Militaries around the world scramble to contain impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 ChinaMilitary forces around the world are scrambling to contain the impact of COVID-19 on military readiness, as the virus continues to infect troops and commanders at an alarming rate. On Tuesday, the Polish government announced that General Jaroslaw Mika, who serves as general commander of Branches of the Armed Forces, had tested positive for the coronavirus. General Mika is believed to have contracted the virus during a military conference that took place in the German city of Wiesbaden, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders gathered to plan an American-led military exercise.

Also on Tuesday, the United States Department of Defense said that the commander of the US Army in Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, participated at the Wiesbaden conference, along with several other US Army staff members. They are currently being tested for exposure to COVID-19. Meanwhile the Reuters news agency reported that the US Pentagon acknowledged that “the US military’s official tally of servicemembers and related personnel who have been infected by the coronavirus likely undercounts the actual total”. Sources told the news agency that the low age and good health of American troops was “a mixed blessing of sorts”, since it allows US servicemembers to survive the virus but at the same time reduces their symptoms that would normally trigger testing for COVID-19.

The government of Taiwan said on Tuesday that over 400 members of its armed forces had entered self-imposed quarantine in order to prevent a possible COVID-19 outbreak among military personnel. This brings the total number of Taiwanese servicemembers who are currently in quarantine to over 2,000, which includes two generals. The country’s Minister of Defense, Yen De-fa, insisted on Tuesday that the virus had not impacted Taiwan’s military readiness.

Chinese officials have not provided information about the effect of the coronavirus on the country’s military. The Chinese-language website of The Epoch Times said last week that, according to unnamed insiders, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had “forcibly isolated” tens of thousands of servicemembers this month. There are no reports of specific numbers in the Chinese media or non-Chinese news outlets.

Finally, according to Daily NK, a South Korean website that specializes on news from North Korea, approximately 180 North Korean soldiers have died as a result of contracting COVID-19 in the past month. The website cited “a source inside the North Korean military”, who said that Pyongyang had forcibly quarantined at around 3,700 soldiers of all ranks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s military.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 March 2020 | Permalink

Poland frees on bail former intelligence officer arrested for spying for China

Orange PolskaThe Polish government has authorized the release on bail of a former counterintelligence officer who was charged in January of this year with spying for China. The man has been identified in media reports as Piotr Durbajlo and is believed to have served as deputy director of the Internal Security Agency, Poland’s domestic counterintelligence service. A cyber security expert, Durbajlo also served in Poland’s Office of Electronic Communications with a top security clearance and unrestricted access to classified systems of Poland and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Poland is a member.

However, at the time of his arrest on January 10, Durbajlo had left government service and was a mid-level executive at Orange Polska. The company operates as the Polish branch of a French multinational telecommunications carrier with sister companies in several European Union countries. Along with Durbajlo, Polish authorities arrested Wang Weijing, a Chinese national who worked for the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei. Orange Polska is Huawei’s main domestic partner in Poland. Wang reportedly learned Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2006 he was posted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk, Poland’s largest Baltic Sea port. In 2011 he left the Foreign Service and joined the Polish office of Huawei. Following his arrest on January 10, he was charged with espionage. Huawei denied it had any role in espionage against the Polish state, but fired Wang nonetheless. Both Wang and Durbajlo have been in pretrial detention since their arrest in January.

On Friday, July 5, Durbajlo’s legal team announced that he would be set free on July 7, on a $31,500 bail that must be paid within 30 days to secure his release. His lawyers explained that the charges against him had not been dropped, but did not explain why he was being released. It is worth noting that Durbajlo’s release on bail was announced during a visit to Poland by a high-level Chinese delegation, aimed at discussing economic and political ties between Warsaw and Beijing. Late on Tuesday it was announced that Wang would remain in pretrial detention for at least three more months.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 July 2019 | Permalink

Huawei fires Chinese employee arrested in Poland for spying

Huawei PolandThe Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has fired one of its employees who was arrested last week in Poland on charges of spying for China, saying that his actions had “no relation to the company”. The man, identified in media reports as Wang Weijing, was arrested last Tuesday by Polish counterintelligence officers who conducted searches of Huawei’s offices in Warsaw and seized electronic hardware and documents. Wang reportedly learned Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2006, he was posted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk, Poland’s largest Baltic Sea port city. In 2011, he left the Foreign Service and joined Huawei, which employed him at its offices in Poland.

