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Could an election and history’s ghosts upend Ukrainian-Polish alliance?

Supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party hold banners and wave national flags during a rally in Myslowice, Poland, on Oct. 7, 2023. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
by Joanna Kozlowska October 8, 2023 9:23 PM 12 min read
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Days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, global news outlets cast Poland as a humanitarian superpower.

Poles opened their homes to hundreds of thousands of refugees, offered transport, handed out hot soup and warm words of welcome. The government, too, sought to position itself as Kyiv’s champion in the West – supplying weapons, pressing allies to send more of theirs, and calling for Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO and the EU.

Eighteen months on, the alliance is mired in acrimony, with Polish officials threatening to halt weapons transfers and block Kyiv’s possible EU accession as tensions soar over competing agricultural interests and a simmering row over how to remember World War II-era massacres of Poles in modern-day Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities last month sought international arbitration after Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary imposed unilateral bans on domestic imports of Ukrainian grain and other produce, after the EU moved not to extend a pre-agreed embargo.

Warsaw appeared to respond by ratcheting up pressure, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki saying days later that his country would no longer send arms to Kyiv, even as a Ukrainian counteroffensive continued to inch forward in the south and east.

A government spokesman, Piotr Mueller, later clarified that Poland would continue to provide ammunition and armament supplies that had been previously agreed.

While Ukraine has now paused the arbitration proceedings against its neighbors, with trade officials saying a “complex solution” to the grain issue is being worked out, the tenor of Polish-Ukrainian relations remains a world away from last year’s warm camaraderie.

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Broken friendship

Under rules adopted by Brussels in May, five countries bordering Ukraine were allowed to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds to prevent a glut in their markets and protect local farmers. They still permitted the transit of sealed produce, helping Kyiv keep up its exports as Russia has threatened its usual Black Sea trade routes.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on Sep. 12 accused Poland’s conservative government of weaponizing the grain issue for political gain, as the ruling Law and Justice party strives to secure an unprecedented third term in the Oct. 15 parliamentary election.

On the same day that Shmyhal made his comments, his Polish counterpart Morawiecki addressed supporters in the town of Kosów Lacki, surrounded by fields and farmland.

He vowed that only Law and Justice could secure a future for Polish agriculture.

The following day, Poland’s Agricultural Minister Robert Telus told a Polish radio station that Warsaw could block Kyiv’s EU accession unless measures are put in place to restrict Ukrainian grain exports and safeguard Polish farmers.

Polish authorities argue that Ukrainian grain does not have to adhere to the bloc’s strict plant safety standards; some also say the fertility of Ukrainian soil makes the country’s agriculture impossible to compete with.

Some Polish opposition politicians publicly called for an extension of the EU grain embargo but said the government should have secured it by diplomatic means, rather than acting unilaterally and stoking anti-Ukrainian feeling. Other government critics accuse trading firms linked to the state or Law and Justice lawmakers of aggravating the crisis, saying they failed to ship Ukrainian grain out of Poland in a timely manner.

Polish analysts have for weeks warned that Law and Justice could turn to anti-Ukrainian rhetoric as it tries to hold on to power.

Adam Leszczynski, a journalist with the news portal who covers domestic politics and Polish-Ukrainian relations, said that the election may be decided by the thinnest of margins.

This year, Law and Justice is fending off not just liberal and leftist opposition but also a far-right challenger, Confederation party.

The far-right party has for months slammed the government as “naive” for offering Kyiv military and political backing, seemingly with no strings attached, and urged a strictly transactional approach.

The Confederation also seeks to capitalize on some Poles’ resentment of Warsaw’s decision to offer Ukrainian refugees a full social security and benefits package. A campaign ad published on the party’s website this week accused the Law and Justice government of “taking money from Poles and giving it to Ukrainians.”

Leszczynski said that all Polish parties have spent weeks running “intense” focus groups whose results inform their electoral messaging.

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“If the focus groups showed that anti-Ukrainian rhetoric might gain the government (even) 100,000 extra votes, I suspect that they would have no scruples,” Leszczynski said.

Adam Balcer, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw’s Centre for Eastern European Studies, agreed that the Polish government’s negative messaging about Ukraine is partly explained by Law and Justice’s desire to stave off competition from the far-right.

Balcer also pointed out that few senior Law and Justice figures saw cultivating warm relations with Kyiv as a priority before Russia’s full-scale invasion. He said that the outpouring of support for Ukraine that followed was chiefly driven by Warsaw’s desire to counter Moscow and fears of possible Russian aggression against Poland itself in the future.

“Fear of Russia, the presence of a fundemental Russian threat, remain factors that lead both Polish elites and society to think Ukrainians can’t be left to fend for themselves,” he said.

