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The Russian narrative, taken up by part of the European right, is not working in Poland

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Do not believe any information until it has been denied by the Kremlin: this warning may sound like a joke, but it was taken seriously in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, and the attitude remains valid in the eyes of a large majority of Poles, whose country had already experienced more than 120 years of Russian occupation on a majority of its territory – from the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century – before the decades of Soviet occupation after WWII. And it is not just the Poles. Even in Hungary, which the Western mainstream media say is pro-Russian because its government goes to great lengths to avoid being drawn into a war in Ukraine that is not its own, people with links to Fidesz will usually tell you in private, when the subject is raised, that they know Russia is lying all the time and that it is the aggressor in this conflict, but that Hungary is a small country that has to defend its own interests and not those of the big powers.

This does not prevent the Hungarians from taking up certain elements of the Russian narrative when it suits them, as when the think tank and polling institute Századvég, close to the government of Viktor Orbán, proclaims that, with the exception of the Poles, a majority of Europeans consider that “banning Russian oil and gas supplies does more harm than good to Europe”. It is a typical example of a biased survey question, since the reality is that there is no ban on Russian gas imports by the EU: it is the Russians themselves who have cut off gas supplies to their European customers to push EU countries to stop supporting Ukraine.

Not only do the Poles overwhelmingly support the sanctions against Russia, but the average Pole is well aware that it was Russia that decided to cut off gas supplies to Poland, and if they are not they are reminded of it through information campaigns like the one organised by the association of electricity producers (PKEE). In the meantime, the false thesis of there being European sanctions on Russian gas is still very present not only in Hungary, but also in Western Europe, especially in France and Germany, and even more so in the right-wing circles in those countries. Other elements of the Russian narrative have an even harder time taking root in Poland.

This is the case, for example, with the claim that the Russian offensive was necessary to protect the Russian-speaking population of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics from relentless shelling by Ukrainian forces – in violation of the Minsk agreements – which is said to have resulted in 13,000 to 14,000 Russian-speaking civilian deaths. These figures put forward by the Russians have been popularised for example in France by people like Anne-Laure Bonnel, author of the documentary “Donbass”, or, in a less direct way, attributing to the Ukrainians sole responsibility for the 13–14,000 deaths in the Donbass, by people like the Franco-Serb Nicola Mircovic, president of the East-West Association, or Xavier Moreau, a Frenchman who has become Franco-Russian (by marriage and residence) and who is editor of the French-speaking pro-Russian site Stratpol. For years, Moreau has been faithfully passing on the narrative of the Kremlin and its media to the French, and he is willingly invited to express his views in the French “Alt-Right” media. The death toll claimed in this Russian narrative is in fact a manipulation of UN figures that appeared in a 2019 report: it was actually the total number of deaths on both sides since 2014, a majority of them military. In Poland, this element of the Russian narrative never circulated for a simple reason. Being in contact with Ukrainians (who are very numerous in Poland) and with Ukraine (a neighbouring country), Poles know well that the Maidan, independently of the financing and support it may have received from abroad (a strong element of the narrative of the Kremlin and its transmission channels in the West), was also a real popular revolt against an ultra-corrupt post-Soviet system that made life impossible (which is a fact, whatever the disappointment that followed Euromaidan), and that the Minsk agreements were never respected either by the separatist republics of the Donbass, supported – and even created, as the Poles are aware – by Russia. The Poles know very well, from the testimonies they have heard, that the fire of the Russian-speaking (or Russian) separatists has never stopped killing civilians as well as soldiers on the Ukrainian side. It is also not surprising that the word “People’s” preceding the word “Republic” and the Soviet symbols used by the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics are disqualifying in the eyes of Poles, who still remember the Polish People’s Republic that was imposed on them by Soviet Russia. Let us not forget that the symbol of the hammer and the sickle is forbidden in Poland on a par with the swastika.

Another element of the Russian narrative that works quite well in some French or German circles (in Germany, especially those linked to the AfD) is the denial of the existence of a Ukrainian identity and the confusion (deliberate on the part of the Kremlin, out of ignorance in Western Europe) between Russians and Eastern Slavs, and more precisely between Moscow Russians and Ruthenians.

Poles have had struggles with Ukrainians and Russians/Muscovites over the centuries, and they know how to distinguish between them. While the word “Ruthenian” sounds exotic in English, the word “Rusini”, which in Polish refers to the populations of present-day Belarus and Ukraine, is not the same as “Rosjanie” (Russians) and is well known to all Poles. Until the 17th century, Ukraine and Belarus were territories of the Two Nation Republic, better known in English as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Cossack revolts of the mid-17th century placed eastern Ukraine in the Russian orbit before the western part joined it through the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. The interwar Second Polish Republic, which allied with the Ukrainians in the first phase of its 1919–21 war of independence against Bolshevik Russia, again included the western part of present-day Ukraine and had a large Ukrainian minority with an independence movement. During the Second World War, the Polish population of Volhynia fell victim to a genocide perpetrated by the Ukrainian UPA. The Ukrainian nationalists’ aim was then to cleanse the region of its Polish population for a future independent Ukraine. The Poles are therefore well aware that there is a Ukrainian identity, and that, although they did not have an independent state before 1991 (except in the form of a Cossack Hetmanate, a protectorate of Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries), the Ukrainians have long fought to assert their identity and have their own state. It is similarly clear to the Poles that the Ukrainians are not Russians. Since the Ukrainian language is much closer to Polish than Russian is, a Polish speaker is able to recognise that Ukrainian is not a dialect of Russian, contrary to what the Russian narrative and, following it, people like Xavier Moreau claim. And an assertion like the one made by another Frenchman, François Asselineau, the leader of a party (UPR) which is completely marginal but who nevertheless has more than 220,000 followers on Twitter, that the inhabitants of western Ukraine are in fact Poles who have no legitimacy to govern the Russians in the east of the country would make anyone in Poland laugh at  his ignorance. Obviously, the Russian narrative that seeks to make people believe that Poland itself has designs on western Ukraine and that Russian intervention is necessary to preserve the country’s independence, taken up in certain circles in the West, cannot work in Poland, since the Poles are well placed to know that this idea of Poland taking over western Ukraine is pure Kremlin propaganda and is non-existent in Poland.

