Geopolitics, transnationalism and memory in Polish-Ukrainian relations


On a cold winter day of December 2nd, 1991, the developments in Eastern Europe were still unclear. The Soviet Union was formally existing yet Mikhail Gorbachev’s power was increasingly illusionary after the coup in August 1991 and a growing number of republics declaring independence. Among them was Ukraine. It did so on August 24th. On December 2nd this step was recognised by the first two states, Canada and Poland. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia followed later that day.

Canada’s decision was understandable for reasons of its own ethnic composition. A sizeable Ukrainian diaspora put considerable pressure on the government in Ottawa to acknowledge the existence of sovereign Ukraine. Canadian Ukrainians’ engagement in the affairs of their ancestors’ land had been considerable already previously but now it entered a new, previously unknown chapter.

As for Poland, the reasons were more direct but by far not more obvious. Back then, the Polish foreign policy was in the middle of reconfiguring. Just in late November 1991, the country joined the Council of Europe. This move was meant to prove that along market economy reforms the new decision makers in Warsaw considered human rights to be their core principles. They were supposed to anchor the country in the community of the West democracies. It was important for Warsaw to support democracy and self-determination of nations lying further east.

Such a far-sighted move would have not been possible without the ideas born in émigré circles grouped around Jerzy Giedroyc and the Paris-based Kultura magazine. Because of their significance I have mentioned them in other articles in Limes. It suffices to say that at their centre lied the conviction that Poland’s security depends on the well-being of its three eastern neighbours – Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus.

The co-called ULB doctrine has stayed in place regardless of turbulences on the Polish political scene. It is all the more relevant now in the face of Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine.

The ever-present ULB doctrine

Already during the Cold War, Giedroyc argued that supporting independent nation-states east of Poland would turn out far more beneficial that stoking the flame of resentment and revisionism towards the so-called Kresy borderlands, spanning hundreds of kilometres from southern Latvia to the Carpathia Mountains. To this day, the area’s contribution to Polish culture and feeling of national identity remains high. According to the ULB doctrine, the only way to preserve and cultivate the heritage of Kresy would be through establishing good neighbourly relations with post-Soviet republics[1].

Intellectuals gathered around Giedroyc and Kultura were aware that no matter what political and ideological shape Central and Eastern Europe would take, on the other side there would always be Russia. Albeit weak after losing the empire, there would never be any guarantee that Moscow would never return to the path of foreign policy threatening its western neighbours. This point of view was well grounded in history. After all, Russian domination in the region enabled the partitions of the Polish-Commonwealth in the 18th century.

Giedroyc concluded that Poland would have to assist its eastern neighbours and show patience towards state-building processes there. Polish political elites held this thought very dear to their hearts throughout 1990s and 2000s. As Poland was struggling to join the European Union and NATO, the doctrine was useful to convince Western governments that Central Europe was not a grey zone between the Transatlantic community and Russia. For this reason, they welcomed the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 when the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States gave security assurances to Ukraine (plus Belarus and Kazakhstan) in exchange for these states giving away their nuclear arsenal.

When Ukraine was ruled by Leonid Kuchma, who did little to fight corruption and oligarchs, the Polish government tried to focus on positive agenda of cross-border cooperation and trade. When the Orange Revolution broke out in late 2004, however, it united Polish policy makers experts and activists in actively advocating for democratisation of Ukraine. The post-communist president Alexander Kwaśniewski was among first European leaders showing support for the protesters in Kyiv.

The Maidan events took place right after European Union’s biggest enlargement to date. Polish government and Polish European MPs in Brussels pushed for a more ambitious EU eastern policy. It resulted in creation of the Eastern Partnership initiative – the most complex and successful EU external mechanism to date. Without it, it would be hard to imagine the development of Ukrainian civic society and peaceful protests against Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

The football link

In fact, from Poland’s point of view the strategic game of chess over Ukraine has been based both on geographical and cultural proximity, but also on hard data. When the change in Central and Eastern Europe began, Ukraine enjoyed a slightly higher Human Development Index than Poland (0.725 vs. 0.718, respectively). In 2014, the results were very different: Poland scored 0.858 while Ukraine only 0.858[2]. The same happened with Gross Domestic Product of both countries. Although it was similar in 1990, 20 years later an average Pole produced 3,5 times more than an average Ukrainian (10,860 vs 2,970 constant 2015 USD)[3].

