Most people think of Ukraine as an Eastern European country. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba isn't one of them. "I am deeply convinced that Ukraine is and has always been a Central European state: historically, politically, and culturally," he said in a speech last year. "Central Europe is where our identity belongs."
This was not a statement of geographical fact but one of historical and cultural perspective. Ukraine's future, like its past, lies not with Russia but with the Central European countries firmly ensconced in NATO and the European Union: Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, and especially Poland.
Over the past 20 years, Poland has influenced Ukraine's cultural and political development more than any other country besides Russia. It has been its staunchest supporter within the EU and NATO; welcomed millions of Ukrainians to live, study, and work there; and provided an alternative model of what Ukraine could become as a truly Central European country: European, patriotic, openly anti-Russian, and economically successful—all under the safety of the US security umbrella.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014' Kyiv has steadily built itself up as a nation state on the Polish model. It is a process that Russia itself set in motion, and one that—as Russian troops again amass on Ukraine's border, with talk of war imminent—is all but impossible to reverse.
Although most Western countries have been strongly supportive of Ukraine in its position against Russia, none can claim the personal ties, mutual history, and close proximity that bind Poland and Ukraine together.
The two spent centuries together in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was wiped off the map in 1795. During the age of romantic nationalism in the 19th century, Poles and Ukrainians staked competing claims over vast territories in Eastern Europe, but one piece of common ground they always shared was their mutual hostility toward Russian domination.
An old Polish saying goes: "There can be no free Poland without a free Ukraine, nor a free Ukraine without a free Poland." Consciously or not, this principle has animated Polish policy toward Ukraine since the turn of the century—something that has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains that Ukrainians and Russians "are one people" and claims that Westerners—Poles included—only ever cared about exploiting Ukraine.
"History has been a battleground from the very beginning of Russia's war with Ukraine," noted Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy. On the one hand, some believe Ukraine is simply the "little Russian" part of a greater Russian whole. On the other hand, some argue Ukraine should be a part of the West, a Central European country like Poland or Lithuania, as it shares their joint historical fate of oppression at the hands of Russian imperialism and hope for revival in a modern Europe. Both historical perspectives have their advocates within Ukraine and abroad, but the two are irreconcilable.
Poland has provided Ukraine with a model of how to wage that historical war. After communism fell in Poland, the Soviet Union was recast as an occupier and oppressor of the Polish nation rather than its liberator after World War II. With good reason too. In the Soviet Union's Katyn forest in 1940, then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin secretly ordered the mass execution of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals after the country was carved in two by Nazi Germany. It was only in 1990 that the Soviet government admitted it was responsible, having blamed Germans for the duration of the Cold War.
In 1998, the Polish government founded its controversial arm of historical warfare—the Institute of National Remembrance's Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation (IPN)—with the goal of investigating the crimes of communist and Nazi regimes in Poland like the one committed in Katyn. Implicit in that was the equating of the two as equal evils, commonplace in Poland and the Baltic states but anathema in Russia and among its close allies, where the Soviet Union is largely still seen as a positive force that liberated Europe from Nazi aggression.
In 2006, Ukraine created its own Institute of National Remembrance (UINR), modelled after the IPN. (The UINR's operations were briefly halted from 2010 to 2014 under pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.) The UINR was given a similar brief to the IPN: to investigate crimes committed by the Soviet authorities from 1917 to 1991. Among other atrocities, millions of Ukrainians starved under Stalin in a man-made famine from 1932 to 1933, which Ukraine now recognizes as a genocide.
A year after its founding, the UINR played a key role in drafting a controversial set of decommunization laws in Ukraine, which saw Soviet World War II monuments taken down, places renamed, and all communist symbols banned. Like the institute, the laws were modelled on ones passed in Poland and the Baltic states, where the Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazi rule was treated as a renewed occupation. The contrast could not be starker with Russia, where a renewed cult of the Great Patriotic War and valorization of Stalin have emerged in recent years.
Ukraine has increasingly gone after not only the legacies of communism but former communists themselves. In 2014, a controversial set of lustration laws was passed in Ukraine to target former communist officials, following in the footsteps of Poland and the Baltic states, which all passed their own such laws in the 1990s. Lustration is an attempt to not only uproot the cultural legacy of communism but its institutional legacy too—something that overwhelmingly targets the country's pro-Russian and Soviet-nostalgic population.
When both Poland and Ukraine fell under the Soviet umbrella—the former as a satellite state and the latter as a part of the Soviet Union—there were essentially no distinct Polish-Ukrainian relations to speak of. That changed when communism fell in Poland in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991—but not overnight.
Poland's overriding goal from then was "Euro-Atlantic integration": joining NATO and the EU as soon as possible to avoid exactly the kind of situation Ukraine is facing today. The country even threatened to develop its own nuclear capabilities if it was not offered NATO membership, and Poland's first president, Lech Walesa, pushed then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin to agree that joining the organization was "not contrary to the interest of any state, also including Russia." Poland soon became part of NATO in 1999, and EU membership followed in 2004.
