As Ukraine and Poland Quarrel, Russia Benefits

By: Will Chim, Columnist

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The recent deterioration of Poland and Ukraine’s relationship destabilizes not just what should be a strong Polish-Ukrainian alliance against Russian aggression, but broader political cooperation in Europe. While the discord has its roots in World War II, it is mainly aggressive rhetoric on both sides causing a dangerous distraction in the region. These disputes and unchecked nationalism could scuttle the cordial post-Cold War relationship between the two countries, but the saga also demonstrates that public diplomacy and communication is critical in today’s Europe.

Poland and Ukraine’s conflict over historical relations has been simmering for decades. Only within the last few years have both sides brought it to the forefront of their bilateral relations. The figure at the center of this bilateral decay is Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian political activist who led Ukraine’s independence movement in the early 20th century, but during World War II allied himself with Nazi Germany because he believed Hitler would be more likely to respect Ukrainian independence.[i] Bandera’s political camp, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B), worked with Nazi military intelligence, the Abwehr, to coordinate espionage and sabotage activities against the Soviet Union.[ii]

The OUN-B declared an independent Ukraine in 1941, causing Nazi authorities to harshly suppress it (including putting Bandera in a concentration camp), and leading to the formation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought both the Nazis and Soviets. The UPA most notably engaged in “large-scale ethnic cleansing” against Poles to pre-empt any future Polish efforts at reclaiming its pre-war borders.[iii] The OUN-B and UPA massacred a reported 100,000 Polish civilians, mostly women and children, in the Volhynia and Eastern Galicia regions of Poland in 1944.[iv] KGB operatives later murdered Bandera in West Germany in 1959. Bandera’s lasting legacy to some in Ukraine is as a freedom fighter and hero of Ukrainian nationalism. However, in Poland, Bandera is widely reviled as a Nazi collaborator; Poland even labeled OUN’s campaigns against Poles a deliberate genocide.[v]

Today, as both countries are immersed in renewed nationalism, Bandera has emerged at the forefront of Polish-Ukraine relations. Bandera remains popular in western Ukraine, and his memory played a divisive role in resurgent Ukrainian pride during the events of Euromaidan and the ongoing crises over Crimea and the Donbas. While there remain far-right groups in Ukraine who revere him in the face of Russian aggression, it is impossible to dismiss or downplay his Nazi collaboration and the OUN’s atrocities against Poles. Poland’s ruling national-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) has put serious effort since 2015 into emphasizing Polish nationalism and heroism, as well as re-litigating Bandera’s legacy. Meanwhile, Kyiv named a street after Bandera while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was visiting Warsaw, the first of several perceived slights between the nations.[vi] Cemeteries and monuments in both countries have been desecrated by vandals, and anti-tank grenades were reportedly fired at an empty Polish tourist bus and a Polish consulate in western Ukraine.[vii] Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski responded in 2017 by stating that “Ukrainians with anti-Polish views” would be banned from Poland.[viii] Poland also passed a bill in February 2018 imposing jail terms for anyone who denies Ukrainians committed crimes against Poland during WWII or collaborated with Nazi Germany, which Ukraine subsequently condemned as harming bilateral relations.[ix]

The two strongly nationalist neighbors with similar histories of invasion are refusing to see things from the other’s perspective and settle these disputes, preventing a rapprochement against their mutual enmity of Russia. Meanwhile, the ongoing tensions are a massive boon to Russia’s broader efforts in Europe to destabilize vulnerable liberal democracies and sway politics in Ukraine[x]; distracting the two countries that have deep historical and political baggage with Russia by pitting them against one another is icing on the cake. Polish Ambassador to Ukraine Jan Pieklo has suggested there are marginal groups on both sides that are “useful idiots” to Russia’s overall goals in the region.[xi] The key issue preventing a rapprochement is that resurgent nationalist governments are entangling both sides – Ukraine due to its ongoing conflict with Russia, and Poland because of PiS dismantling Polish democracy via controversial judicial reforms and restricting free speech.[xii] The Bandera issue is representative of the ability of blind nationalism to distract from other serious issues – in this case, Russian aggression throughout the region.