These figures were used during numerous Ukrainian election campaigns by, for instance, the Klitschko brothers[4]. They resonated among the Ukrainian population also because of the significant success the EURO 2012 Football Championship (co-hosted by both countries) had been. Thousands of fans travelled between both countries and they could see the difference caused by different management standards, corruption level and support brought by the European Union.

Given the above, the Polish authorities realised there was a strong need to provide technical and expert assistance to Ukraine, especially after Russia annexing Crimea and waging a proxy war in Donbas. The Ukrainian de-centralisation reform was largely based on Polish experiences in this regard. Poles helped establish the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, launch infrastructural projects and transfer best practices to regional- and local-level leaders.

In all of these actions, however, there was one component lacking: solving bilateral historic discrepancies. Without doing so, both countries’ relations would become only partially good neighbourly and, what’s even more important, prone to external interference. In order to understand them, we need to look at how nationalisms created divisions in what used to be the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The meanders of memory

The Commonwealth, established in 1569, was a unique political entity. It gathered peoples of different ethnicities, languages and confessions on vast areas stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas. Although it provided shelter for many minorities, it failed to address the main challenge it had been facing: the status of Ruthenian population. Mostly rural and Orthodox, it was subject to both economic and religious oppression from aristocracy.

Those who could not bear it and very courageous, escaped further east where the state control was illusional and founded Cossack communities. Because of many mistakes made by Polish-Lithuanian statesmen, a series of Cossack riots weakened the country and largely helped Moscow gain leverage in the grand game for control over the whole of Ruthenia. Ever since the Ukrainian lands have been torn between the west and the east.

In the nineteenth century, the Cossacks were proclaimed the ancestors of the Ukrainian nation. In those days, people who praised the unique realm that the Commonwealth provided were in retreat. There was an increased pressure to join one of the new communities – ethnic nations. It was nationalism that conquered the hearts and minds of the regional elites and, later on, the common folk.

One of the epigones of the Slavonic cosmopolitanism was Marian Zdziechowski. Born in today’s Belarus and raised in multicultural, multiconfessional surroundings, he painted a picture of Polishness understood as a cultural phenomenon, shaped across centuries by interaction between ethnicities inhabiting the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As he observed the growth of nationalist-driven differences, he had little illusions as to the trajectory Polish-Ukrainian grievances[5].

Indeed, the state of affairs was rather convoluted ever since the end of World War One. Among Polish intellectual and political elites, two competing visions of the independent Poland emerged. One, pursued by Józef Piłsudski, called for a broad federation of Central and Eastern European ethnoses, either grouped in nation-states with the dominant Polish position, or granted broad autonomy within the Polish state. The other, put forward by nationalists led by Roman Dmowski, aimed at recreating, or even expanding, the territory of the First Commonwealth and subject its population to forceful Polonisation.

Later on, Piłsudski pursued creation of the Intermarium – a broad regional coalition acting as a defence alliance against Germany and Soviet Russia. It failed due to too many differences between the countries involved, but also because the readiness of those behind it was debatable.

The Great War and the spiral of violence

This is where the Ukrainian question comes into play with its full strength and sharpness. World War One and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires provided a chance for the Ukrainian national movement to create its own nation-state. In a natural way, it crossed the plans of a large group of Polish statesmen and led to a conflict over territory and power. Some Ukrainian activists and military men sought to avoid it by following Piłsudski’s idea of federalisation but the developments that followed after 1917-1918 made these plans void.

In particular, the Polish-Bolshevik war complicated any efforts for a constructive approach in Polish-Ukrainian relations. At that time, an ephemerid Ukrainian People’s Republic existed. Initially, Ukrainian forces were fighting against both Poles and the Bolsheviks yet to no avail. It triggered change in military command in favour of Symon Petliura who advocated for cooperating with Piłsudski. The Polish successes of 1919 seemed to prove this point of view right. The Russian counter-offensive, however, pushed the Polish forces away.

After defending Warsaw and managing to advance further east again in the latter part of 1920, both Poles and the Bolsheviks exhausted their resources which were desperately needed otherwise. The truce of Baranovichi in October that year and the peace of Riga in March 1921 led to the division of lands inhabited by Ukrainians between Poland and Soviet Russia. L’viv (Polish name Lwów) was left Polish, Kyiv fell under the Bolsheviks.

