PRZEMYŚL, Poland — For Vladimir, a Ukrainian cab driver who was recently ferrying foreign fighters and refugees to and from the Poland-Ukraine border, the threat of Russian saboteurs is real.
“If you had not proved that you were a journalist, I would have killed you on the spot,” said Vladimir, who then showed VICE World News what appeared to be a 9mm Beretta pistol. “You know what's happening now: The Russians dress up in our military uniform and kill civilians.”
He’s referring to the growing worry of Russian saboteurs.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy said in a television address to the nation that groups of Russian sabotage teams—undercover spetsnaz (Russian special forces) units—were sowing chaos with targeted killings and other insurgent activities behind enemy lines. Some have been caught wearing disguises, including uniforms branded with Ukrainian flags, and marking buildings with special symbols for airstrikes, while others were found hiding in the woods outside Kyiv with sniper rifles and explosives.
Now reports of saboteurs have been popping up all over Ukraine, right up to the Polish border, and Ukrainian forces claim they’ve captured some—even outing alleged saboteurs on social media.
So far, the possibility of those same units showing their presence in Poland has seemed far-fetched: If it were true, Russia would be meddling in a NATO country, and one with a rich history of resistance.
While there haven’t yet been any confirmed cases in Poland, people VICE World News spoke to said saboteurs were a concern in the area. One former Polish government official confirmed they’re concerned with the risk of Russian saboteurs meddling in Poland, which borders Ukraine to the east and has already taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, a political science and international affairs expert with the University of Łódż, told VICE World News he isn’t worried about Russian saboteurs making their way into Poland at this point. The solidarity between Ukraine and Poland is so strong, that it’s unlikely an undercover Russian agent would successfully wreak havoc; any behaviour that seems off would quickly be recognized, he said.
“Poland has its own historical memory of Russian aggression,” Żurawski vel Grajewski said. “It’s simple for Poles to imagine what Ukrainians are going through.”
But there’s no denying Russian intelligence has been bold enough to deploy soldiers or agents; it has a very real and recent history of doing so in other NATO nations. BuzzFeed News reported on a string of assassinations across the West of Kremlin enemies, including in Washington, D.C., and London. There’s also the example of the Skripal affair in 2018, when Russian agents went to a sleepy English town to poison a former Russian intelligence member.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, many nations bordering Russia have openly feared that they could be the Kremlin’s next target. Baltic nations with large Russian-speaking populations have gone into high alert; Moldova worries the frozen conflict in Transnistria could be a pretext for Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops; and in Poland—a place with a historical rivalry and hostility with Russia—President Andrzej Duda reassured his people that NATO was sending a reinforcement of 10,000 troops to the country’s eastern flank.
But with airstrike sirens blaring in the nearby Ukrainian city of Lviv, less than 50 miles from the Polish border, and reports of Russian saboteurs inside it, it feels like the Kremlin war machine is getting closer and closer to Poland’s doorstep. As Notes From Poland, an independent English-language publication on the country, reported, there’s already talk in Poland of Russian disinformation operations trying to destabilize the country.
Dmytro Romaniv, one of the lead volunteers who has been providing humanitarian aid to refugees who are crossing over by foot on the Medyka border, said he believes the rumors that Russia is deploying saboteurs nearby.
“It’s possible because they (Russians) do things like that,” Romaniv said in Polish.
While the ruling PiS party in Poland has been internationally criticized for its right-wing legislation and ultranationalism, it has also used the threat of Russia as a cudgel in its broader agenda to portray Poland as a nation on the cusp of invasion. If it does end up playing up reports of Russian sabotage agents closing in on its borders, it could very well be part of its past political gamesmanship using Russia as a bogeyman.
For now, whether Poland will be the outright target of Moscow remains to be seen.
Vladimir, who drives his hatchback from the Medyka border crossing to multiple locations in Poland and back, said he is prepared for whatever happens next.
“I am ready to die for my country!” he said. “I am proud that I was born in Ukraine.”