Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, attacked the pre-WWII authorities of Poland, accusing them of plotting together with Adolf Hitler.
“Scoundrel, anti-Semitic swine, one cannot call him differently. He totally agreed with Hitler in his anti-Semitic attitude and, moreover, promised to erect him a monument in Warsaw for his atrocities against the Jewish people,” the Russian president said.
He also accused former Polish authorities of having planned to send Jews to Africa. “I was astonished about how Hitler and official representatives of Poland treated the ‘Jewish issue,’” Mr Putin said.
Earlier in December, the Russian President denied Soviet responsibility for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which carved up the territory of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states and Romania between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union just days before the outbreak of WWII.
President Putin instead accused Poland and the Western powers of colluding with Adolf Hitler by signing agreements with Nazi Germany, most notably the Treaty of Munich in which Great Britain, France, and Italy allowed Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia, and Poland to take a small part of its territory, Zaolzie, which had been a bone of contention between the two states. The agreement was to prevent further territorial demands of the Third Reich but failed to do so.
This is not accidental. It is obviously calculated to realise several objectives. The attack is very much part and parcel of Mr Putin’s foreign policy, the goal of which is the rebuilding of Russian domination in the region of Eastern and Central Europe.
First of all, it is about Russian nationalism and defending the Russian narrative about WWII. That narrative of the victorious war against Nazism does not sit well with the fact that in 1939 Soviet Russia was allied with Hitler’s Germany via the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact which carved up territories between the USSR and Nazi Germany.
Vladimir Putin's attack on Poland comes in the aftermath of a resolution in the European Parliament which blamed the USSR and Nazi Germany for starting the Second World War. For the Russian president, equating the two was " the height of cynicism", and he has now deflected the criticism onto Poland. This is an attempt to push back on the accusation of carving up Poland in 1939 and a repetition of Soviet propaganda that the action was merely for the protection of civilian population and a tactical move to slow Hitler down in his conquest of Europe, so that the USSR could prepare for the inevitable war with Germany.
The attack may also be part of an offensive intended for domestic consumption to offset domestic problems. It would not be the first time Mr Putin has used the conflict with neighbouring states to build unity back at home.
But the more important reason is to hurt Poland. To portray it as an anti-semitic country that was working with Hilter and therefore co-responsible for the Holocaust. This will be useful in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and beyond.
Attacking Poland, Central Europe’s biggest and strongest state, as well as the major ally of the USA in the region, is meant to sow discord in the EU too. It is designed as an answer to President Macron’s doubts about the region and his expressed wish for the redesign of the security framework in Europe. Vladimir Putin is pointing the finger at Poland and saying “they are a problem and a barrier because they are anti-Russian and are falsifying their history too.”
Another objective which Mr Putin wants to realize is to stir up trouble between Poland and Israel. The goal here is to get Israel to be on Russia’s side in lobbying against Poland in the USA so that the Polish-US alliance is weakened by American decision-makers being reluctant to ally themselves with a country which Israel and American Jews see as Hitler’s ally.
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The Russian President is angry with Poland about the present too. He resents hugely Poland’s active support for Ukraine as well as its vocal opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic sea. He sees Poland as a barrier to improving relations with Germany, France and the USA.
Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he wants something like the USSR back and run by Russia. Poland is a barrier to that, as is the presence of NATO in the region. He wants NATO pushed back, ideally out of not only Central but also Western Europe and Russia to regain control of the former territory of the USSR and influence over Central Europe and the Balkans.
Poland has no chance but to react with its own narrative. More importantly, it has a right to demand solidarity from Washington, Berlin, Paris and Brussels on the matter. But that reaction needs to be firm but measured, as the Russian President is engaging in an act of clear provocation. There is a need to heed the lessons of the defamation law debate and not to overreact only then to be forced into a retreat, as Poland was over the penalisation of any linking of Poland with the Holocaust.