I devote much attention to the events that followed World War One for two reasons. First is that for Ukrainians, much like for West European nations, it was truly the Great War. Its outcome provided a higher chance for creation of an independent Ukrainian state than World War Two. Between 1917-1921, two ephemerid Ukrainian political entities were brought to life and only after much military and political fighting they ceased to exist.

The second reason is that the events at that time laid foundations for Polish-Ukrainian grievances both in the interwar period and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It happened so because the Second Polish Commonwealth, albeit inconsistent in its policies towards ethnic and confessional minorities, it often leaned towards forceful Polonisation.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian national movement did not distance itself from violent actions such as terrorist attacks and assassinations of prominent Polish activists between 1918 and 1939. The distrust culminated during World War Two with massacres in Volhynia in 1943-1944 carried out by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists. They resulted in death of up to 100,000 ethnic Poles, followed by a few thousand Ukrainians killed in retaliation by Polish underground forces.

Already after the war when the Polish stated shifted eastwards and the interwar Kresy borderland was forcefully ceded to the Soviet Union, the Polish communist government decided to resettle the majority of remaining Ukrainian population to the north and west of Poland. The Operation Vistula forced 140,000 people to abandon their places of living just because they were perceived as supporters of Ukrainian nationalists by the communists in Warsaw (and Moscow).

Conspiracy of silence

The geopolitical dimension of these tragic events is that for 45 years they could not be discussed. There was no independent Ukrainian state and the Polish People’s Republic became an ally of the Soviet Union. Officially, there were no conflicts between those two countries. Because of their totalitarian nature, no political, academic and ordinary citizens dialogue was allowed as it would mean delving into the dark waters of nationalism and chauvinism. In addition, such discussion would have to touch upon the role of the Soviet authorities in ethnic cleansing in the region and eliminating any signs of opposition against their rule. Any attempt to contest the official narrative would have meant being accused of being revisionist and fascist, and would have haven result in death or long prison sentences.

In short, Poles and Ukrainians were forced to almost 50 years of silence that made reconciliation impossible. Both nations could neither domestically nor internationally begin what Germans called Aufarbeitung – processing of one’s history and the way it was viewed upon[6].

This is where we come back to the political side of things. The Orange Revolution not only brought a chance for new dynamic in Poland-Ukraine and West-Ukrainian relations, but also the beginning on a vivid discussion on the narrative of new, post-Soviet Ukrainian identity. Viktor Yushchenko, who was one of the main Maidan figures, pursued a policy of adding more heroic components to it. Among other things, it meant whitening the leaders of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the Ukrainian Nationalists’ Organisation, such as Symon Petliura, Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s most controversial decision in this regard was announcing Roman Shukhevych the hero of Ukraine. Shukhevych was one of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and a close collaborator of Nazi occupational forces. Research carried out by numerous Polish and international historians, including Grzegorz Motyka and Per Anders Rudling, shows that he at least inspired and coordinated the massacres of Polish civilians in Volhynia and Eastern Lesser Poland in 1943.

For the sake of strengthening partnership between the two countries, however, Polish president Lech Kaczynski did not seek to escalate this conflict. Similarly, his successor Bronislaw Komorowski (although both held history matter dear) sought to downplay this issue. This conspiracy of silence, a term used by Bogumiła Berdychowska, seemed to tightly follow the Giedroyc doctrine in the name of strategic relations, even though Giedroyc himself did not want to sacrifice the historical truth, knowing it plays an important role in reconciliation.

This discrepancy between Kyiv and Warsaw created a large field of manoeuvre for those who did not favour the countries’ close cooperation. It was truly striking to observe an ever-growing activity of far right, sometimes overly extremist groups in both countries which slogans were aggressively anti-Polish or anti-Ukrainian and often pertained to the Volhynia Massacre. Yushchenko’s decision was only revoked by Ukrainian courts in 2011, i.e., after Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in presidential election in 2010 when more pro-Russian political forces came to power.

It is also no coincidence that in back in 2006, less than year and a half after the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance was created. Its prerogatives and intended role strongly resembled those of its Polish older brother, brought to life eight years earlier. It was meant to serve as a tool to build, refine and strengthen the state narrative of Ukraine’s history with particular emphasis on the twentieth century. The Institute’s goals naturally steered the Institute’s activity to a collision course with the historical facts about events in 1917-1945 led to many serious disputes.