Spiral of past grievances

Since coming to power in 2015, Law and Justice has been accused of weaponizing nationalist and Catholic sentiment to stifle civil society and weaken the rule of law. It has sought to co-opt key parts of the judiciary, refashioned school curricula to emphasize “traditional values,” and stoked anti-migrant and anti-LGBTQ feeling.

Poles’ historical traumas, too, feature prominently in the government’s messaging. This year, Law and Justice have leaned heavily into anti-German rhetoric, playing on older people’s World War II scars and appearing to cast EU institutions as an instrument of Berlin’s power.

A campaign ad aired last month portrays previous Polish governments as having taken instructions from Germany in domestic matters, such as raising the retirement age. The government-controlled state broadcaster, TVP, has routinely alleged without evidence that key opposition figures, such as former European Council President Donald Tusk, would put Berlin’s interests ahead of Warsaw’s if elected.

A picture of Donald Tusk, the leader of the Civic Platform party (PO), is screened during the so-called Million Hearts March organized by his party in Warsaw, Poland on Oct. 1, 2023. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

History’s ghosts have also haunted Poland’s relations with Ukraine, resurfacing before the election.

Sparks first flew between Warsaw and Kyiv on July 31, when Marcin Przydacz, top official within the Polish president’s office, told state TV that Ukraine “should begin to appreciate” Polish support and promised a firm stance on the grain embargo.

Warsaw and Kyiv both went on to summon each other’s diplomatic representatives.

On Aug. 2, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Paweł Jablonski called on Kyiv to show “understanding for (Poland’s) needs and point of view.”

Jablonski reiterated Warsaw’s concerns over the grain exports but also brought up a bitter and long-festering dispute over remembering and moving on from the massacres of as many as 100,000 Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during the 1940s in the then-Nazi-occupied Volhynia and eastern Galicia regions.

The Polish parliament in July passed a resolution calling the killings genocide, while many Polish and Western historians have described them as ethnic cleansing.

These historians argue that the massacres were aimed at preventing a post-World War II Polish state from claiming the two majority-Ukrainian regions. Other minorities, such as Jews and Czechs, were also targeted.

The massacres were followed by killings of several thousand Ukrainians by the Polish underground in what’s now eastern Poland, including a March 1944 massacre in the village of Sahryn.

Some Ukrainian historians, notably Volodymyr Vyatrovych, have disputed whether the killings of Poles were premeditated or organized – although the topic is far less widely discussed in Ukraine than in Poland.

On June 19, Jablonski threatened that Poland would not agree to Ukraine’s EU accession “unless the question of genocide in Volhynia is resolved.”

Lukasz Adamski, deputy director of a think tank set up by the Polish culture ministry to help develop relations with Ukraine and other Eastern European states, said that Kyiv’s refusal so far to allow the exhumation and burial of the Polish victims has been a key point of contention, regardless of who is in charge in Warsaw.

Adamski, of the Warsaw-based Juliusz Mieroszewski Centre for Dialogue, said Polish partisans are responsible for reprisal killings, such as those in Sahryn, but said that “the victims have graves in Poland, unlike in Ukraine. That’s what provokes such heated reactions.”

In mid-July 2018, on the 75 anniversary of the massacres, Polish news outlets ran photos of President Andrzej Duda laying flowers at the edge of a rippling wheat field in Volhynia, where a Polish village used to stand.

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As of 2023, none of the murdered villagers have been laid to rest.

The Polish government has also repeatedly argued that the number of Polish victims was much higher – a claim backed by Western historians, although precise estimates vary.

Tensions between Kyiv and Warsaw previously spiked under ex-President Petro Poroshenko, whose administration stressed memory politics far more than its predecessors.

Streets in Ukraine were named after the country’s nationalist leader Stepan Bandera and his followers, including the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and nationalist military leader Roman Shukhevych and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The authorities highlighted their fight against Ukraine’s Soviet occupiers, with Poland and Poles largely outside the narrative.

Amid Russia’s brutal invasion, Bandera’s approval rating appears to have reached unprecedented highs: A January poll by Rating, a Ukrainian sociological agency, indicated that 74 percent of respondents held positive views of him in April 2022, a striking increase from 22 percent in 2012.

But UPA and OUN members, including Shukhevych, have also been implicated in the massacres of Poles, and the two organizations’ names carry strongly negative connotations in Poland.

Adamski said Poland’s ruling party is keenly aware of competition from the far-right Confederation, which likewise stresses “national honor” and historical grievances, and said it is a likely reason why the Volhynia issue has resurfaced.

He said there were “objective problems” in Polish-Ukrainian relations, such as the exhumation ban or “a lack of understanding” among Poles why figures such as Bandera or Shukhevych were increasingly cast in a heroic light in Ukraine.

“However, these problems would not be highlighted in the same way if not for the electoral campaign,” Adamski said.

