of theories about Moscow’s involvement in a 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in which Poland’s then-president and 95 others lost their lives. “Explaining this tragedy is the most important challenge and honor facing the Polish Army and Polish state,” he said last month.
Back at the ministry of defense, where he served as deputy minister in the previous Law and Justice government, Macierewicz wants to ensure that security is in trusted hands. “He does not trust his predecessors' people, as he has proved many times before,” says Marek Świerczyński, a security and defense analyst at Polityka Insight, a think-tank in Warsaw. At the same time, the raid is a “signal to other potential ‘rebels’ that Macierewicz will come for them regardless of the time of day or night”, he adds.
Officially, NATO has kept its distance from the incident in Warsaw. In a statement, it called it “an issue for the Polish authorities”, pointing out that the Counter Intelligence Center of Excellence has not been accredited by the Alliance yet. Meanwhile, in a statement published on the day of the raid, Poland’s ministry of defense attempted to clarify that the incident “in no way relates to links between [Poland’s] Military Counterintelligence Service and the US services, which are very good”.
Still, the timing is particularly awkward. Warsaw is due to host the next NATO summit in July 2016.
Like its predecessor, the new Polish government is hawkish towards Moscow and supportive of Ukraine. Visiting Kiev last week, Macierewicz spoke of Poland’s readiness for closer defense cooperation with Ukraine. “A safe Ukraine is a safe Poland and a safe Europe,” he said. At the same time, Warsaw has been calling for a stronger NATO presence on the Alliance’s eastern flank, in response to a more aggressive Russia.
Świerczyński warns that the raid could sound “alarm bells” in other NATO countries, some of which are already skeptical about Poland's stance, which they fear could irritate Russia. Ultimately, the issue is less one of substance than of style, he adds: the new Law and Justice government understandably wanted to entrust key jobs to its own people, yet it did not have to do it this way, under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, as the new government gathers momentum, Poles are wondering what news they will wake up to hear next.