Moscow’s stratagem

The issues of collective memory have played a visible role in bilateral Polish-Ukrainian relations also because it is impossible to separate them from geopolitical developments. Especially the Euromaidan and the events that followed – the annexation of Crimea by Russia and Russia-sponsored war in Donbas – created an unprecedented momentum for stronger Polish-Ukrainian strategic ties based on shared security interests. Once again, however, the lack of Aufarbeitung of common history cast a shadow over bilateral relations. A shadow that was heavily exploited by Moscow.

Already in 2014, Vladimir Zhirinovsky proposed to divide Ukraine into the eastern part which would become Russian western which would become Polish, Hungarian and Romanian[7]. Albeit a clear provocation, it illustrates a typical way of thinking of a large part of Russian political elites: Ukraine is an in-between land which does not a distinct identity. This approach is completely foreign to the post-1989 Polish politicians. There is a strong understanding of a need for independent and resilient Ukrainian state.

For the Kremlin, discrepancies in looking at bilateral history between Poland and Ukraine were a useful tool in sowing dissent. There has been a great number of examples illustrating this phenomenon. Of particular interest are ties between right-wing political movements in both countries and people and institutions closely related to Russia. They have been investigated both by academic researchers (let me just mention Marlene Laruelle and Andreas Umland) but also by journalists.

Tensions over history pertained to other neighbours of Ukraine, too, such as Hungary. A sizeable Hungarian minority lives in the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia. According to official Budapest, their compatriots do not enjoy a full scope of liberties there. In this context, a very telling example comes from 2018. Back then, three Polish right-wing activists tried to set figure to the Hungarian cultural institute building. They also painted a swastika on the wall to suggest the arson was done by Ukrainian nationalists. A quick investigation carried out by an international investigative collective VSquare and a Polish web portal revealed they were member of a radical right-wing and pro-Russian organisation named Falanga[8].

Similarly, three years earlier unidentified perpetrators had thrown explosives into the premises of Poland’s Consulate General in L’viv. A similar event happened two years later in Lutsk at the Polish consular mission there. It is difficult to imagine that such actions were taken or initiated by Ukrainians themselves especially that they happened after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas when Russia’s actions to destabilise Ukraine became particularly intense.

The Trimarium of today

Although there is a need for Polish-Ukrainian Aufarbeitung, the example of Polish-German reconciliation shows that such processes interdependent with close economic and people-to-people ties. The idea of Trimarium (The Three Seas Initiative) comes in handy in this regard. Loosely connected to the interwar Intermarium, but clearly inspired by it, the Trimarium is a response to insufficient road, railroad and energy transporting installation in greater Central and Eastern Europe, stretching from Estonia to Croatia and Bulgaria.

Established in 2016, Trimarium it is an intra-EU initiative, yet on various occasions politicians from the participating countries have raised the necessity to include Ukraine and its strategic location in any common projects. They have done so regardless of their political provenience.

Just a quick look at basic indicators shows that there is a great potential for increased economic cooperation. In 2021 alone, Polish-Ukrainian trade volume rose by almost 38% and exceeded 10 billion USD. Obviously, it happened so due to relatively low starting point but also due to improving business opportunities, with Polish entrepreneurs seeking new opportunities in neighbouring markets. Infrastructure projects carried out in the last ten years have greatly facilitated this process.

Such an extended Three Seas Vision is something to work on in the future, especially in the energy field. Keeping and strengthening the role of Ukraine as an important gas transit country will help leverage Russia’s attempts to marginalise intermediaries which would in turn make the European Union and its regional partners more prone to blackmail. In this context, projects such as Nord Stream 2 are viewed as highly harmful to European solidarity and values it entails.

The ever-present human factor

Almost eighteen years of Poland’s membership in the European Union have been marked with an unprecedented migration of mostly young to middle-aged, skilled labourers to countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Italy. it is estimated that around two million Poles live and work abroad. It is a substantial figure for a country that has struggled with ageing population, further hit by an increased number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in the last two years.

The partial remedy for Poland’s serious demographic problems came from Ukraine. At least a million Ukrainians have come to work in various sectors of the economy: retail, transport and financial services, IT and engineering[9]. Polish employers benefit not only from their readiness to work for a smaller wage than Poles, but also from their high level of education, as well as linguistic and cultural proximity, and determination. Ukrainian workers are predominantly disciplined, eager to learn and integrate in the society. Even the COVID-19 pandemic by large did not discourage them to either stay or leave only temporary.

