Explainer: The Kremlin's "Polish invasion" narrative
Over the past two weeks there has been a substantial build-up in statements from Russian government officials, Russian state media coverage and pro-Russian social media channels promoting the narrative of an impending Polish invasion of western Ukraine.
The details of the narrative remain somewhat fuzzy. Different versions appear to be being trialled but most centre on the idea that Poland, in cahoots with the US and other NATO allies, will seek to insert troops into western Ukraine under the guise of peacekeepers or humanitarian action.
The true goal, according to the Russian narrative, will be the Polish annexation of regions of western Ukraine including Lviv and Volhynia. Military exercises currently underway in Poland are pointed to as evidence that the invasion is impending.
Many narratives and rumours spread by Russian propaganda are floated as ‘trial balloons’, which may ultimately come to nothing and have little material impact on the progress of the war. However, there are reasons to believe this narrative is of particular concern.
Firstly, it has gone beyond the ‘trial balloon’ stage. On April 29th the chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service publicly asserted that Russia had evidence that Poland and the US were colluding to carve up Ukraine.
"According to the intelligence received by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, Washington and Warsaw are working on plans to establish Poland's tight military and political control over its historical possessions in Ukraine,” Naryshkin said according to Reuters reporting.
For Naryshkin to make a public statement such as this is rare and highly significant. It reflects that this is a narrative which Russian intelligence wishes to promote overtly in both domestic and international spheres.
His comments echo earlier statements from high-ranking Russian officials and members of the Russian government, most prominently Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In late March in an article for the Polish branch of Russian media outlet Sputnik, Medvedev wrote that "the territory of Ukraine looks very tasty for Warsaw” and claimed that Polish actions were turning their country into NATO’s front line.
In the first week of May chatter about a supposed Polish plot to invade western Ukraine has been widespread across pro-Russian Telegram channels and on Russian state media, with narratives and speculation flowing back and forth between the two.
Kiva claimed that:
"The formation of Ukraine's western defense line has begun. It has been decided that weapons and ammunition, which are supplied from Europe, will remain in the western regions of the country. This is the first stage before secession and the creation of a "pro-Western Ukraine" with its capital in Lviv. With subsequent accession, through a referendum, to Poland."
In another striking example, on May 3rd the Russian government-linked Telegram channel ‘War on Fakes’ posted a “fact-check” of the Polish government’s efforts to deny any plans to invade Ukraine, citing a screenshot of an alleged Polish government document as proof that Poland is planning military action in western Ukraine. Both the “fact-check” and alleged document have since been widely shared by pro-Russian social media channels.
On May 6th, comments by the Polish President were widely shared on pro-Russian and Russian state media Telegram channels, and distorted to imply that Duda was “calling for an occupation” of Ukraine.
Justifications for why Poland would want to invade Ukraine vary slightly between different versions of the narrative. The most common claim appears to be that Poland is seeking to recover its historic territory, and that there has been a secret agreement struck between Warsaw and Washington.
Another version of the narrative promoted by the pro-Russian Telegram channel ‘Warsaw Mermaid’ (named after the symbol of Warsaw) claims that Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party is planning to hold early elections (Poland’s next election isn’t due until late 2023) and is seeking to shore up the support of voters.
"For complete success, the functionaries of the Law and Justice Party lack only a small victorious war, so the division of Ukraine is becoming more and more tangible. The triumphant return of at least part of [western Ukrainian] territories will make it possible to forget about internal problems for some time,” the channel claimed on May 5th.
In many ways the specific details of the narrative don’t matter. What matters is the rising drumbeat of antagonism towards Poland, emanating from increasingly official Russian government sources, in the lead-up to Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on May 9th. The obvious question is why and what for.
Since the beginning of Russia’s expanded war in Ukraine in February, it has been widely anticipated that Russian President Vladimir Putin would seek to make some sort of significant announcement Victory Day. There has been real concern that Putin might use the symbolic occasion to formally declare war on Ukraine. Official Kremlin sources have denied the speculation, but given that they also denied any intention to invade Ukraine almost up until the first missiles hit, it is hard to take them at their word.
Whether on May 9th or at some other point in time, it is possible that building a narrative about an invasion by aggressive, expansionist Poland, backed by the conniving West, could provide Russian authorities with a pretext for a formal declaration of war to ‘protect’ the people of Western Ukraine.
This would align with Russia’s previous hollow claims to be ‘protecting Russian speakers’ in its covert invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 and expanded ‘special military operation’ to protect the people of Ukraine from Nazis or US biolabs in 2022.
It is not clear at this stage whether Russian authorities will go down this path. However, the fact that they are serious enough about this narrative for Sergei Naryshkin to personally and publicly promote it is a strong sign that the West needs to be paying close attention.