Balcer commented that anti-Ukrainian rhetoric from Law and Justice has often gone hand in hand with the anti-German slogans prominent in the party’s campaign messaging.

“Law and Justice’s anti-Ukrainian rhetoric has gone hand in hand with its anti-EU and anti-German slogans,” he said.

In August, one of Poland’s largest dailies ran an interview with Witold Waszczykowski, a Law and Justice politician and Poland’s former top diplomat, who alleged that Kyiv had “allied itself with Germany” over the grain issue.

Weeks prior, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the Law and Justice party, likened the Volhynia and east Galicia massacres to Nazi crimes.

Senior Ukrainian officials have addressed the issue of the massacres earlier this year.

Ukrainian parliament Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk told the Polish parliament in May that Warsaw and Kyiv will work together towards reconciliation, “accepting the truth no matter how ruthless it may be.”

His words prompted applause from Polish lawmakers. However, President Volodymyr Zelensky hinted during a state visit to Poland in April that this cooperation could only begin after Ukraine has fended off Russia’s aggression.

Adamski argued that Kyiv – as well as Warsaw - could well take the first steps well before then.

The leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski delivers a speech during a campaign convention at the G2A Arena on Oct. 8, 2023, in Rzeszow, Poland. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)

He said that rather than an official apology or reopening debates on how to remember Bandera – inevitably fraught in wartime, especially given Kremlin propaganda that paints Ukrainians as violent extreme nationalists – Kyiv could simply allow for the exhumation and burial of the victims.

He cited an August 2022 poll conducted by the Mieroszewski Centre, in which 59% of Ukrainian respondents backed building cemeteries for the slain Poles, with commemorative plaques explicitly describing them as UPA victims.

Fifty-three percent did so on condition that equivalent plaques are installed on the graves of Ukrainians later murdered by the Polish underground – a measure Adamski strongly backed.

He also predicted that “the numbers would have been much higher” if the Mieroszewski Centre had asked about building graves alone, without the memorial signs proclaiming the UPA as responsible.

“I think (the poll) points to the maturity of Ukrainian society. Ukrainians would also like to solve this problem,” he said.

Adamski said there was a tendency in both Poland and Ukraine to cast the killings – of, respectively, Ukrainians and Poles – as impersonal “tragic events,” with both nations unwilling to admit wrongdoing.

“In eastern Poland, memorial plaques say that the Poles buried there were murdered by UPA members, while Ukrainians (killed by Polish partisans) ‘died tragic deaths,” he said.

“That’s not ethical either,” Adamski said.

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Balcer agreed.

“Polls in Ukraine show a growing belief that the UPA fought for the country’s independence and played a generally positive role. Of course, I would really like Ukrainians to admit that they also committed crimes, but the problem in Poland is that we don’t want to allow any nuance in our own narrative. This is not a story where Poles are solely victims and Ukrainians, solely perpetrators,” Balcer said.

The Polish government has bemoaned the adoption by Kyiv in 2015 of controversial “decommunization” laws, one of which outlaws the “denial and disrespect” of the role in Ukrainian history of a long list of figures, ranging from human rights activists to UPA militants, some of whom Poland accuses of ethnic cleansing.

Less than three years later, Poland, too, adopted a fiercely contested “Holocaust bill” mandating fines or imprisonment for those who alleged that ethnic Poles were complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

Balcer argued that Warsaw needs to learn to address painful episodes from Poland’s own history, including individual Poles’ collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust, but also the murders of Ukrainian civilians by Polish partisans in the 1940s, as well as the Polish state’s often unequal treatment of its Ukrainian inhabitants over the centuries.

Journalist Leszczynski said that while he would “not point to Poland as an example” of how to reckon with history, he hoped that Ukraine’s integration into the European community would prompt greater readiness to confront its darker turns.

“It’s an incredibly difficult task that we in Poland have only partially worked through, with respect to Polish-Jewish but also Polish-Ukrainian relations. It’s a matter of understanding that strong nations face up to their past, including its dark sides, while weak nations resist this,” he said.

Leszczynski said that while he would like Ukrainian authorities to apologize for the massacres, he didn’t think that “anyone reasonable in Poland should demand this now, during the war with Russia.”

Balcer, Adamski, and Leszczynski all said the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric coming from the Law and Justice party is part of the ongoing electoral campaign, adding that military support for Kyiv and a full Ukrainian victory over Russia lie in Poland’s strategic interests.

Leszczynski said he was unsurprised that Law and Justice would risk the relationship with Ukraine to secure a domestic win.

“(The government) will sacrifice as much as it possibly can, in terms of foreign relations, to win in Poland. They’ve done it repeatedly before, whether it came to relations with Israel or the EU,” he said.

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