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The Russian invasion has united Poland and Ukraine, two countries with a fractious history

Poland has proven to be one of Ukraine’s most steadfast allies in recent years and especially since Russia’s invasion in February. Despite this, the two countries have not always been so close. Understandings of their shared history could now prove crucial to the future of this new alliance.

May 27, 2022 - Nikolas Kozloff - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Vera Petrunina / Shutterstock

There is nothing like an outside invasion to unite formerly acrimonious neighbours in a common cause. Faced with a rapacious Russia, Poland and Ukraine have become somewhat unlikely allies, with Warsaw accepting millions of refugees streaming across the border. Poland has generously provided Ukrainians with access to the country’s labour market, as well as health and social benefits. Locals are now opening up their homes to those in need. Convoys passing over the border, meanwhile, have acted as a lifeline for Ukraine by providing medical and military supplies. Indeed, Poland has become a strategic linchpin, supplying Ukraine with US-manufactured Stinger missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons. This equipment is vital if Kyiv is to turn the tide.

Though such amicable ties are to be welcomed, history has shown that Poland and Ukraine have not always enjoyed harmonious relations. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose territory included Western Ukraine, the nobility developed rural plantations and placed onerous burdens on the peasantry. This in turn led to a Cossack rebellion in the seventeenth century. When the Commonwealth was partitioned in the following century, the Habsburg Empire took the province of Galicia for itself. However, Polish nobility and landlords were allowed to retain their social and economic privileges. Meanwhile, the provincial capital of Lemberg (currently Lviv) witnessed social tensions, as both Poles and Ukrainians regarded the town as vital real estate in their own struggles for national self-determination. Needless to say, Jews were caught in the middle of such conflicts, with both Poles and Ukrainians committing pogroms against the city’s local Jewish population in the first half of the 20th century.

With the Habsburg Empire’s collapse after the First World War, tensions boiled over as Poles and Ukrainians fought each other for control of the city. A bloody war ensued until, at long last, a newly independent Poland managed to take over Lemberg, which was renamed Lwów. However, Poland and a new nationalist regime in Ukraine later joined forces to fight a common enemy in Bolshevism. In exchange for Polish recognition of Ukraine, Kyiv agreed to give up claims to eastern Galicia, as well as another province, Volhynia. That is to say, “the most far-sighted leaders in both nations” realised that only by combining forces could they resist Moscow, much like now. Within conquered Galicia, however, Polish authorities moved to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism. To add insult to injury, the rest of Ukraine was ultimately turned into a Soviet republic as the country’s brief experiment in independence was put to an end.

During the interwar period, Warsaw pursued a harsh “polonisation” policy. This resulted in the closure of Ukrainian schools and churches, as well as a prohibition on Ukrainian language instruction. Ukrainian lands were colonised, particularly in Volhynia, and army veteran settlers were provided with weapons. Later, during the Second World War, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army or UPA carried out ethnic cleansing of Poles in eastern Galicia and Volhynia. This is widely recognised by historians as a genocide. In a never-ending tit-for-tat, Poles fought back, killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians. Ultimately, the Soviets deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Eastern Ukraine and established an ethnic demarcation line between Poland and Ukraine. This ended centuries of a Ukrainian presence in south-eastern Poland. Other Ukrainians were “resettled” in western Poland by the newly-established communist authorities. Most Poles, meanwhile, moved out of Ukraine or were expelled from Lwów. The city was renamed again by the Soviets as Lvov and the city became almost exclusively Ukrainian. In all, inter-ethnic violence had displaced some 1.5 million people. 

Despite this historic trauma, Poland has been Ukraine’s most vociferous ally in recent years. The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. During the Second World War, Poland was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the USSR, with the Soviets killing tens of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyń massacres and sending others into Siberian exile. Needless to say, Poland was forced to live under Soviet control for decades during the Cold War. In 1989, Poland became a modern democracy and two years later cheered when Ukraine achieved independence from the Soviet Union. Since then, Poland has been one of Ukraine’s most steadfast supporters within the EU. Warsaw applauded the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14 and provided substantial military aid to Kyiv. Poland also extended an olive branch by agreeing to refrain from labelling historic UPA massacres as “genocide”. Unfortunately, Ukrainian politicians did not reciprocate in kind by displaying much willingness to address historic wrongs.

If anything, Putin’s onslaught on Ukraine could help encourage a full reconciliation between Poland and Ukraine. However, there are concerns the Kremlin could try to exploit historic grievances. Late last year, vandals painted the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag on Krakow monuments just days before Poland’s Independence Day. Polish and Ukrainian investigators believe the vandalism may have been linked to a Kremlin disinformation campaign designed to whip up animosity between the two nations. Other far-right Polish activists or pro-Kremlin politicians have sought to stoke up xenophobic fears regarding Ukrainian refugees. Some have attempted to stir up resentment about Ukrainian massacres of Poles in the 1940s, while others have gone so far as to claim that Poland secretly wants to reclaim Lviv and other territory in Western Ukraine that used to belong to Warsaw. While such propaganda efforts seem destined to fail, officials are concerned that the longer the refugee crisis persists, the greater the potential for social anxiety and tension. As Ukraine and Poland draw ever nearer in a time of crisis, the echoes of a turbulent history still beckon. 

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based journalist who has written 81 articles about Ukraine. He has conducted four research trips to the country over the years, reporting for such outlets as the Washington, D.C.-based Kennan Institute, amongst others. He is the author of Ukraine’s Revolutionary Ghosts (recently updated with a new forward).

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