With the goal of Euro-Atlantic integration achieved, Poland was now free to pursue a new grand strategy to its east: ensuring the West's border did not lie on its own eastern frontier.
In 2008, Poland—along with Sweden—proposed that the EU pursue an Eastern partnership with its European neighbours, explicitly as a path to membership for Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus (though it was later suspended), Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Major EU countries were lukewarm on the initiative at best, hesitant to irritate the Kremlin, which accused the partnership of being an attempt to carve out a new EU sphere of influence.
Ukraine, meanwhile, was struggling. The impact of the Soviet Union's implosion was much worse than Warsaw's regime change. Its economy shrunk every year of the 1990s, only surpassing its 1989 level in 2005. Questions of political and cultural identity were also already beginning to divide the nation. While Poland celebrated EU accession, in 2004, Ukraine entered a series of protests over alleged electoral fraud that culminated in what is known as the Orange Revolution.
In a tightly contested presidential runoff election, Yanukovych narrowly beat pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko. But Yushchenko and his supporters challenged the result and were vindicated when the Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the vote and called for a rerun, in which Yushchenko emerged victorious.
Russia was incensed, having already recognized Yanukovych as the legitimate victor. Poland was supportive. Walesa and other Polish officials were unanimous in their support for Yushchenko. Then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski pushed for roundtable talks between the government and opposition, at which he was present alongside a number of other European leaders.
A decade after the Orange Revolution, an even more consequential protest movement resulted in the so-called Euromaidan revolution after Yanukovych—who was ultimately elected in 2010—refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and began a war in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine not long after, calling the Euromaidan a coup that Warsaw helped orchestrate.
Since then, millions of Ukrainians have sought a better life in Poland—or, at least, better wages. For a country that was once one of the most monoethnic in Europe, the change is hard to overstate, with Ukrainians now being a ubiquitous part of the fabric of Polish society. Ukraine has also become the most remittance-dependent country in Europe. Remittances account for 9.8 percent of Ukraine's GDP as of 2020, rendering expatriates key to the country's economy.
Beyond economics, Poland sees Ukraine as a crucial partner in a region that has been dominated by Russia for centuries. Ukraine, in turn, regards Poland as critical to securing membership in Western institutions that can help it escape Moscow's reach.
Such is Poland's present importance to Ukraine that when Ukraine's current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, came to power in 2019, he sought a "reset" with Poland, after conflicts over history had strained relations under his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. Symbolically, Zelensky spent the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II in Warsaw, where he declared not just a thaw but a breakthrough in Poland-Ukraine relations.
In 2020, leaders of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine met in Lublin, Poland, to make a joint declaration announcing a new alliance called the "Lublin Triangle," dedicated to strengthening cultural, economic, political, and military ties as well as supporting Ukraine's eventual EU and NATO integration. Pro-Kremlin propaganda labelled the formation part of an "Anglo-Saxon proxy war" with Russia. This year, Poland and Ukraine entered yet another trilateral alliance aimed at protecting Ukraine's sovereignty, this time with the United Kingdom.
A meeting of the three Lublin Triangle countries' presidents in late 2021 showed it in action, with Zelensky summing up its common task as "to stop the Russian threat and protect Europe from aggressive Russian policies." Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine "are in the vanguard of this resistance," he said. Polish President Andrzej Duda, for his part, stressed that—as EU and NATO members—Poland and Lithuania must push forward proposals to "ensure the security of our part of Europe."
Considering Ukraine's own problems with corruption and the rule of law and given the active war in its east, it is impossible that the country joins either the EU or NATO in the near future. Russia, for one, demands that the latter remains completely off the table by a mutual agreement between Moscow and Washington. But part of the problem is that although Ukraine is not in NATO, Ukraine's security is treated by EU and NATO member states (like Poland and Lithuania) as a matter of their own security.
Seeing Ukraine suffer from Russian aggression today has garnered sympathy from Poles, who regard themselves as yesterday's victims of Russian aggression. A recent poll from the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that Poles are by far the most firm among major European countries in their belief that their country should defend Ukraine from renewed Russian aggression, with 65 percent saying it should be compared to less than half in other major EU countries. The same poll showed that 80 percent of Poles also believe both NATO and the EU should come to Ukraine's defense in the event of a Russian incursion.
It took until 1991 for Poland and Ukraine to appear as neighbouring sovereign states. It took another decade for them to discover their common political interests and one more for the two societies to be irrevocably melded together by the events of 2014.
But that fate was, in many ways, predestined by Poland and Ukraine's shared experience with Russian aggression. Putin, in his gamble to bring Ukraine permanently into his orbit, instead made Ukrainians turn westward—just as Poland's leaders reacted to their time in the Soviet bloc decades earlier. There are few signs either country will turn back.
Luka Ivan Jukic is a freelance journalist who writes about Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @lijukic
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and published by special syndication arrangement.