How Kremlin propaganda is trying to turn Poland against Ukraine


When President Volodymyr Zelensky commemorated the victims of the Volhynia massacre in Lutsk on July 9, 2023, together with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, it was a strong rebuke to Russia’s attempts to sow discord between the two neighbouring countries. Source: X, Office of the Polish President

Although Poland’s relations with Russia have almost never been warm, the latest survey results from the Pew Research Center show that only 2% of Poles view Russia positively, which is the lowest result of this century.

A Brief History of Polish-Russian Relations

The first reason for the Polish attitude is a centuries-long history marked by multiple Poland-Russia wars and repeated Russian occupations of Poland. After the collapse of the communist regime, there was a brief period of improved relations, which quickly deteriorated. The cause was Russia’s imperialist foreign policy and the outbreak of the war in Georgia. The final straw in the worsening of Polish-Russian relations was the occupation of Crimea, after which Poland became one of the most vocal supporters of sanctions against Russia. As a result, Russian propaganda activities intensified within Poland and in foreign media.

Propastop examines here three main Russian narratives about Poland and their connection to broader Russian strategic narratives: the events of World War II, i.e., the narrative of the denazification of Ukraine; the issue of Ukrainian refugees, i.e., anti-migration narratives; and Poland’s role in establishing Ukrainian statehood, i.e., the narrative of an artificial state.

The events of World War II

Poland is one of Ukraine’s most important allies and was one of the first countries to support Ukraine’s membership in the European Union and NATO. Understandably, one of the goals of Russian propaganda is to damage Polish-Ukrainian relations, for which Russia tries to use the events of World War II. A dark spot in Polish-Ukrainian relations is the Volhynia and Eastern Galicia massacres of 1943-1945 (officially referred to as genocide in Poland).

A photographic memorial of the Volhynia massacre, during which the Ukrainian Insurgent Army murdered thousands of Poles in the summer of 1943. Source: Wikipedia.

Volhynia is a part of northwestern Ukraine, located in the Volhynia and Rivne oblasts territories, which belonged to Poland between the two world wars. At that time, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews lived in this territory. When Western Ukraine was under German occupation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrainian: Українська повстанська армія, УПА) began an ethnic cleansing of Poles to ensure that after the war Poland could not claim control over its former territories with a Ukrainian majority. During the massacres, between 60,000 to 120,000 Poles were killed according to official data. At the end of World War II, thousands of Ukrainians became victims of Polish retaliatory attacks.

The tragic events of those years still hinder the close relations between Poland and Ukraine. Just last summer, then Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski called the Volhynia massacres one of the unresolved issues in the relations between the two countries. Fortunately, overcoming historical traumas is progressing in the right direction – Polish and Ukrainian scholars are working together to preserve historical memory, and the Presidents of Ukraine and Poland participated in commemorative events in Lutsk last year.

The Polish fact-checking project FakeHunter highlights the Volhynia massacres as one of the most important Russian propaganda narratives in Poland. This narrative asserts to Poles that Ukrainians went unpunished for the Volhynia massacres and that the current war in Ukraine is a retaliation for this crime. This claim aligns well with Putin’s favourite narrative of denazifying Ukraine.

The European Union External Action Service’s disinformation task force highlights the timing of the narrative’s amplification. The narrative spread on Polish Twitter (X) in early April 2022, immediately after the Russian army retreated from Bucha. The goal of the narrative was to suggest that the Bucha massacre was not an unparalleled atrocity, because Ukrainians committed even more brutal crimes against Poles during World War II.

Article from the news agency TASS. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova calls on Poland to stop supporting Kyiv in memory of the victims of the Volhynia massacres. According to Zakharova, the “crimes committed by the Kyiv regime are nothing but a continuation of the work of Ukrainian nationalists from World War II.” The full text is available on the TASS website.

Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Poland was the first to experience the migration crisis triggered by the full-scale invasion. Nearly one and a half million Ukrainians have fled to Poland from Russian missiles, and Poland’s humanitarian aid to Ukrainian war refugees has set an example for all of Europe. At the same time, the large number of Ukrainian refugees gave Russia the opportunity to deploy its traditional refugee narrative. The aim of this narrative in Poland was and is to incite hatred or at least indifference towards Ukrainian refugees among Poles.

To achieve its goal, Russia uses events taking place in Poland and distorts them for its own interests. On May 8, 2022, a stabbing occurred in Warsaw’s Old Town, during which three attackers killed a young Pole who was trying to protect a girl from unwanted interaction. As the incident received widespread coverage in the Polish media, the Russian propaganda machine began building its negative narrative around it. Russian media coverage of this incident can be found, for example, on,, and in the newspaper Moskovski Komsomolets.

