Since 2015, tensions between two important Eastern European countries, Poland and Ukraine, appear to have been rising. It is now common to see public officials from both countries criticizing each other, with Warsaw condemning policies introduced in Kiev, and vice versa. Frequent protests have also erupted. The rift mostly stems from the countries’ different interpretations of their shared history. Following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and removal of the Russian-backed government in Kiev, Ukraine revived some controversial nationalist figures and groups from its past. This angered many Poles, who saw these same figures and groups as responsible for atrocities committed against Poles decades ago.

Things weren’t always this way, however. Poland has backed Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union and has supported Kiev through the crisis that broke out in 2014. Poland wants to limit Russian influence in Eastern Europe, which means ensuring that Kiev doesn’t drift back into Moscow’s orbit. Why, then, have relations between the two seemingly deteriorated to such an extent? The answer has to do with the rise of nationalism in both countries.

But the other question we should be asking is whether relations have indeed deteriorated, despite the fact that, based on what we see in the news, the answer appears obvious. Neither country’s interests in maintaining strong ties have changed, and there’s only so much you can tell about the relationship between two countries from the statements their representatives make in public. At the same time, signs of fractures in their relationship can’t be dismissed completely, because thousands of Polish and Ukrainian citizens have become involved in this debate and are pushing for action from their governments. In this Deep Dive, we will examine the origins of the dispute, the sources of conflict, and what’s ahead for Polish-Ukrainian relations.

An Evolving Relationship

Poland and Ukraine have a complicated history with each other, to say the least. Geographically, Poland is in a vulnerable position, sandwiched between Germany to its west and Russia’s critical buffer states, including Ukraine, to its east. At the end of the Cold War and with the founding of the European Union, Germany no longer presented a threat to Warsaw, particularly once Poland also joined the EU in 2004. Russia, however, remained a concern, since it continued to exert its influence over states with which Poland shares a border.

Warsaw therefore tried to integrate Ukraine into the European structure, and from the 1990s to 2015, relations between the two countries were generally positive. During this period, Poland’s foreign policy was influenced by Polish intellectual and writer Jerzy Giedroyc, who insisted that Poland should reject any imperial aspirations and put an end to historical disputes with its eastern neighbors, particularly Ukraine. This was in line with the country’s move toward allying itself with the West and seeking to become a member of the EU and NATO. Integration with international institutions was seen at the time as a way of ensuring long-term peace and prosperity.

But Poland was still concerned about the growing Russian influence in Ukraine. Thus, guided by the Giedroyc doctrine, Warsaw launched, in coordination with Sweden, the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative in the early 2000s. The initiative works with former Soviet states to help them build relationships with European states and reject Russian influence. Through the Eastern Partnership, Poland encouraged Ukraine’s membership in international organizations like the EU and NATO. Then came 2008, and the EU itself began to fragment under the pressure of a financial crisis. Nationalism was rising throughout Europe, and some EU member states became resistant to attempts to integrate their policies. Warsaw found itself increasingly under pressure to submit to Brussels’ demands. It chose instead to focus on its bilateral ties, particularly with Washington, and on playing a leadership role in Eastern Europe, strengthening relations with countries like Ukraine.

Why History Matters

In 2014, Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from power after refusing to sign an association agreement with the EU, and Moscow lost its hold over Kiev. Since then, two parts of Ukraine’s history have been brought to the forefront in Ukrainian politics, and both have been used as symbols of Ukrainian resistance and its fight for independence. The first is the Holodomor, a famine imposed by the Soviet regime in the early 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians and was intended to eliminate Ukraine’s independence movement. The second is the paramilitary Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, and Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Both groups were involved in the massacre of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, two regions that were at the time split between Poland and western Ukraine, during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

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Following the end of World War II, much of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Poland became a Soviet satellite state. Since both entities were essentially administered, to different degrees, by Moscow, there was a desire to downplay the differences between Poles and Ukrainians and censor any discussion of the killing of Poles at Volhynia and Eastern Galicia and other similar events. Only since Ukrainians began celebrating Bandera as a national hero did these atrocities become the center of a heated dispute between the two countries.

In Poland, the events became the focus of books, movies and political debates, and in 2016, the Polish parliament unanimously approved a law that declared the massacre at Volhynia a genocide. In February, Warsaw went a step further and passed a law making it a crime to deny that the UPA committed crimes against Poles between 1925 and 1950. The Ukrainian parliament then passed a resolution condemning the law.

Nationalism on the Rise

The revival of these historical events should be seen in the broader context of rising nationalism in both countries. In Poland, nationalist protests have in part been a response to policies imposed by the EU and its de facto leader, Germany. The EU’s demand that members accept quotas to resettle refugees following the massive influx of migrants to Europe has angered many and led to calls in Poland for the country to chart its own path. In 2015, the Law and Justice party, which campaigned on a nationalist platform, came to power. Nationalist parties such as the National Movement and groups such as All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp have become more active and are even backed by some supporters of the Law and Justice party.

