Could the seemingly foolproof relationship between Ukraine and Poland be tainted by events that occurred 80 years ago? The far-right thinks so.
“Hold Ukraine to account for promoting Banderism and Nazism!”
This chant would not be surprising if it was blasted from one of the many Russian government-backed TV channels that feed the country’s public a daily stream of incendiary rhetoric and disinformation about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Fewer people would expect it to happen in Poland, a country that immediately declared its support for Ukraine after the full-scale invasion was launched in February 2022, and which continues to accept Ukrainian refugees as well as supply the country with weapons and military training.
Members of a small but increasingly influential group of far-right movements in Poland have consistently tried to cast doubt on the government’s support of Ukraine. Their efforts reached a zenith in the past few days as Poland marked the 80th anniversary Volhynia massacre.
What is the Volhynia massacre?
During World War II, the Ukrainian population resisted the eastward advance of Nazi Germany as part of several separate formations.
The most significant part of the population fought with the Soviet army against fascist forces, with Ukrainians making up the largest number of total Soviet casualties.
Another group active during the war was a radical faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B), who killed and deported tens of thousands of ethnic Poles who lived in the Volhynia region or Wołyń, as it is known in Polish.
Throughout history, Poland has claimed ownership of the region several times, and it was subject to continuous disputes between the two countries.
According to Ukrainian ultranationalists, the massacres were carried out to prevent future Polish claims to the area. The Volhynia massacres are widely considered to be an ethnic cleansing campaign by historians, while Poland officially declared it a genocide in 2016.
Analysts have described the issue of Volhynia massacre as being akin to “planting an explosive device” in Polish-Ukrainian relations.
Critics of those who misrepresent the issue have argued it plays directly into the hands of Russian propaganda, as Moscow is widely documented to have spent a significant amount of time provoking disputes between Ukraine and its neighbours to weaken the amount of support it receives during the invasion.
‘Poland above everything’
The far-right groups protested and marched in several Polish cities, including Warsaw and Krakow, under the guise of marking the anniversary of the massacres, which reached their peak in July and August 1943.
Poland has organised several events starting late last week to honour the victims.
They demand that Ukrainian authorities exhume the bodies of the victims of the massacre, ostensibly to have them reburied according to Catholic rites in Poland.
They also demand that Ukraine be denied a spot in the European Union and NATO until it stops “promoting Banderism and Nazism”, and that these groups be officially criminalised in Poland, as well as for Ukraine to sign a “debt promissory note” to the amount of 75 billion Polish złoty (€16 bn).
Until then, they want the Polish government to also “stop sending arms across the eastern border.”
The figureheads of this movement are individuals like Krzysztof Tołwiński, a man who describes his ideology as “turbo patriotism” and was previously a member of the far-right Konfederacja political alliance.
While Konfederacja was never a major party in the country, it represents a combination of the most conservative political stances in the country – they are openly anti-feminist, anti-immigration and express nativist, xenophobic and antisemitic views.
While not a force to be reckoned with on a national level, they have had seats in the Sejm and regularly run candidates for the presidential elections, often serving as a platform for views further to the extreme right from the ruling Law and Justice, or PiS party.
Tołwiński, who also promotes an agrarian platform and has made campaign speeches in front of cows grazing the fields, claimed that “Ukraine is an economic enemy, especially when it comes to agriculture!”
He also regularly disseminates conspiracy theories, recently stating that “Ukraine does not own its lands” and that “international funds rule the country”.
Tołwiński has formed a new party, called Front, and plans to run in this year’s elections.
Are Polish authorities participating in anti-Ukrainianism?
The ongoing dispute was launched when Polish officials, including Foreign spokesman Ministry Łukasz Jasina, said that Poland has requested a formal apology from Ukraine for the massacres.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland, Vasyl Zvarych, reacted by calling the demands “unacceptable and unfortunate”.
This provided an opportunity for the Polish government, which often latches on to issues of perceived Polish victimhood, to double down.
Last Friday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki travelled to Ukraine and visited the sites of the massacres where Poles were wiped out by nationalist Ukrainian forces, putting up commemorative crosses and visiting local cemeteries where some of the victims were buried.
“I will not rest until the last victim of that terrible Volhynia Massacre is found and buried with respect,” Morawiecki declared.
In an attempt to paper over the cracks, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made an unannounced trip to Lutsk on Sunday, also found in the western part of the country and close to the border with Poland.
He participated in a joint service with his Polish counterpart, President Andrzej Duda, and after the event they posted a tweet saying, “Together we pay tribute to the innocent victims of Volhynia! Memory unites us!” and “Together we are stronger”.