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Ryszard Kuklinski

Cold War spy for the West

13 February 2004

Ryszard Jerzy Kuklinski, army officer and spy: born Warsaw 13 June 1930; married (two sons deceased); died Tampa, Florida 10 February 2004.

It began with an envelope that arrived at the American Embassy in Bonn in August 1972, postmarked in the German North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven. Inside was a letter written in an approximation of English by someone describing himself as "an foregen MAF from Communistische Kantry" (sic) who wanted to meet secretly with a US army officer. The letter was signed simply "P.V."

P.V., the CIA officers who first encountered this intriguing individual quickly discovered, stood for "Polish Viking". The Polish Viking in question proved to be Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, a senior and highly trusted officer at the Operations Directorate of the Defence Ministry in Warsaw. He would become one of the West's most precious spies during the entire Cold War. Kuklinski was the embodiment of his country's tragic history between 1945 and 1989 - liberated from one evil invader, only to become a colony of the so-called liberator, living under a harsh and alien Communism.

In the 20th century, Poland was the "land in between", ever at the mercy of its two powerful neighbours, Germany and Russia. Kuklinski's father was a resistance leader captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and who died in a Nazi concentration camp. But Soviet rule was small improvement; to prosper, the young Kuklinski realised, you had to go along with the system. He chose the army, but there too he was confronted by purges, Sovietisation, and the systematic expunging of all things patriotic and Polish.

The breaking point for Kuklinski was the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, confirming that "socialism" was no more than brutal imperialism, that would tolerate no dissent. He was moreover convinced that, if there was a war in Europe, Poland as usual would be trapped in the middle; a corridor for invasion that might be obliterated by a pre-emptive US nuclear strike to destroy Warsaw Pact armies before they reached the West. This eventuality, Kuklinski reasoned, had to be prevented. The best way of doing so, he further calculated, was to work with the other side.

In a spying career that lasted more than nine years, he never took money. But what was code-named Operation Gull at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, yielded the US unbelievably precious information. Between 1972 and 1981, Kuklinski provided over 35,000 pages of documents - not just on Polish defence planning, but the European battle strategy of the entire Warsaw pact, and Soviet military secrets of every kind.

He was perhaps the CIA's most productive agent in place in the Soviet bloc since Colonel Oleg Penkovsky handed over details of Moscow's nuclear capabilities in the early 1960s. In espionage terms, Kuklinski's material was pure gold. Aris Pappas, a CIA analyst who worked on the Kuklinski case, told his biographer Benjamin Weiser that the Gull documents "virtually defined our knowledge" of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact military. "It was the touchstone. It was the basic standard."

Kuklinski's greatest dilemma was over Solidarity, the Polish independent union movement, whose goal of a free Poland was his own. In late 1980 he provided the US with Moscow's plans for 18 Soviet, Czech and East German divisions to invade Poland to suppress Solidarity. President Jimmy Carter was able to warn the Soviet Union in advance of the grave consequences that would occur, and the invasion never happened.

A year later, Kuklinski passed on to Washington plans he had helped draw up for the regime of Wojciech Jaruzelski to impose martial law. But, for all his sympathy and admiration for Lech Walesa, Solidarity's leader, Kuklinski did not inform the movement, in the belief - probably correct - that the consequence would have been bloody civil war, and perhaps the foreign invasion he wanted to avoid at all costs.

By November 1981, Kuklinski picked up signals that he was close to being uncovered. To his stunned wife and two sons, he revealed his double life. The family decided to stay together, and that month the four were "exfiltrated" in a US diplomatic vehicle to safety in West Berlin. On 13 December, General Jaruzelski imposed martial law.

In 1984 Kuklinski, long since resettled in the US under an assumed name, was sentenced to death in absentia by a Polish military court and his property confiscated. But, five years later, Communism collapsed in Poland, and as the facts of his case became known, an emotional debate about Kuklinski developed in his own country: was he a traitor or a patriot - had he betrayed Poland, or just a hated Communist regime?

Walesa, President of Poland between 1990 and 1995, never pardoned Kuklinski. But in 1997 the case against him was dropped - helping clear the way for the admission of Poland into Nato. The following year, Kuklinski finally returned to his native country, telling reporters that "my 25-year journey to a free Poland is over".

Later he flew to Krakow to receive honorary citizenship. In a speech broadcast live on national radio, he modestly summed up his extraordinary career. "I consider myself to be an ordinary soldier of the Republic, who did not do anything beyond the sacred duty of serving one's homeland in its hour of need."

He never believed himself an American spy, but a Polish patriot who had "recruited" the other superpower to work against Poland's Communist rulers and the Soviet Union of which they were virtual puppets. By the end of his life, most of his countrymen seemed to agree.

Rupert Cornwell

Also in Obituaries

Graham Martin
James Saunders
Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev
Derek Birnage
Ryszard Kuklinski


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