The situation is somewhat more nuanced with regard to two other points in the Russian narrative: Russia was provoked by NATO’s advance to the east, and even into Ukraine; and NATO has no lessons to give to Russia since it bombed Serbia itself in 1999 and forced a change in borders by imposing a separation of Kosovo, on the basis that it is populated mostly by Albanians. This last point is simply ignored in Poland, as is the 2003 American attack on Iraq (another important element in the Russian narrative) in which Poland took part. As for NATO’s advance towards the east, it is of course considered legitimate in Poland in order for the region’s countries to protect themselves collectively from the very same brand of Russian imperialism we can see at work in Ukraine. On the other hand, there are dissenting voices on the usefulness for the defence of Polish interests of promoting future NATO membership for post-Soviet republics like Ukraine, given the conflict that this was to inevitably provoke with Russia. These questions are raised in particular in nationalist circles, that is, the opposition to the right wing of PiS (notably within the Konfederacja party, which brings together nationalists and libertarians and has twelve deputies in the Sejm), but also surface in some major conservative media, such as the liberal-conservative weekly Do Rzeczy. It is then quite easy for these circles to be accused of being Russian agents by those who advocate full support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia, whatever the cost to Poland. The latter consider that a defeat of Ukraine would put Poland and the Baltic States in danger of becoming the next targets of Russian expansion. Of course, in countries further west, the threat seems more remote, and in right-wing circles, Russia is perceived as less dangerous than the radical Islam that is developing at home because of decades of mass immigration and laxity on the part of national authorities.

However, the politicians of Konfederacja and the authors writing in Do Rzeczy are not copying the Russian narrative as does someone like Jacques Baud, a former Swiss strategic intelligence officer who is often invited to speak even in French media outlets that are far from marginal (such as Sud Radio or Valeurs Actuelles). And when the Russian narrative claims that the presence of NATO troops in the eastern flank countries (since 2016) violates the agreements between the Atlantic Organisation and Yeltsin’s Russia, the Poles keep in mind that by annexing Crimea and creating (or at least helping to create) pro-Russian “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine, then by intervening militarily to defend them against the advancing Ukrainian army in 2014, Russia itself violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by which Ukraine committed itself to hand over to Russia all of the post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in its possession and Russia committed itself in exchange always to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This memorandum alone, which had also been signed by the United States and the United Kingdom, justifies the support given since 2015 by these two countries to strengthen the Ukrainian army, since as parties to the Budapest Memorandum they are co-guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The idea, popular in the circles close to the German AfD or the French conservative right, that we are dealing with a struggle of conservative, Christian Holy Russia against a woke-LGBT West in full decadence and in full progressive drift, with increasingly totalitarian features, has not taken hold either in Poland, and this even in conservative circles where there is awareness about this drift and its dangers.

This has been a major thrust of the Kremlin’s narrative since the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, aimed at extending its influence, and is in line with Russia’s anti-Western tradition. This image created by the Kremlin has never prevented it, or its foreign media such as RT or Sputnik, from taking on a very pro-communist tone in their Spanish-language versions intended for Latin America. However, the Poles have other good reasons not to give credit to this narrative. First of all, many people in Poland know the Russian language and have been to Russia or know people who have been there, and because of this they are aware that, in contrast to Polish churches, Russian churches are mostly empty, as are those in Western Europe. Secondly, Polish conservatives, who are overwhelmingly pro-life, practising Christians, will systematically remind you of the abortion statistics in Russia which, although they have decreased under Vladimir Putin, remain very high (at about the same level as in France, as a proportion of the population, whereas France is – by far – the EU country with the highest number of abortions). Unlike Russia and Western European countries where abortion has become almost commonplace, Poland has strict abortion laws, allowing only abortions necessary to save the life or health of the pregnant woman or when her pregnancy is the result of rape. Moreover, Poles, who have seen what happened to the former members of the communist regime’s political police after the transition to democracy, find it difficult to believe in the sincerity of the Christian conversion displayed by the divorced former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, especially since he has said publicly how much he regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union. And when a Frenchman like François Martin, president of the HEC Geostrategies Club, explained on 5 December on Sud Radio that Russia has the family as a unit made up of a man, a woman, and children enshrined in its constitution, and that this is something that the West cannot accept, this statement is just laughable for Poles, whose constitution states clearly that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, as do the constitutions of many Central and Eastern European countries: Belarus, but also Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova, and even… Ukraine.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the editorial board.