Artículo Foreign Policy, 21.02.2023 Pawel Markiewicz (historiador polaco) y Maciej Olchawa (académico polaco)
Historically, both countries formed their national identities in defiance of Russian imperialism, and together they can defeat it today.
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has caused unimaginable suffering for millions of people and overturned Europe’s security architecture. With little end to the fighting in sight and Ukraine’s armed forces poised to go on the offensive with more arms coming from the West, there is a silver lining to the conflict. Warsaw and Kyiv have become strong allies.
The declaration that “there’s no free Poland without a free Ukraine”—often attributed to Poland’s founding father, Jozef Pilsudski—that bound Poles and Ukrainians to stop Soviet imperialism in 1919 rings equally true today. At the time, the Red Army was planning on igniting world revolution but was stopped and turned back by Polish and Ukrainian forces.
Then, as today, the slogan proves that the notion of a Europe without a sovereign Ukraine is no longer conceivable. For Kyiv and Warsaw, the prosperity of one is pinned to the success and stability of the other. The opening lines of the two countries’ national anthems are nearly identical: “Poland/Ukraine is not yet lost,” conveying a unique characteristic of national obstinacy to survive partition, occupation, or enemy aggression. Both were penned in defiance of Russian imperialism.
Despite episodes of friendship, relations between Poles and Ukrainians in the 20th century were marked by animosity and ethnic cleansings. Soviet and Nazi German occupations turned borderlands into bloodlands, with mutual grievances and stereotypes leaving lasting scars. After 1945, the communist regime in Poland internally displaced Ukrainians to fulfill objectives set out to “resolve the Ukrainian problem once and for all.” Civilians, suspected of nationalistic tendencies, were regarded as sympathizers of “bestial” Ukrainian insurgents, who slaughtered thousands of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-44.
Relations between Poles and Ukrainians in the 20th century were marked by animosity and ethnic cleansings. This difficult history makes their solidarity today even more remarkable.
Collective responsibility was applied in 1947, when more than 140,000 Ukrainians were driven from borderland regions in the southeast to postwar territories in the north and west (onetime German lands that had become part of Poland). The goal of this military operation (code name ‘Vistula’) was to destroy Ukrainian identity and culture in communist Poland.
Regime propaganda in film and literature cultivated a harmful image of Ukrainians as bloodthirsty fascists. Even though Poland was the first country, along with Canada, to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991, public polling showed that negative views toward Ukrainians lingered throughout the 1990s. This difficult history makes Poles’ solidarity with Ukraine today even more remarkable.
Poland knows that when given the tools and know-how, Ukraine will quickly shift from being a consumer of Western security to a critical provider of it for the Euro-Atlantic community. These like-minded anti-imperialists not only threaten to upend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist drive once and for all but are accelerating the shift of Europe’s political and military center of gravity east, something that will redefine the European Union and NATO for decades to come. The West should prepare for contingencies following the fall of Putin’s empire—one of which is a postwar Europe underpinned by a Polish-Ukrainian strategic alliance.
Nothing irritates Putin more than close relations among the nations of East Central Europe that were once part of the Soviet bloc, opposed Russian expansionism in the past, and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin bemoaned was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Strategic measures such as the recent joint declaration by the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine reaffirming their readiness to continue strengthening Kyiv’s defense capabilities and promoting more support in NATO and the EU drive him mad.
In his eyes, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus constitute a gray zone of small states within Moscow’s sphere of influence, the so-called near abroad, that remain up for grabs in the global contest between superpowers. Putin regards their Euro-Atlantic membership and aspirations as a dangerous impediment to overcome; without keeping them under Russia’s boot, he doesn’t see a way to rebuild and expand Moscow’s influence.
It’s no surprise then that these countries are the targets of Russian cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, political meddling, and armed aggression. To counter Putin’s ambitions, they have launched various multilateral frameworks. These include the Lublin Triangle, a trilateral platform designed to build stronger political, economic, infrastructure, security, defense, and cultural links among Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, and the Riga Format between the Baltic states and Poland. Given Hungary’s pro-Russian attitude and France and Germany’s initial wavering on helping Ukraine, these multilateral forums have eclipsed the influence and importance of previous Eastern European blocs, such as the Visegrad Group.
Poland is seen by more and more Ukrainians as not only a friend but a crucial ally.
Strategic ties between Warsaw and Kyiv are developing pragmatically. Criticized at one time by partners as a political laggard, Poland recognized the threat posed by Putin’s neoimperialist rhetoric to Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic alliance, in which Warsaw is securely anchored. It is Europe’s leading security entrepreneur, modernizing its armaments to meet its commitments of defending allies and deterring threats—rising to the rank of key ally against a revanchist Putin.
The outpouring of solidarity shown by everyday Poles toward Ukrainians seeking refuge from war goes without saying. Since Feb. 24, 2022, more than 9 million Ukrainians have entered Poland, with as many as 1.5 million to 2 million staying and others returning home. While millions fled to Poland seeking safety, there was no need for refugee camps. Instead of makeshift tents and temporary U.N. campgrounds common during refugee crises, Poles opened their homes to their Ukrainian neighbors. Considered an outlier by some European partners on its refugee positions in the past, Poland is now the continent’s unquestioned humanitarian giant, suggesting a sense of moral obligation that coincides with a fraternal affinity with Ukraine.