Reports from Poland said that Wang was arrested alongside a Polish national, who was identified in media reports only as Piotr D. He is believed to be a mid-level executive of Orange, a French multinational telecommunications carrier who is Huawei’s main domestic partner in Poland. Polish media also reported that, prior to joining Orange, Piotr D. was an upper-level manager in an unnamed Polish intelligence agency. Piotr D.’s house was searched by security officers on Tuesday, along with Wang’s house. The two arrests came six weeks after Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, was arrested in Canada. Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was reportedly detained on December 1 in Vancouver at the request of the United States. Washington says it has evidence that Meng “tried to evade the American embargo against Iran”.

Over the weekend, Poland’s Internal Affairs Minister, Joachim Brudzinski, said that the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization —of which Poland is a member— should develop a joint position on whether to continue to allow Huawei to operate in Europe. But his call was reportedly met with a lukewarm response from government and private-sector leaders. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was concerned about Wang’s arrest and urged Warsaw to treat him “with fairness”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 January 2019 | Permalink

Poland arrests military intelligence chiefs for ties to Russian spies

PytelAuthorities in Poland have charged three high-level military intelligence officials with acting in the interests of Russia. The three include two former directors of Polish military intelligence and are facing sentences of up to 10 years in prison. The news broke on December 6, when Polish authorities announced the arrest of Piotr Pytel, who was director of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (SKW) from 2014 to 2015. It soon emerged that two more arrests had taken place, that of Pytel’s predecessor, Janusz Nosek, and Krzysztof Dusza, Pytel’s chief of staff during his tenure as SKW director.

According to the newsmagazine Gazeta Polska, which provides extensive coverage of the arrests in its latest issue, the SKW officials are accused of having had unauthorized contacts with Russian intelligence personnel and of “operating on behalf of a foreign intelligence service”. The court indictment reportedly states that the Polish officials “cooperated, without seeking the necessary authorization, with members of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)”. The indictment also notes that “the mission of the FSB conflicts with that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, of which Poland is a full member.

According to reports in the Polish media, the three men are accused of having held several undisclosed meetings with FSB officers in Poland. One such meeting allegedly took place in the village of Ułowo, in north-central Poland. The village is located just a few miles from Poland’s border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. During the meeting, which included dinner and “heavy consumption of alcohol”, the SKW officials allegedly met with the FSB’s senior representative in Poland, identified in court documents only as “W.J.”, as well as with several other Russian intelligence officers. Following that meeting, Pytel and Dusza allegedly helped falsify the application data of an unnamed representative of the FSB in Poland, who was stationed at Russia’s embassy in Warsaw. This allegedly allowed the Russian intelligence officer to evade diplomatic restrictions on travel and to gain access to information about Poland’s military that he otherwise would not have.

Speaking on Polish state-owned television, Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said last week that he was aware of the seriousness of the accusation against the three SKW officials. He told the Telewizja Polska station that the three officials face “very serious allegations” that point to “fully conscious and illegal cooperation with Russian spies”. That, said Macierewicz, was the “worst kind of betrayal that can be committed by a Pole”. The three defendants claim that they were not working in the interests of the FSB and that it was their job to meet regularly with Russian intelligence representatives in Poland.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2017 | Permalink

Polish counterintelligence chief questioned over alleged deal with Russia

General Piotr PytelThe former director of Poland’s military counterintelligence agency has been questioned by the country’s military police, over allegedly illegal cooperation with Russian intelligence. From 2006 to 2012, General Piotr Pytel was head of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS), which is responsible for domestic security and for ensuring the war-readiness of Poland’s armed forces. According to government prosecutors, General Pytel struck an illegal agreement with the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, in 2010. The alleged agreement concerned the return to Poland of troops who had been sent to serve in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Several hundred Polish troops participated in ISAF, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council in 2001.

General Pytel’s critics claim that he reached out to the FSB without authorization, and struck an agreement allowing for the passage of Polish troops through Russian soil on their way back to Poland from Central Asia. Some in the Polish government claim that the passage of Polish troops through Russia allowed the Russian spy services to collect intelligence on the Polish armed forces and thus weakened the Polish military vis-à-vis Russia. Polish authorities also accuse Genera Pytel’s predecessor at the helm of the MCS, General Janusz Nosek, of striking similar agreements with Moscow. These agreements were not authorized by NATO or the Polish high command and thus exceeded the prerogative of the MCS directors, according to prosecutors. The same prosecutors also questioned Donald Tusk, the current President of the European Council, who was Prime Minister of Poland in 2010. Mr. Tusk is also suspected of colluding with the Russian FSB, according to some reports.

