Polish authorities say they have detained nine members of a Russian spy ring who they say were gathering intelligence on weapons supplies to Ukraine and making plans to sabotage the deliveries.
Six people have been charged with preparing acts of sabotage and espionage, and charges are being prepared against the other three.
“Evidence indicates that this group monitored railway lines. Their tasks included recognising, monitoring and documenting weapons transports to Ukraine,” the interior minister, Mariusz Kamiński, told a news briefing on Thursday morning.
“The suspects were also preparing sabotage actions aimed at paralysing the supply of equipment, weapons and aid to Ukraine.”
The Polish radio station RMF FM, citing sources, said at least 50 electronic spying devices had been installed by the network, and said the investigation into the ring had taken several months. Some of the cameras were found close to the airport in the city of Rzeszów.
Poland’s security service, the ABW, reportedly found cameras, electronic equipment and GPS location devices, apparently intended to be secreted on aid bound for Ukraine. Authorities say they have evidence the group were paid by Russian intelligence.
With Ukrainian airspace closed since the Russian invasion a year ago, the small Rzeszów airport has become the main transit point for military and humanitarian cargo on its way to Ukraine.
Last month, Joe Biden landed there en route to Kyiv, and numerous other leaders have passed through the airport, which is less than 50 miles from the border with Ukraine. US and other Nato troops are stationed at a nearby military base, and Washington has deployed Patriot air defence systems to protect the airfield.
The arrests are the latest in connection with a wave of alleged Russian espionage activity across Europe since the invasion of Ukraine.
In the wake of the invasion, European countries expelled hundreds of Russian diplomats, many of whom were believed to be intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover. Moscow has increasingly turned to other channels to run intelligence networks.
Authorities in various European countries have detained several suspected “illegals” – Russian operatives posing as nationals of other countries. A security guard at the British embassy in Berlin was jailed for 13 years last month for passing information to the Russians, and late last year an employee of Germany’s BND intelligence agency was arrested on suspicion of providing classified information to Moscow.
Poland has made numerous arrests. Three days after Russia launched its invasion last year, Pablo González, a Spanish journalist of Russian origin, was arrested in the border town of Przemyśl and accused of working with Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. The case has not yet come to court.
Last month, Polish prosecutors charged a Russian citizen who has Polish residency with spying for Russia over several years, claiming he collected information on the structure of Polish military units.
Polish authorities have not yet named the suspects in the latest spy ring, or given details of their nationality, except to claim they are “foreigners from the east of Poland”. Belarusian media outlets reported on Thursday that three of the detainees were citizens of Belarus.
Kamiński claimed that along with intelligence gathering and potential sabotage, the group had also been tasked with “carrying out propaganda activities aimed at destabilising Polish-Ukrainian relations, fomenting hostile sentiments in Poland towards Nato and attacking the actions of the Polish government towards Ukraine.”
He said the case was “dynamic and developing” and promised further announcements soon.
The defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, said the investigation “was coordinated with our Nato allies”.