Russia retaliated against Poland today by ordering nine Polish diplomats to leave Moscow, charging that the West had orchestrated Poland's expulsion Thursday of nine Russian diplomats to "test" acting President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian Interfax news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry statement as saying the Polish diplomats were being expelled in connection with "activities inconsistent with their status," a common euphemism for spying.
The Polish government also accused the nine Russian diplomats of espionage in ordering them out of the country, but Interfax, citing intelligence sources in Moscow, said Warsaw would not have acted on its own.
"In essence this is a test of the toughness of acting President Vladimir Putin--how he is able to take a blow and how he replies," the intelligence sources said. "If they want to test Putin then [the Western powers] will see. But it is the Poles who will pay the price."
A Polish official dismissed the Russian assertions tonight by saying that Poland "doesn't act on behalf of the West; Poland is in the West."
Relations between Poland and Russia, which are freighted with centuries-old animosities, have been chilly since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the disbanding of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance in 1991. Russia objected strongly to Poland's entry into NATO last year along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, two other former Warsaw Pact members.
The Polish government has provided few details on the alleged espionage by the Russian diplomats except to say it involved "mostly economic and political" areas. According to members of Parliament's secret services committee, which was briefed on the case, the Polish Office for State Security has been investigating the Russians for a number of months, and government officials said there was clear proof of the diplomats' illegal activities.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Pawel Dobrowolski said he could not confirm Polish media reports that the government consulted with NATO on the expulsions, but added that because Poland "is a full NATO member, then it is obvious that such things happen as part of a fully coordinated activity."
Western defense experts have feared that Russian intelligence services would attempt to exploit their former ties in Eastern Europe to spy on the Western alliance. No Polish accomplices have been identified, though a member of the secret services committee said, "It's obvious that someone was working for [the Russians]."
Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz said today that Polish intelligence services have been monitoring a growing threat from Russian agents, but he added that there are "reasons to believe it was not higher than in other NATO countries."
This is not the first expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Warsaw. In 1993, Poland expelled a military attache and Russia responded in kind.
Dobrowolski said he hoped the incident would only have a short-term effect on relations between the countries. Poland is eager to rebuild its export markets in Russia, its largest eastern trading partner, which have largely withered since the Russian economic crisis last year.
But the scale of the expulsion, which allegedly involves senior diplomats in Russia's Warsaw embassy, enraged Moscow, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was an "explicitly unfriendly and provocative" act.
Poland gave the nine Russian diplomats a week to leave the country. In retaliating today, Russia gave the nine Poles the same amount of time to leave.
There are 40 accredited Polish diplomats in Moscow and 12 more in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, a Baltic Sea enclave cut off from Russia proper and bordering Poland. The Russian Embassy has about 60 diplomats ensconced in a large compound in the southern part of Warsaw.