But Mr. Tusk, and Generals Pytel and Nosek, deny that they engaged in illegal dealings with Russia and accuse the Polish prosecutor’s office of engaging in a political witch-hunt. All three of the accused belong to the Civil Platform, a liberal political party that is now in opposition but was the ruling party in the country from 2007 to 2015. Members of the Civil Platform have accused the Minister of Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), of politically persecuting his opponents. In statements made on social media on Wednesday, Mr. Tusk said he was proud to have worked with the two MCS former directors, whom he described “shining example[s] of responsibility, patriotism and honor”. He also called for Minister of Defense Macierewicz to resign.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 6 December 2017 | Permalink

EU Council president grilled in closed-door probe of Polish-Russian spy deal

Donald TuskSenior European Union official Donald Tusk was grilled for several hours on Wednesday, in the context of a Polish government probe into an intelligence agreement between Warsaw and Moscow. But Tusk, who is the current president of the European Council, and served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, dismissed the probe as politicized and said it was deliberately designed to harm his political career. The investigation was launched by the government of Poland earlier this year. Its stated goal is to investigate an agreement that was struck in late 2013 between Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS) and the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation. The agreement allegedly took place in secret, but was never implemented. The government of Poland canceled it in 2014, after accusing Moscow of illegally annexing the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

On Wednesday, Tusk spent nearly three hours at the office of the prosecutor in Warsaw, in a question-and-answer session that was held entirely behind closed doors. As he was leaving the building, the former Polish prime minister said he could not comment on the content of his testimony. But he used strong words to dismiss the entire investigation as “extremely political”, while accusing those behind it as holding a vendetta against him. Tusk and his supporters believe that the probe was primarily initiated by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the conservative Law and Justice party. They also claim that Kaczyński, who is Tusk’s political arch-foe in Poland, is spearheading a campaign of personal vindictiveness against him.

The rivalry between the two men began in 2010, when an airplane carrying a Polish government delegation to a World War II commemoration event in Russia crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing everyone onboard. Among the dead was Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław Kaczyński’s brother. Since the air disaster, the leader of the Law and Justice party has maintained that the Russian government deliberately brought down the plane. He also accuses Tusk, who was Poland’s prime minister at the time, of colluding with Moscow to eliminate his brother. These allegations remain unsubstantiated, but they have contributed to the emergence of a venomous political climate in Poland that has dominated national politics for years.

On Wednesday, during Tusk’s three-hour testimony, several thousands of his supporters demonstrated outside the office of the prosecutor, urging Tusk to run for president in a few years. It is a common expectation in Poland that Tusk will soon turn his attention to domestic Polish politics and run for the highest office in the land in 2020.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 April 2017 | Permalink

Poland exhumes late leader’s body in probe of 2010 plane crash in Russia

Lech KaczyńskiAuthorities in Poland have exhumed the body of the country’s late prime minister and his wife as part of an investigation into the 2010 airplane disaster that killed them and nearly 100 others in Russia. The move has reignited persistent rumors that the crash that killed everyone onboard the plane, including Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, was not an accident. At the time of their death, the couple were leading a delegation of Polish officials and journalists traveling to Russia to participate in commemorations marking 70 years from the so-called ‘Katyn massacre’. The term refers to the extermination of approximately 22,000 Polish soldiers and civilians that was carried out by the Soviet military and secret services in 1940, following the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Investigations of the air disaster have been carried out by Russia and by the previous Polish administration, headed by the centrist Civic Platform party, which governed the country from 2010 until 2015. Both concluded that the crash was an accident. But the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late president, insists that previous investigations were incomplete and has initiated its own probe into the matter. Almost as soon as it formed a national government last year, the rightwing PiS reopened the investigation into the 2010 air crash. The exhumation of the victims’ bodies, which began on Monday, is the first step of the new probe.

Many supporters of the new investigation claim that bombs hidden onboard the plane caused it to crash. Others suggest that the Polish government at the time is to blame for the crash, because it neglected to properly service the plane. Some have even suggested that Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister at the time of the crash, who now heads the European Council, should be put on trial for the murder of President Kaczyński. Critics note that no credible evidence has been put forward to support the assassination theory or the deliberate neglect theory, barring some circumstantial discrepancies in the Russian-language documents. The current probe is expected to last several months.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2016 | Permalink