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Two children, one in a pink hat, looking out of a bus window.
Poland has accepted more than one million Ukrainian refugees. Frank Schultze / Alamy

Ukraine and Poland: why the countries fell out in the past, and are now closely allied

No country supports the Ukrainian war effort more passionately than Poland, and no country shelters more Ukrainian refugees. Ukrainian-Polish relations have never been better. Polish political parties might disagree about everything else, but they all strongly support Ukraine and her borders.

Russian imperialist ambitions also threaten Polish security. Since Poland joined Nato in 1999 and the European Union in 2004, the country has been a strong advocate of Ukrainian membership in both organisations. To contain an increasingly aggressive Russia, Poles are all too aware that an independent Ukraine is essential.

But Polish-Ukrainian relations bear a heavy historical burden. There was a time when Ukrainian and Polish national interests seemed incompatible. To establish good relations with Ukraine, Poles had to accept the loss of their eastern borderlands as agreed over their heads in the conference of Yalta in 1945. In 2000 Ukraine was still one of the nations most disliked by Poles. The main reason for this goes back to events which occurred during the second world war. But WWII and 1,000 years of shared history also provide reasons why Ukrainians and Poles should be allies.

Read more: Ukraine: Poland reminds the EU how vulnerable its border nations really are

Poles cannot forget the mass murder of Polish villagers in Volhynia in 1943 and in East Galicia in 1944, which cost the lives of 70,000–100,000 people. The perpetrators were nationalist Ukrainian partisans, members of the Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA) which was controlled by the Bandera faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). They were attempting to “ethnically cleanse” the region to prevent it from ever becoming Polish again. OUN members and leaders are venerated in western Ukraine and were treated as heroes by several Ukrainian governments.

Historical grievances

Ukrainians, on their part, hold grievances relating to the interwar years between the first and second world wars. In this period, Ukrainian nationalists murdered several dozen representatives of the Polish state. Polish police attacked Ukrainian villages, beating up young Ukrainian men and destroying communal buildings. During WWII, the Polish resistance killed several hundred Ukrainian community leaders in the Chełm region and murdered Ukrainian villagers in acts of retribution for the massacres in Volhynia. Between 20,000 and 25,000 people died.

But this pales in comparison with the suffering of both Poles and Ukrainians in the Soviet Union. In 1932-33, 4-5 million Ukrainians starved to death in a man-made famine. Two years later, Soviet security forces murdered more than 100,000 Poles in the so-called “Polish operation”. Many more Poles were deported to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union.

A man standing in front of a blue background at a podium.
The election of Poland’s Law and Justice party in 2015 sparked new tensions between Ukraine and Russia. FORUM Polska Agencja Fotografów/Alamy

If one can learn one thing from history, it is that if Poles and Ukrainians fight against each other, both sides lose. The 17th-century Ukrainian Cossacks tried to rid themselves of the relatively relaxed Polish overlordship and set up an independent state, the Cossack Hetmanate, but ended up under much stricter Moscow rule. In 1772, Russia, Austria and Prussia began the dismemberment of Poland. The partition of Poland was completed in 1795, only 20 years after the end of Cossack autonomy.

Between 1918 and 1920, both nations tried to create independent states. But competing territorial claims led to the Polish-Ukrainian war for East Galicia. The following Polish/Ukrainian-Soviet war ended inconclusively and led to the partitioning of Ukraine, mostly between Poland and the Soviet Union with smaller sections going to Czechoslovakia and Romania.

In WWII, the conflict between Poles and Ukrainians, the massacres of Poles committed by the Ukrainian insurgent army and subsequent massacres of Ukrainians committed by Polish units weakened both sides and made it easier for Nazi Germany and for the Soviet Union to subjugate both groups. The war was followed by the expulsion up to 800,000 Poles from what is now western Ukraine and 500,000 Ukrainians from eastern Poland, instigated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

In 1947, an additional 100,000 Ukrainians living in Poland were deported in Action Vistula and dispersed in territories which had been taken from Germany. All these population transfers were accompanied by terrible atrocities, following a pattern set by Stalinist terror and the Nazis’ genocide against the Jewish people.

All this came to the fore when the right-wing conservative Law and Justice Party won the Polish elections in 2015. A few months earlier, the Ukrainian parliament had passed a law allowing people who denied the heroism of Ukrainian national resistance fighters to be punished. The new Polish government challenged the unwillingness of Ukrainian leaders to accept the responsibility of OUN and UPA for the Volhynia massacres. In January 2018, the Polish parliament passed a bill making it a criminal offence to deny the “crimes of Ukrainian nationalists”.

Establishing common ground

These historical issues are still unresolved and emotionally highly charged. They have a negative impact on the relationship between the nations without, however, changing Polish political support for Ukraine. Common political interests now prevail, not least because of the increasing threat to its neighbours from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

It was not clear that after the fall of communism, independent Poland and Ukraine would establish good political, cultural and economic ties. The precondition was that Poland gave up its imperial ambitions and stopped treating Ukrainians as inferior. Far into the 20th century, a considerable part of the Polish elite viewed Ukrainians as incapable of sustaining an independent state, and whose fate was to be either absorbed into Polish culture or forced into the Russian orbit.

But in 1991 Poland was at the forefront of the support for Ukraine. It was the first country to recognise Ukrainian independence. In 2012, Poland and Ukraine were joint hosts of the UEFA European football championship. In the past 30 years, around 1.5 million Ukrainians have migrated to Poland.

Historically, people in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands spoke both languages and had mixed ancestry. Today, Poles and Ukrainians are discovering in their daily encounters how much they actually have in common. According to an opinion poll from February 2022, taken before the Russian attack, more Poles now like than dislike Ukrainians – a sign of how much things have changed.

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