In Ukraine, a number of nationalist groups emerged, including the Svoboda party, the National Corps, the Right Sector and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Since the revolution, Ukrainian nationalism has served an important purpose: It has been used to fight Russian aggression in the eastern parts of the country and limit Russian influence in the western regions and in Kiev. Ukraine is still struggling to defend its independence, and it faces serious challenges in doing so, both internally and externally. Its history is a critical part of this process.

The biggest nationalist protests in both countries were held last fall, when tens of thousands demonstrated in Kiev and Warsaw. In Kiev, demonstrators marked the 75th anniversary of the UPA by chanting the group’s slogans. In Warsaw, some protesters marked the country’s independence day by holding banners depicting a falanga, a far-right symbol from the 1930s, and shouting slogans referencing the country’s Catholic roots. The march was organized by the All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp, a revival of a nationalist 1930s group.

In February, Polish demonstrators gathered in front of Ukraine’s Embassy in Warsaw to demand that Ukraine limit its support for UPA figures. In March, Ukrainians gathered in front of the Polish Embassy in Kiev to protest the Polish law that criminalized the denial of crimes committed against Poles nearly a century ago. Several monuments for the Polish victims of Ukrainian atrocities were also vandalized last year, and a Polish memorial cemetery in Lviv, western Ukraine, was desecrated.

The protests have been accompanied by a diplomatic tit for tat. In April 2017, Kiev banned the exhumation of Poles killed during World War II, and later that year, Warsaw refused to allow the head of Ukraine’s commemoration commission into Poland in response. In December, the Polish president threatened to delay a visit to Kiev due to what the president’s chief aide called an increasingly “negative evolution of Ukraine’s policy in history and national identity with regard to Poland, as well as its deteriorating relations with neighbors from Central Europe.” Although these kinds of gestures can usually be dismissed, in this case they are more serious because they are actually a response to protests and public anger observed throughout both countries. They were precipitated by public calls for action that officials simply could not ignore. But they have not risen to the level that they threaten Polish-Ukrainian relations, simply because this relationship is too important for either country to discard.


Another factor complicating this issue is the migration of Ukrainians into Poland and the socio-economic implications for Poles. Ukrainian migration into Poland has been increasing since 2014 and is the largest migration wave in Poland’s contemporary history, according to national statistics. Though this is a positive development for Poland’s rapidly growing economy, it also comes at a cost.

According to a report published by Polish human resources company Work Service in December 2017, about 2 million Ukrainians were working in Poland at the end of 2017, an increase from only 1 million in 2016. This number is expected to rise to 3 million in 2018. Ukrainian citizens mostly fill jobs that aren’t being filled by Polish citizens and are generally paid less than Polish workers, although their wages increased by 20-30 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. But some Poles fear that as more Ukrainians immigrate to and settle down in Poland, fewer jobs will be available for Poles. This has fueled the nationalist movement against immigration, even though, according to statistics, Poland still needs more workers to support its growing economy.

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There are also indicators, however, that the opposition to Ukrainian migration might be more political than socio-economic. For the past several months, Ukrainians applying for work visas in Poland have been asked a question about the Volhynia genocide during their interviews. Poland has also rejected EU proposals to resettle refugees following the migration crisis. But there’s no denying that it needs more workers from somewhere. It’s also safe to conclude that Warsaw prefers Ukrainian workers over those from North African or Middle Eastern countries because they are better trained, the language barrier is easier to overcome and the two countries have more in common culturally, considering their Slavic roots. For this reason, Poland instituted visa-free travel for Ukrainians and simplified the process for Ukrainians applying for work permits. Polish employers will certainly insist that the government make it easier for Ukrainians to work in Poland to fill the labor gap.

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What to Expect

According to our forecast, Poland will emerge as the future leader of Eastern Europe, and in so doing, it will have increasingly tense relations with its neighbors. When it comes to Ukraine, Poland will maintain good relations with Kiev because not doing so would affect its own security. It will continue to try to influence Ukraine, though it will stop short of dominating the country because this could push Kiev to ally itself with Moscow once again, which would be counter to Poland’s interest. Poland would try such a move only if it believes Moscow is too weak to respond, but currently, it is unnecessary. Kiev remains firmly aligned with the West, despite Russia’s continued engagement in the east.

Ultimately, the current tensions won’t change the fact that Poland needs Ukraine as an ally. In fact, cooperation between the two on military matters increased in 2017, and their economic ties, including trade and investment, have remained consistent. The tensions are indicators of the domestic pressures facing the two governments rather than changes in policy or strategy. Both governments ran on nationalist platforms, and when developments in another country sparked nationalist protests and upheaval among their electorates, they needed to respond. We can therefore expect Ukrainian politicians to continue to invoke the UPA and Stepan Bandera as symbols of national pride and Polish politicians to express their outrage. But not much more will result.

In geopolitics, we focus on the bigger picture, and political rhetoric is rarely significant. There is only one situation in which rhetoric could be consequential: when it touches on matters of national pride and how a nation defines itself. That’s what made the rhetoric in this case so heated and potentially impactful. But it is likely that both countries can contain the rise of nationalism to the point that it will not affect ties between them in any real way, despite more acts of vandalism and protests that are likely to come. Both governments will promise to take a tough stance on the issue while working together to enhance military ties and ensure Russia can’t spread its influence even farther westward.