Ukrainians working in Poland have been their country’s most effective ambassadors. As they are highly valued, they contribute to gradually eliminating harmful stereotypes that some Poles might have about their country of origin. By the same token, they defuse negative myths about their western neighbours. With the clear prospects of Poland’s population shrinking in the coming decades, it is likely that their presence will be even more needed which is in turn likely to disprove Polish far right’s dark prophecies.

Paradoxically, Russia’s recent actions against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty can lead to an increased migration to Poland. As much as it would be a considerable blow to Ukrainian economy, it could further bring Poles and Ukrainians closer together.


30 years of independent Polish-Ukrainian relations have been filled with hopes and letdowns, as well as wit attempts of rapprochement that ended with both successes and failures. They have also been rich in emotions that have to this day been not fully addressed and processed. The two nations’ common past still awaits to be revealed and told in a frank and open way. It is important especially now when Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has reached a new stage.

In order to achieve genuine dialogue and enhance bilateral relations, Poland and Ukraine need daring politicians, critical and academic historians pursuing open-ended inquiry, as well as vibrant civil societies that will be able to look each other in the eyes. It is a time-consuming process full of reefs. At the same time, there is a lot of positive elements to draw from. Polish and Ukrainian cultures are close to each other. So are, to some extent, the language even though they are written with different alphabets.

Maybe, to see the similarities more clearly, both nations can seek inspiration in such personalities like Marian Zdziechowski. It could only strengthen the fundaments of the ULB doctrine by enhancing dialogue on history and reduce its negative impact on the present and the future. It is also instructive to devote more attention to the role Polish and Ukrainian émigré circles have played in creating narrative about each other’s nations and their interaction ever since the turn of the twentieth century.

Miłosz J. Cordes is a post-doc research at Lund University, Sweden, researcher at the Danish Foreign Policy Institute and a lecturer at the Danish Institute of Studies (DIS Copenhagen). His research interests cover identity politics in the Baltic Sea Region and in Central and Eastern Europe.

The article is part of a research project entitled “Ukrainian Long-Distance Nationalism in the Cold War: A Transnational History”, carried out at the Lund University. The project has been funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and is led by Per Anders Rudling, Associate Professor at LU.

All online resources were accessible on February 24, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any institution the author is affiliated with.

[1] See more: M. Semczyszyn, M. Zajączkowski (eds.): Giedroyc a Ukraina. Ukraińska perspektywa Jerzego Giedroycia i środowiska paryskiej Kultury [Giedroyc and Ukraine. Ukrainian perspective of Jerzy Giedroyc and the environment of the Paris Kultura], Warszawa – Lublin – Szczecin 2014.

[2] Source:

[3] Source: World Bank.

[4] Mayor Klitschko on Transforming Kyiv and Fighting Corruption in Ukraine,

[5] See more: S. Lewis, Cosmopolitanism as sub-culture in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in: J. Felleler, Robert Pyrah, Marius Turda (eds.), Identities In-Between in East-Central Europe, London – New York 2020, pp. 149-169.

[6] P. A. Rudling, Institutes of Trauma Re-production in a Borderland : Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania, in: N. Mörner (ed.), Constructions and Instrumentalization of the Past : A Comparative Study on Memory Management in the Region, Stockholm 2020, pp. 54-68.

[7] L. Kelly, Russian politician proposes new divisions of Ukraine, source:

[8] K. Szczygieł, S. Klauziński, Zakarpacie w ogniu. Rosja prowokuje konflikt w kolejnym regionie Ukrainy. Z pomocą polskich narodowców, [Transcarpathia on fire. Russia is provoking a conflict in another region of Ukraine. With the help of Polish nationalists], source:

[9] Górny: Liczba Ukraińców w Polsce wróciła do poziomu sprzed pandemii; statystyki mogą być zaburzone [Górny: the number of Ukrainians in Poland has reached the pre-pandemic level; statistics can be inaccurate], source:

In Limes on 30 years of post-Soviet Polish-Ukrainian relations

When Limes, Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica asked me to write about 30 years of post-Soviet Polish-Ukrainian relations, we did not know Russia would invade Ukraine within a few weeks. Nevertheless, the article I submitted has just been published. I believe it is still, if not more, pertinent and sheds light on the meanders of memory politics in Central and Eastern Europe. It is also a part of my research project at Lund University on nationalism in the region.

You can find the English version (which was translated to Italian) here.