Two of these sources refer to the Polish newspaper Wprost, which does not mention the nationality of the attackers, simply calling them foreigners. However, Russian media firmly claimed that the attackers were Ukrainians. Moskovski Komsomolets added that Ukrainian refugees “behave strangely” and that this raises questions among Europeans. You can read more about the exploitation of the murder in the Russian media on the website of the Polish Press Agency.

Additionally, Russia attempted to artificially create tensions towards Ukrainian refugees by spreading fake news about thefts and other crimes committed by Ukrainians at the border. There were also false reports claiming that the number of Ukrainian refugees was not as high and that mainly men from the Middle East and Africa were crossing the border. However, the impact of Russian propaganda was rather limited at the beginning of the war. Some hooligans did harass refugees, but the Polish government responded quickly to the propaganda, and it did not achieve its goals. You can read more about this here.

Näide vene meedias levinud fotodest, mis tõestavat Poola soovi annekteerida Lääne-Ukraina. Sildil on hind nii grivnades kui zlottides. Allikas: kuvatõmmis.

Russia has previously used the narrative of malevolent refugees. One of the most famous fake news stories from Russian propaganda was the “Lisa case” in Germany. In early 2016, a false story spread like wildfire in the German media about a girl of Russian-German origin named Lisa, who was allegedly raped by two refugees of Turkish origin. In this case, Russian propaganda successfully exploited the tensions that had arisen in German society. The political and social life in Germany was influenced by the migration crisis of 2015-2016, during which more than a million refugees, mainly from the Middle East, arrived in Germany.

Poola ja Ukraina rahvusriiklus

Interestingly, the narrative of Ukrainian statehood has two seemingly opposite sides. On the one hand, the Ukrainian nation-state is a project of the Polish political elite from the 19th century, although Poles (and also Lithuanians) persecuted Ukrainians for their Orthodoxy over the centuries.

In his “historical essay,” Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukrainian national identity was actually created in the 19th century by Poles to establish a buffer zone that limits Russian power in the west. This understanding of Ukrainian identity as an identity imposed by foreigners is a significant part of Putin’s worldview. He has repeatedly argued that the reason Ukrainian identity differs from Russian identity is that it has been imposed on them by their neighbours throughout history. First the Poles in the 19th century, when the Polish people rose against Russian rule. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted to weaken Russia in World War I. Then by the Bolsheviks, and finally by the West to create an “anti-Russia.” As a result of this reasoning, Putin claims that Ukraine as a separate country is an imported idea and that the true destiny of Ukraine is to belong to Russia as part of one country. (Read more about this narrative in an earlier Propastop article.)

Screenshot from Dmitry Medvedev’s Telegram channel. Image caption: “This is the picture of his country’s future that has formed in the mind of the Ukrainian president, damaged by psychotropic substances (Image 1). Western analysts, however, predict this (Image 2).”

On the other hand, Russian propaganda claims that Poland’s goal is to regain the territories lost to Ukraine after World War II. The territories of Western Ukraine have belonged to Poland for quite some time, including the interwar period between the two world wars.

On July 7, 2022, Dmitry Medvedev published on his Telegram channel a “map of Ukraine’s future after the war,” allegedly compiled by Western analysts. According to the map, Russia would occupy the entire eastern bank of the Dnipro, Romania would take the Chernivtsi and Vinnytsia regions, and Poland would take all of Western Ukraine to restore its “historical borders.” Ukraine would be left with only Kyiv. To support this claim, Russian media circulated pictures from grocery stores in Lviv, where price tags were allegedly already in both Ukrainian hryvnias and Polish zlotys. It was also claimed that the good relations between Ukraine and Poland are a sign that Ukraine is not opposed to ceding its western part to Poland.

The same narrative has been spread by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and these claims are documented on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website. Lavrov was also surprised that Western countries condemned Russia’s decision to issue Russian passports in the occupied territories through a simplified process, as Poland (and Romania) are allegedly behaving in the same way in Western Ukraine with impunity.

This is a classic Russian propaganda tactic – accuse the West of the sins you commit. Creating an artificial ethnic minority through the distribution of passports has been a measure of Russian foreign policy for decades. It has been used as a pretext for the war in Georgia and the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Although Russians make up only a couple of percent of the population in these occupied territories, which are legally part of the Republic of Georgia, Russia issued Russian passports to all their residents. The Kremlin then began to use the narrative of the need to protect its citizens, and now Russia is using the same method in the occupied territories of Ukraine.