On February 24th, Russia started an unprovoked crime – war against Ukraine. It has become one more attempt of the empire to demolish the Ukrainian state. Governed by formers communists, Russia has never thought of Ukraine as an independent country. Putin’s concept of the “Russian world” excludes the right of the Ukrainian state to exist in the form of a sovereign, independent, stand-alone country. This concept has long-standing historical roots going back to the period when the Ukrainian ethnical territory was split between two countries: Poland and Russia.
Ukraine and Poland are two countries with close cultural, economic and political ties. Today, Poland is Ukraine’s key ally. The country is hosting more than 2.5 Ukrainian refugees. The cost of weapons and military ammunition shared with Ukraine exceeds 7 billion PLN or 1 billion USD. Most of the military equipment from other partners of Ukraine goes through the Polish border. People of both countries understand that if Poland and Ukraine do not stand together, both countries may suffer and fall under the Russian offensive.
That’s not the first time our countries have to unite their efforts to fight against Russia. Despite the unity shown by the two nations, the story of relations between Poland and Ukraine had a lot of dark days. The countdown started in 1569. That year, Ukraine became a part of the newly created state, the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. The Union of Lublin fixed the right of Polish magnates to take control over the Ukrainian territories. The Union was signed as a response to the growing power of Moscow from the east and Crimean Tatars from the south.
An aggressive policy of Polish monarchy, cultural and religious pressure on the Ukrainians led to the numerous uprisings of Cossacks who were Ukrainians living on the southern border of the new state. They managed to save a part of Ukrainian autonomy. The Cossack movement was a paramilitary formation of Ukrainians who did not want to stay under the Polish rule and fled to the territory between Crimea and the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth. However, the permanent danger of a possible offensive from the Tatars made this territory not attractive for Polish magnates and landlords, so they allowed Ukrainian to settle there and create their own autonomy. Cossacks served the Polish crown and took part in large scale war campaigns as mercenaries.
The most famous campaign supported by Cossacks of this era was a campaign of Polish Monarch Vladislav, who tried to win the dispute for the Moscow crown in 1618. Moscow at that time was ruled by the first Tzar form the Romanov dynasty, Mikhail. The Cossack’s army counted around 20,000 servants and played a key role in that campaign. In December 1618, the Deulin Peace Treaty was signed under which the whole territory of Ukraine and Belarus was declared to be under Polish control. After this campaign, Cossacks were recognized as real power. In 1621, the Ukrainian army again proved its importance to the Polish crown. Close to the small city Hotyn, the Ukrainian army led by Petro Konashevych-Sagaidachny, defeated the army of the Ottoman Empire. It was the last serious attempt of Turkey to conquer parts of Eastern Europe.
The period between 1618 and 1648 is often called the “Golden Autumn” by historians. It was a time without wars between Ukrainians and Polish people. But, not everything went well. Polish magnates increased their pressure on Ukraine and did not keep their word in part of cultural and religious autonomy. Most Ukrainian schools and churches were closed. Several cases of abuse of rural residents have created a strong ground for the largest uprising of Cossacks ever.
Between 1648 and 1654, Ukraine fought for its independence. As a result of several campaigns, both Poland and Ukraine were exhausted. The newly created Ukrainian state had to find ways to protect itself against the future aggression of Polish rulers. In 1654, Ukrainian Hetman (King in Ukrainian) Bohdan Khmelnytsky signed the Pereyaslav Agreement which mainly concerned the security and protection that Moscow could provide to Ukraine against Poland.
The “protectorate” led to the destruction of the Ukrainian state and was never followed by Moscow tsar and his allies. In 1667, after 13 years of war between Moscow and Poland, Ukraine was shared equally between the two powers. Warsaw took control over the lands on the right bank of the river Dnipro, and the left bank went to Moscow. The agreement between the two powers was considered by Ukrainians as a betrayal of the previous agreement concluded by Bohdan Khmelnytskyi in 1654. According to that agreement, Moscow should protect all the Ukrainian territories in the case of Polish aggression.
Since 1667, Ukraine has stayed under the control of two powers that thought of Ukraine as a colony with its people and lands as a target for expanding the empires’ influence. These thoughts were actively supported by actions directed towards assimilating Ukrainian people and culture.
The Ukrainian people managed to restore the state and sovereignty only 250 years later. As a result of the First World War, Russian and Austrian empires collapsed. But, this did not mean that new regimes in Warsaw and Moscow had no plans to keep their control over Ukrainian territory.
Józef Pilsudski, the first chief of state (1918–22) of the newly independent Poland established in November 1918, had dreamed of Great Poland, which would control the Eastern Galicia with its capital in Lviv. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks had their plans regarding both Ukraine and Poland. The Bolsheviks’ goal was to extend their regime to Poland and set up a foothold for the revolution in other European countries.
The newly created Ukrainian People’s Republic had almost no chance to stay independent or neutral in these circumstances. Standing between two aggressive powers, the young Ukrainian state had to protect itself and make a difficult choice. With no support from the Western powers, the winners of World War I, Ukraine made a deal with the Polish Republic as “the lesser evil”. The Government of Ukraine People Republic had to recognize the rule of Polish authorities on the territory of Galicia. Ukraine’s leader, Symon Petliura, was heavily criticized by many Ukrainians of Galicia for this decision. On December 8th, 1919, the Council of Entente, led by Great Britain and France, recognized the new borders of Poland and the right to control the Western Galicia. According to the peace agreements, Ukrainians of the Galicia should be granted cultural, educational and religious autonomy.
In 1920-1921, the Polish army and the Ukrainian corps fought against the Bolsheviks’ expansion to the West. This war ended up tragically for Ukraine, which lost its independence. Most of its territory was finally captured by Russian forces while Western Ukraine stayed under Polish control.
Unfortunately for both nations, Josef Pilsudski and the extremist part of the Polish governors did not follow previous agreements and abandoned the autonomy rights of Western Ukrainians. In 20 years, it resulted in a large scale conflict between Ukrainians and Polish people in Volyn and Galicia regions. In Polish historiography, the period between spring 1943 and winter of 1944 is often called “The Volyn Massacre”.
On July 22, 2016, the Polish Seim (the country’s legislative body) voted for the bill recognizing the happenings of that period as a “Genocide of Polish people”. Ukrainian historians tend to call that period “Volyn Tragedy”, emphasizing that Polish people were suffering from the ethnical cleansings equally to Ukrainian inhabitants of the region.
Starting from 2015, the “Volyn Massacre” topic was one of the key barriers for both countries to deepening cooperation, cultural, economic, and political ties. President Poroshenko tried to soften the rhetoric of the Polish Seim and President Andrzej Duda but had no success. On the contrary, the “Volyn Massacre” had become a tool for Polish governors to create a wave of negative emotions toward the Ukrainian state and unite the internal patriotic electorate.
But all the disputes between the two countries vanished on Feb 22nd, 2022 with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For the first time in centuries, both countries have a real chance to create a new union. Russia will not step back from the idea of recreating its Empire, which controlled Poland and Ukraine from 1795 to 1917.
Russia’s aggressive plans and rhetoric go far beyond the borders of the Ukrainian state. In the past, when Ukraine and Poland united their efforts to stand against Russia, both countries succeeded. On the contrary, when the ambition of Polish rulers was to make Ukraine or its Western territories a part of the Polish state, both countries failed in the mid or long-term.
So, we hope that the “brotherhood of two”, created on the 24th of February of 2022, will keep both nations alive and serve as a strong ground for Ukraine to protect the whole West from the plan for a new empire dreamt up by former bolsheviks, Putin and his allies.