WARSAW, Poland (AB) – A few days before Poland’s Independence Day in November, observers painted the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag on monuments in Krakow. The carnage that took place when Russia concentrated its troops near the border with Ukraine was like the Ukrainians dismantling monuments to Polish national heroes.
Some more tips suggest otherwise.
The colors of the flag were changed upside down, the top of the blue was yellow and the news of an attack was in an unnatural mix of Russian and Ukrainian. Although prosecutors are still investigating, Polish and Ukrainian officials believe it may be a Russian-inspired attempt to incite ethnic hatred between Ukrainians and the Poles.
Polish and Ukrainian officials have for years accused Russia of trying to incite animosity between their neighbors as part of a broader effort to divide and destabilize the West – and concerns have escalated since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Poland and Ukraine are neighbors and allies, but they share a difficult history of oppression and bloodshed, and those historical shocks sometimes rise to the surface.
Poland’s acceptance of large numbers of Ukrainian refugees raises fears that it could become another wedge issue that Russia could exploit.
“Russian attempts to sow discord between the Poles and the Ukrainians, especially by exploiting historical issues, are as old as time,” said Stanislav Zarin, spokesman for the Polish Defense Services.
“Russia has doubled them since the war began,” he said. “They are very dangerous now because the war is going on and it could affect more people than ever before.”
In response to the November incident, the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw immediately denounced it as “shameful” and “provocative with a view to harming the good neighbors between Ukraine and Poland.”
More than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Poland since the war began, and more than half remain, although some have fled to other countries. The Poles have reacted with an expression of help and goodwill, and the government has granted the Ukrainians the same rights to education and health care to the Poles.
Never Again, an anti-racist group in Poland has documented several attempts to incite hatred against Ukrainian refugees and to openly justify the invasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In some cases, those behind the news were far-right Polish activists or pro-Kremlin politicians, according to a statement issued by the organization on Thursday.
“These groups do not enjoy widespread public support, but they do everything they can to fight poles and Ukrainians, spreading hateful content, conspiracy theories and misinformation primarily on the Internet,” it said.
Larisa Lako, an expert on dealing with misinformation at NATO, said Russia was known to exploit refugees as a wedge issue because it touched on economic, ethnic and other important issues, and that she had noticed Russian “misinformation that speaks of historical flaws.”
Western Ukraine was once under Polish rule, with the Ukrainians largely subservient to the Polish landowning class.
During World War II, anger erupted in communal bloodshed, with the Ukrainian rebel army, a nationalist military organization, killing tens of thousands of poles in the Nazi-occupied Polish regions of Volkhinia and eastern Galicia.
Poland also has a difficult history with Moscow. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union carved out Poland at the beginning of World War II in 1939 and occupied the country under a secret provision of the bad Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty. The Poles suffered atrocities from both occupying states. The Nazis set up death camps and concentration camps, where they massacred Jews and massacred many Polish civilians. Meanwhile, the Soviets sent some poles to Siberia and killed 22,000 Polish officials in the 1940 Katin massacre.
Even after the war, Poland was forced to live under Moscow’s repressive control for decades during the Cold War.
Remembering the Soviet Union’s denial of the truth about Katin’s assassination for decades further pains Poland, forbidding Poland from publicly remembering its victims. When the Polish government deported the Polish government to investigate the Nazi exposure of Soviet crimes, Moscow denounced the Polish leaders as “fascist collaborators” – today they falsely accuse Ukraine of being a Nazi country.
Some poles, especially those who lived in war, remember those times and have a long-standing animosity towards the Russians and the Ukrainians.
A false claim that the Polish authorities are spreading is that Poland is trying to reclaim Lviv and other territories that were once Poland in western Ukraine. “Those claims are untrue,” the Polish Foreign Ministry said in a series of tweets seeking to refute the allegations. “Poland will never accept the annexation of any territory owned by an independent state.”
Another is Poland, a NATO ally with thousands of US troops, working to position the West against Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev, the current vice president of the Russian Security Council and former Russian president, recently made the claim.
“Now the interests of Polish citizens are being sacrificed with obvious signs of senile insanity due to the russophobia of ordinary politicians and their puppets across the sea,” Medvedev wrote in a recent use of the social media Telegram.
Zaryn, a spokesman for the Polish Defense Services, also pointed to a Polish Facebook page called “A Ukrainian is NOT my brother”, whose posts urge followers not to forget the polar Ukrainian massacre of the 1940s.
This page was created within a month of Russia annexing the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine in 2014 and has nearly 55,000 followers. In recent weeks, Polish authorities have criticized Ukraine for gaining strong support.
Zarin said evidence suggests it was carried out by a woman associated with Smyana, a pro-Kremlin party in Poland. Mateusz Piskorski, a former leader of the party, has worked for the Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik and is accused of spying for Russia and China.
The Polish government is taking steps to protect itself, along with misinformation attempts and public warnings about the expulsion of dozens of suspected Russian agents and an arrest.
A few days after Russia’s occupation of Ukraine on February 24, Polish authorities arrested a man accused of being an agent of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU in Przemysl, the main entry point for Ukrainian refugees.
At the end of March, Poland ordered the expulsion of 45 Russian intelligence officers suspected of using diplomatic status as a cover for operations in the country.
“The illegal activities of these diplomats may be a threat to those who fled their country to escape the war and found security in our country,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Lucas Jasina.
At a time of great solidarity with the Ukrainians in Poland and elsewhere, misinformation is limited in its impact, NATO expert Laco argued in the face of misinformation.
“Considering the atrocities that take place on the ground, it’s hard to fall into these kinds of traps,” he said.
But officials in Poland say they need to be careful, especially if the number of refugees increases, creating potential for social concerns to be exploited.
Contributed by Frank Jordans in Berlin.