Strong bilateral relations between Ukraine and Poland can strengthen efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe by creating a more united coalition. Poland and Ukraine have much in common and should put aside historical conflicts to focus on the grave threat facing them both. While even five years ago Poland was a staunch defender and supporter of Ukraine during the Crimea crisis, both countries’ governments are pulling away from one another. Both should proceed with the suggestion of their foreign ministers to have a joint investigation of the Volhynia genocide that would result in a common history used in both countries, as was the case with Polish-German reconciliation after WWII.[xiii] Similarly, both countries’ defense ministers discussed security and military cooperation in late 2017 including a multinational brigade with Lithuania – both countries should make defense cooperation a priority and not allow the ongoing spat to ruin it.[xiv] The Ukrainian government must examine, temper, or even end its use of Bandera as a nationalist icon and recognize the damage it does to its relations with Poland as well as how Russia exploits Bandera to label the post-Yanukovich government as right-wing extremists: Vladimir Putin in 2014 referred to the events of Euromaidan as led by “neo-Nazis” and “ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice.”[xv] Having a Nazi collaborator close to your country’s political identity and pride is a dangerous game and threatens Ukraine’s relationship with the West.

Kyiv hopes a change of government in Poland will restore fruitful relations, but the mending of Polish-Ukrainian ties will take steps on both sides.[xvi] And while populism surges across Europe, countries that should be natural allies in 2018 must learn to work together even as nationalism surges against liberal cooperation. Both Ukraine and Poland have been victims in their past, and right now Ukraine is being seriously victimized by the Russian Federation to the east. Ukraine and Poland are two strong, proud countries with rich histories, cultures, and indomitable peoples. They can accomplish much more together than apart.





[i] “15,000 Ukraine nationalists march for divisive Bandera,” USA Today, January 1, 2014,

[ii] Timothy Snyder, “A Fascist Hero in Democratic Ukraine,” The New York Review of Books, February 24, 2010.

[iii] Per Anders Rudling, “The Return of the Ukrainian Far Right: The Case of VO Svoboda,” in Analysing Fascist Discourse, eds. Ruth Wodak and John E. Richardson (New York: Routledge, 2013): 229.

[iv] Snyder, “To Resolve the Ukrainian Problem Once and for All”: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ukrainians in Poland, 1943-1947.

[v] Ian Bateson, “Ukraine and Poland’s History Wars Are a Gift For Putin,” Foreign Policy, January 24, 2017.

[vi] Gabrielle Woidelko, “The Polish-Ukrainian Battle for the Past,” Carnegie Europe, December 15, 2017.

[vii] Daniel McLaughlin, “Ukraine and Poland pledge to put historical conflict behind them,” The Irish Times, December 13, 2017.

[viii] Lidia Kelly, “Poland to ban Ukrainians with ‘anti-Polish views’,” Reuters, November 2, 2017.

[ix] Natalia Zinets, “Ukraine says Polish bill on historic crimes could harm ties,” Reuters, February 6, 2018.

[x] John Walcott and Warren Strobel, “Russia has ‘playbook’ for covert influence in Eastern Europe: study,” Reuters. October 13, 2016.

[xi] “’Useful idiots’ both in Poland, Ukraine play into Russia’s hands – Envoy,” UNIAN, December 11, 2017.

[xii] Steven Erlanger and Marc Santora, “Poland’s Nationalism Threatens Europe’s Values, Cohesion,” The New York Times, February 20, 2018.

[xiii] Bateson.

[xiv] “Polish, Ukrainian defence ministers talk military ties,” Radio Poland, August 16, 2017.,Polish-Ukrainian-defence-ministers-talk-military-ties.

[xv] Matt Ford, “Good News From Ukraine: Everyone Still Hates Hitler,” The Atlantic, March 20, 2014.

[xvi] Oleksandra Iwaniuk, “Poland-Ukraine relations: The ball is in your court,” New Eastern Europe, October 31, 2017.

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