Poland has been supporting most Ukrainian endeavors and has not profited much from doing so.
Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
In the beginning of this month, a delegation of Ukrainian parliamentarians took part in the 11th session of the Interparliamentary Assembly of Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. As it took place amid a border crisis, the meetings focused on issues such as coordinating military exercises with Kiev and border security. The crisis at the Belarusian border has been deescalating but in face of the increasingly tense Donbass crisis, the Polish state certainly has concerns about its other border. For example, according to a recent internal EU document, attempts to smuggle illegal weapons into Poland (from Ukraine) are on the rise. A lot of attention has been given recently to Polish-Belarusian relations due to the migration crisis at the border and its impacts on Europe. Not much is talked though about the topic of Ukrainian-Polish complex relations, which have deep historic roots.
On the one hand, the Polish authorities in Warsaw have been supporting Ukraine in many strategic issues, and there has been plenty of cooperation. Poland itself is at the very top of the list of foreign nations Ukrainians like, while, according to a 2017 poll, 87 % of Poles viewed Ukraine as a European country – this being the highest level in the European Union (the same year, only 48% of the French viewed this country so). On the other hand, the way Warsaw and Kiev perceive and politicize 20th century history is a major challenge for their cooperation.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, Poland saw Ukraine as a potential buffer zone against the so-called Bolshevik threat. After the 1921 Riga peace treaty, Warsaw ruled once again over Western Ukrainian lands. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and other groups opposed such rule employing terrorist tactics also and they were met with brutal repression. This gives some context to the fact that during the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, many nationalist Ukrainians sided with the Germans, hoping to gain Nazi support for their independence struggle. Some took part in anti-Polish counter-insurgency operations within the Waffen-SS and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) committed several war crimes against Poles. Such actions are considered genocide by many Polish and Western historians today – and even by prominent Ukrainian historians such as Yaroslav Hrytsak, for instance.
After the Cold War, Warsaw supported Ukrainian independence so as to ensure the dismantling of the Soviet Union and to weaken Moscow – one should bear in mind that the History of ethnic Ukrainians is intertwined inseparably with that of Russians, thus the only way Kiev can “turn its back” to Moscow is by means of fueling Ukrainian nationalism. At the same time, Poland hoped for a Ukraine integrated in the EU and NATO, which could serve as a buffer zone between Russia and Central Europe. Thus, Warsaw also supported the Ukrainian democratic reforms.
During the so-called Orange Revolution (2004-2005) most of the Polish political elite supported Victor Yushchenko and sided with the demonstrations against “pro-Russian” Ukrainian leaders (Viktor Yanukovych and Leonid Kuchma). All of this of course caused a deterioration of Russian-Polish relations that has its effects to this very day.
During the 2008 Georgia war, Kiev and Warsaw coordinated their anti-Russian policies.
The Polish elite saw in the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko an opportunity to push for a fully pro-Western Ukraine that would serve their interests. The problem is that Yushchenko’s Ukrainian nationalism was certainly a hard pill to swallow, and those mutual grievances once again came to surface when his government glorified Stepan Bandera, awarding him the title of Hero of Ukraine. This glorification still goes on today and was very much visible during the 2014 Maidan protests. Bandera was one of the most controversial UPA leaders and his official rehabilitation was not well received in Poland due to his collaboration with Nazi Germany and due to UPA’s involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Poles.
The truth is that the new (post-Maidan) Ukrainian ideology and its retelling of History (in which Stepan Bandera and UPA/OUN are in fact national heroes) seriously hampers any true reconciliation with Poland. For example, already in 2016 the Ukrainian parliament criticized its Polish counterpart for its resolution on the Volhynia genocide.
Moreover, Ukraine’s 2015 “decommunization” laws actually make it punishable by law to criticize Ukrainian independence fighters – which include the aforementioned UPA combatants. So, ironically, the same “Ukrainization” policies and measures that alienated pro-Russian Eastern Ukrainians (including those from the Donbass region, particularly, who have historical and cultural ties with Russia), also elicited a negative reaction from Warsaw. Politics of memory may have profound geopolitical implications – disputes about the past largely impact the present and the future for they are shaped by certain visions and principles.
So, while Ukraine has remained a kind of top priority in Polish foreign policy, there are many communication and confidence issues stemming from disagreements over History and in fact over worldviews.
From a Polish perspective, the Euromaidan protests presented themselves as yet another opportunity to pull Kiev away from a Russian sphere of influence. When things escalated into the Donbass war, Warsaw maintained its support for Ukraine, within the scope of its limited capacity, in the form of economic and political initiatives (such as the 100 million euro loan program in January 2015), as well as by means of providing Kiev with military equipment. In fact, according to data from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Poland was ranked fourth amongst the providers of military assistance to Kiev in 2014-2017.
The hard truth is that by doing so, Poland has not accomplished any of its goals. Today’s pro-Western Ukraine has not moved any closer to integration with neither the EU nor NATO, Polish national security or the security of its borders has not benefited from a conflict in its vicinity. Polish international position has not been strengthened. Kiev itself to a large degree has in fact marginalized Warsaw in the Donbass war negotiations where Poland today stands as kind of a sidelined observer. If the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not in the EU’s interests, this is particularly true for Poland. Thus, Warsaw, as well as the Western powers, might end up “abandoning” Ukraine in the event of an escalation of the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
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