Activist state

Poland-Ukraine relations seen as target of Russian disinformation


FILE – Ukrainian volunteer Oleksandr Osetynskyi, 44, holds the country’s flag and leads hundreds of refugees after fleeing Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland March 7, 2022. More than 2.5 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Poland since the start of the war, and while some leave for other countries, more than half have stayed. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu, File)


A few days before Poland’s Independence Day in November, vandals painted the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag on monuments in Krakow. The vandalism, which took place as Russia was massing troops near the Ukrainian border, made it look like Ukrainians were defacing memorials to Polish national heroes.

However, some clues suggested otherwise.

The colors of the flag were reversed, with yellow above blue and an offensive message was in an unnatural mix of Russian and Ukrainian. Although prosecutors are still investigating, Polish and Ukrainian authorities believe it was most likely a Russian-inspired attempt to spark ethnic hostility between Ukrainians and Poles.

Polish and Ukrainian authorities have for years accused Russia of trying to provoke hostility between their neighboring countries as part of a broader effort to divide and destabilize the West – and the concerns have become more pressing since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Poland and Ukraine are neighbors and allies, but they share a difficult history of oppression and bloodshed, and these historic traumas sometimes come to the surface.

Poland has also accepted large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, creating fears that could become another corner problem for Russia to exploit.

“Russian efforts to sow division between Poles and Ukrainians, including by exploiting historical issues, are as old as time,” said Stanislaw Zaryn, spokesman for Poland’s security services.

“Russia has doubled them since the beginning of the war,” he said. “And they are more dangerous now because the war continues and it can affect more people than before.”

Reacting to the November incident, the Ukrainian Embassy in Warsaw immediately denounced it as “shameful” and “a provocation aimed at damaging good-neighbourly relations between Ukraine and Poland”.

More than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Poland since the start of the war, and while some leave for other countries, more than half have stayed. Poles responded with an outpouring of help and goodwill, and the government granted Ukrainians the same rights to education and health care as Poles.

Never Again, an anti-racist association in Poland, has documented several attempts to stir up aversion towards Ukrainian refugees and even to openly justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. In some cases, the authors of the messages are Polish far-right activists or politicians with pro-Kremlin views, according to a report released Thursday by the organization.

“These groups do not enjoy wide public support, but they do their best to make Poles and Ukrainians quarrel with each other, spread hateful content, conspiracy theories and false information, mainly on the Internet”, a- he declared.

NATO counter-disinformation expert Larysa Lacko said Russia is notorious for exploiting refugees as a corner issue because it touches on economics, race and other issues sensitive, and that she also observed “Russian disinformation speaking of historical grievances”.

Western Ukraine was once under Polish rule, with Ukrainians largely subject to a Polish landowner class.

Resentments erupted in an ethnic bloodbath during World War II, when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist military formation, massacred tens of thousands of Poles in Poland’s Nazi-occupied regions of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. .

Poland also has a difficult history with Moscow. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland at the start of World War II in 1939, invading and occupying the country based on a secret clause of the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Poles suffered atrocities inflicted by the two occupying states. The Nazis established death camps and concentration camps where they murdered Jews and they also killed many other Polish citizens. Meanwhile, the Soviets sent Poles to Siberia and murdered 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn massacres of 1940.

Even after the war, Poland was forced to live under the oppressive control of Moscow during the Cold War decades.

It still stings Poles to remember that the Soviet Union denied the truth about the Katyn murders for decades, forbidding Poles from publicly commemorating the victims. When Poland’s wartime government-in-exile asked the International Red Cross to investigate Nazi revelations of Soviet crimes, Moscow called Poland’s leaders ‘fascist collaborators’ – just as they falsely accused Ukraine today. of being a Nazi state.

Some Poles, especially those who lived through the war, remember this time and carry a lingering hostility towards Russians and Ukrainians.

According to Polish authorities, a false claim that the Russians are spreading is that Poland is seeking to reclaim Lviv and other territories in western Ukraine that were once Polish. “These claims are false,” the Polish Foreign Ministry said in a series of tweets aimed at debunking the false claims. “Poland will never accept the annexation of territory belonging to an independent state.”

Another is that Poland, a NATO ally that hosts thousands of American troops, is working to pit the West against Russia.

This assertion was made recently by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the current Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council.

“Now the interests of Polish citizens have been sacrificed due to the Russophobia of mediocre politicians and their puppeteers across the ocean with clear signs of senile madness,” Medvedev recently wrote on Telegram, an app popular social media platform in Russia and Ukraine.

Zaryn, the spokesperson for Poland’s security services, also pointed to a Polish Facebook page titled “A Ukrainian is NOT my brother”, whose posts call on followers to remember the Ukrainian massacres of Poles in the 1940s. .

The page was created less than a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and has nearly 55,000 followers. In recent weeks, messages have criticized the Polish authorities for their strong support for Ukraine.

Zaryn said evidence indicates he is led by a woman linked to a pro-Kremlin party, Zmiana, in Poland. Former party leader Mateusz Piskorski worked for Russian media RT and Sputnik and has been accused of spying for Russia and China.

The Polish government has taken steps to protect itself, with public warnings about attempted disinformation and the deportation of dozens of suspected Russian agents and an arrest.

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Polish authorities arrested a man whom they accused of being an agent of the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU, in Przemysl, a point of key entrance for Ukrainian refugees, as he sought to enter Ukraine.

In late March, Poland ordered the deportation of 45 suspected Russian intelligence officers they accused of using diplomatic status as a cover to operate in the country.

“The illegal activities of these diplomats can also pose a threat to people who left their country to flee war and found protection in our country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lukasz Jasina said.

At a time of great solidarity in Poland and elsewhere with Ukrainians, disinformation is limited in its impact, argued Lacko, the NATO expert working to counter disinformation.

“Given the atrocities on the ground, it’s harder to fall into those kinds of traps,” she said.

But Polish officials say they must remain on their guard, especially if the number of refugees increases, creating potential for further social anxiety that can be exploited.


Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.