More than 1.3 million Ukrainians have received the Polish equivalent of a Social Security number, which allows them to find legal employment. They are given access to public health care, kindergartens, schools, and direct financial assistance. According to the Polish Economic Institute, between January and September 2022, 3,600 companies with Ukrainian capital and 10,200 Ukrainian sole proprietorships were established in Poland; 66 percent of the businesses surveyed declared that they would continue operating in Poland regardless of the situation in Ukraine.
Moreover, individuals returning to Ukraine after the war are likely to remember the hospitality shown to them by Poles and will be influenced not only by Russia’s war of extermination but also by positive experiences in Poland. Having been part of the workforce, a large number of adults will be able to communicate in Polish, while their children will be fluent after having spent a few months or years in Poland’s educational system. Already, the number of Ukrainians interested in learning Polish is rising (36 percent) and will continue to do so.
Developing social bonds will likely affect future political relations between the two states. Findings of a public opinion poll conducted in Ukraine by the Mieroszewski Centre indicate that while 40 percent of respondents think Poland and Ukraine should simply be good neighbors, 58 percent of Ukrainians believe that the two should forge closer ties beyond that: 29 percent prefer an alliance where both support each other while coordinating on foreign policy, and another 29 percent believe that relations should take the form of a commonwealth with a purely symbolic border and a common foreign policy.
Try as he may, Putin’s war machine has been unable to successfully do what Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did in the past—exploit animosities to divide Poles and Ukrainians. Russian propaganda spread throughout the war about Poland’s purported secret plans of regaining western Ukrainian territories that belonged to it in the past is unconvincing. If anything, it’s having the opposite effect.
Of course, Poles and Ukrainians have mutual grievances about tragic events of the past, especially in the 20th century. For the sake of the victims’ memory, events such as the murder of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-44 and the forced resettlement of Ukrainians in 1947 should not be swept under the rug but rather studied and commemorated. A good sign is how more emphasis is being placed on what unites rather than divides the two countries—namely, the existential threat of Russian neoimperialism.
The Polish and Ukrainian presidents laying flowers side by side at a military cemetery in Lviv, a city the two nations fought over in the early 20th century, became an iconic image galvanizing how history isn’t standing in the way of pursuing strategic ties. The more time younger generations who don’t live with past scars and memories spend together, the more likely reconciliation over historical events is possible.
An outspoken defender of Ukraine’s territorial integrity on the global stage, Poland is seen by more and more Ukrainians as not only a friend but a crucial ally: 87 percent of Ukrainians trust Polish President Andrzej Duda more than any other Western leader, including U.S. President Joe Biden (79 percent). Poles also have a favorable view of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In one poll, he topped the list of foreign leaders whom Poles trust most (86 percent), with Biden coming in second (74 percent).
To commemorate Poland’s Independence Day last November, Zelensky recorded a message in which he said, “Ukrainians will always remember the help they received from Poles. You are our allies, and your country is our sister. We have had our differences, but we are kin, and we are free.” That same day, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, posted a spot depicting a Ukrainian woman and her children leaving their home, finding shelter in Poland, and receiving comfort in the arms of a Polish volunteer. When her husband dies in the war, she says: “When I realize that I’ll never see him again, you cry with me. When I don’t have the strength to go on, you help lift me up. I am Ukraine. You are Poland. And our hearts beat together.” It is difficult to recall a moment in history when Poles and Ukrainians were this close.
Putin’s aggression and the atrocities committed against innocent civilians have permanently turned Ukrainians away from Russians and any idea of pursuing postwar ties with Moscow, let alone forgiving them. Soldiers on the front lines and victims in towns such as Bucha are creating a new generation of heroes and martyrs that the entire nation—and world—calls their own. Their sacrifices automatically reaffirm Ukrainians’ national consciousness and identity around strong anti-imperialist sentiments—something they share with their closest allies Poland and the United States. Kyiv’s natural trajectory in the future is to gravitate closer to Poland and the West.
This process shouldn’t be treated by either country as a make-or-break moment for the bilateral relationship but as a genuine desire by both to prove authoritarian bullies like Putin wrong.
In his groundbreaking work Imperial Ends, Alexander Motyl notes that empires end not when the core ceases to control the peripheries but when the peripheries begin to significantly interact with one another. This process is now underway between Poland and Ukraine. With Poland firmly ingrained in the Euro-Atlantic community and Ukraine aspiring to join its formal structures, their postwar relationship can’t be superficial but must be dynamic.
A strong partnership built around the Warsaw-Kyiv nexus, backed by stakeholders like Canada, Britain, and the United States, will underpin Europe as it goes through the painstaking process of reprioritizing political, economic, and defense agendas. If the West fails to champion this strategic partnership that could hasten Putin’s defeat, there is a dangerous possibility of leaving Europe vulnerable to a hostile Russia and future instability.