The Russian leadership has repeatedly made the outlandish claim that Poland is preparing to annex territories in western Ukraine. Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) director Sergei Naryshkin recently made this assertion, and he was not the first to do so. Over the past months, Russian President Vladimir Putin several times stated that the idea of absorbing Ukraine is still alive and well in Poland, while Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev warned that Warsaw “is already making moves to seize western Ukrainian territories.”
These are just a few examples from a long list of official statements and semi-official musings by Russian political figures who have accused Poland—and at times Hungary and Romania—of seeking to reclaim land from Ukraine that they held prior to World War II. The persistence of these statements, undeterred by the complete absence of evidence for the existence of such plans, not to mention Poland’s unswerving support for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, calls to question their goals.
Public appeals to Ukraine’s neighbors to join in on carving up Ukraine began as a publicity stunt. In March 2014, Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the late firebrand leader of the nationalist and misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)—sent letters to the embassies of Poland, Romania, and Hungary proposing that they hold referendums in areas of Ukraine that were once part of their countries on the idea of becoming so once again. This was just after the referendum in Russian-occupied Crimea and remained one of the LDPR leader’s pet ideas for some years.
No one took the proposal seriously, and it’s difficult to say whether the Kremlin was using Zhirinovsky to voice its own plans for Ukraine. There was some speculation in Poland that this was the case, but no real evidence was offered.
Former Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski said in an October 2014 interview with Politico and in his 2018 book that back in 2008–2009, Putin had hinted at the idea of jointly partitioning Ukraine at meetings with then prime minister Donald Tusk. However, neither Tusk himself nor the notes summarizing the discussions have confirmed this. At most, it can be surmised that in his conversations with Tusk about World War II, Putin had recognized the “Polishness” of territories that ended up as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after 1939.
Nevertheless, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russian discourse about Poland’s alleged desire to annex parts of Ukraine evolved from conjectures by controversial politicians to direct statements by the most senior officials. The catalyst for this shift appears to have been the March 2022 assertion by Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Polish ruling party Law and Justice, that a peacekeeping mission by NATO or the UN might be able to stop the hostilities.
Several days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov theorized that Poland would use this idea as a pretext for seizing control over western Ukraine. Soon thereafter, the SVR began regularly reporting on Poland’s alleged plans to annex Ukrainian territories.
On April 28, Naryshkin said that Poland was preparing to enter western Ukraine as part of a coalition of “interested countries.” On June 30, the SVR claimed that Poland was considering a scenario for partitioning Ukraine because it did not expect Kyiv to win. On July 12, Naryshkin followed up by contending that Warsaw was “nervous” and trying to “disavow its plans” because the SVR had revealed them.
Other Russian officials have also spoken about Poland’s “predatory plans,” including the controversial presidential adviser Vladimir Medinsky and Russia’s ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov. The most recent wave of such statements began in the late fall, coming directly from Putin.
In reality, of course, Polish officials have never made any statements questioning the territorial integrity of Ukraine, to whom Warsaw remains a staunch ally. The idea of a NATO peacekeeping mission has never been anything more than a proposal by Kaczyński, who does not currently hold any official positions.
So why does Russia continue to insist that Ukraine’s western neighbors covet its territory, even though these incongruous claims are clearly unconvincing? It appears that this is less about Russia’s real expectations of actions by Poland, and more about its overall views on Ukraine.
Starting with his February 21, 2022, address recognizing the independence of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics, Putin has referred to western Ukrainian territories exclusively as land “seized and transferred” from Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Ukraine beyond the borders of 1939 is proclaimed to be the “historical” territory of its neighboring countries, even though much of this land only became part of those countries twenty years earlier, after World War I.
The Kremlin’s logic appears to stem from its thesis about the “artificial” nature of Ukrainian statehood. If Ukraine was “constructed” by Lenin in 1918, as Moscow now insists, then it can be just as easily and legitimately “deconstructed”: its neighbors have the right to claim Ukrainian territory, which Russia will not oppose. Indeed, it has already made a head start by declaring the annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September.
Incredibly, the Russian leadership seems to see this logic as an argument that should convince the Ukrainian people to unite with Russia. Speaking at the Valdai Club discussion forum in October about territories Stalin seized from the USSR’s neighbors, Putin unexpectedly reached the somewhat absurd conclusion that because of this, Russia is the only possible guarantor of the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine. He repeated this thesis at his November 4 meeting with history teachers.
If Ukraine is an artificial construct, then only the successor of the country that once granted Ukraine its current borders by seizing land from its neighbors can now ensure the inviolability of these borders. Just as the postwar USSR considered itself the sole guarantor of Poland’s new borders, which included land Poland received from Germany, so can Russia become a guarantor protecting Ukraine from the “encroachments” of Poland, Romania, and Hungary. The Russian president wants to convince the Ukrainian and Russian audiences of the magnitude and severity of this threat, and it seems that the Kremlin cares little about whether its attempts are persuasive.
- Stanislav Kuvaldin