Kremlin disinformation mill targets Poland

After World War II commemoration snub, the Kremlin doubled down on false narratives

(Sources: The Warsaw Institute/archive, left; @czarnyz/archive via Twitter, right)

In September, Poland marked the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War II. To the Kremlin’s ire, Russian representatives were not among the over 200 officials from 40 countries invited to attend the commemoration. Russia reacted to this deliberate snub of Putin by lashing out in a harsh disinformation campaign targeting Poland.

Warsaw defended its decision to exclude Russia by noting that Russia was not interested in maintaining the “spirit of historical truth,” referring to Moscow’s attempt to justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, otherwise known as the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The Cabinet of the Polish President further clarified that Russia did not receive an invitation because of its continued willingness to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries.

Instead of acknowledging the Soviet Union’s aggression and starting the reconciliation process with the former victims of the regime, Moscow has justified Joseph Stalin’s alliance with Adolf Hitler against Poland. The DFRLab identified at least four anti-Polish narratives disseminated by a wide range of Russian actors, including Kremlin-owned media outlets, anti-Western politicians, and Russia’s diplomatic missions abroad.

Narrative: Poland provoked World War II

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of World War II on September 1, the Kremlin-owned media and anti-Western politicians continued to blame Poland for starting the war. Members of Russian Federal Assembly pushed false anti-Polish narratives that claimed Poland had provoked Germany to start World War II. In doing so, these Russian politicians attempted to characterize Poland as the villain of the war, rather than as the victim of German-Soviet aggression.

Members of Russia’s Federal Assembly accused Poland of starting World War II. (Source: Rambler/archive (quote), Rucompromat/archive (photo), top; Federal News Agency/archive (quote), Ruspekh.ru/archive (photo), center; @Zhirinovskylive/archive via Telegram (quote), The State Duma/archive (photo), bottom)

Kremlin-owned TV channels have also dutifully nurtured anti-Polish narratives as well. The Rossiya 1 channel asserted that, although Poland calls itself the key victim of World War II, “it was the predator who started the war but miscalculated.” In a separate program, a TV host claimed that Poland declared Soviet Russia as its main enemy and decided to destroy it and other occupied Russian territories.

Russia’s main propagandist TV anchors Dmitry Kiselyov (left) and Vladimir Sovolyev (right) accused Poland of starting World War II and occupying Russian territories. (Source: Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group/archive via Facebook, left; Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group/archive via Facebook, right)

The DFRLab ran a Sysomos search of the keywords “Польша” (“Poland”) and “cпровоцировала” (“provoked”) from September 1 (the anniversary of the official date for the start of World War II) to September 3, 2019. During this period, the keywords appeared in 1,377 posts on various social media platforms.

Mentions of the keywords “Польша” (“Poland”) together with “cпровоцировала” (“provoked”) in Russian during the period from September 1–3, 2019. (Source: @GGigitashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Narrative: Commemoration of the 80th anniversary of World War II was anti-Russian

After Poland failed to invite Russia to the commemoration, Moscow accused Warsaw of falsifying history and organizing a conspicuously anti-Russian event. Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed Poland’s explanation as to why Russia was not invited and claimed that, in reality, it was NATO that was behind Poland’s decision. The Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, proclaimed that Polish leadership insulted the memory of more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Poland. State Duma member Alexei Pushkov argued that Polish authorities used the commemoration as yet another occasion to attack Russia, while they could have used it as an opportunity to bring together all the countries that were a part of World War II. For the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the snub was equal to a systematic falsification of the history of the war and a sign of the Polish government’s “warped mentality.”

Narrative: Donald Trump and European leaders do not regard Poland as a significant partner

Pro-Kremlin media outlets and politicians have primarily built their anti-Polish statements on the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled his trip to Poland reportedly to deal with Hurricane Dorian as it approached the east coast of the United States.

Sputnik Tajikistan suggested that Trump’s absence put Poland in a “stupid position,” as the entire ceremony had been moved to from the city of Gdansk to Warsaw just to accommodate President Trump. Ria Novosti linked Trump’s absence and non-invitation of Putin to each other, claiming that Trump, who previously advocated for Russia’s return to the G7 Summit, simply abstained from participating in the anti-Russian event in Poland.

Likewise, anti-Western outlet Vobjektive.ru claimed that Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not attend the commemoration in Poland because Russia was not invited to the ceremony. In boycotting the event, these heads of state showed Poland its modest position within the “concert of the Western powers.” Other outlets suggested that the low turnout among top European officials was evidence that Europe had grown tired of Poland’s attempts to portray itself as an “endless victim,” as well as a sign of underlying tension among Western allies. Another commentator suggested that Western leaders did not visit Warsaw because Poland had invited nations from Hitler’s coalition, which had fought against the United States and the United Kingdom.

Headlines in Russian media outlets claimed that Donald Trump does not appreciate Poland. (Sources: Xoroshiy/archive, top left; Novosti 24/archive top right; Kommerant/archive, middle left; Regnum/archive, middle right; Sputnik/archive, bottom left; Ria Novosti/archive, bottom right)

Narrative: Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was urgent and forced decision; the Soviet Union did not invade Poland, as there was no Poland then

The DFRLab previously reported on the use of official Twitter accounts by Russian diplomatic missions to present false narratives concerning World War II. Some of these tweets concerned Poland.

On August 28, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted an animated video on its Twitter account that claimed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany on August 23, 1939, to divide Poland into “spheres of influence” — was “an urgent and extremely difficult decision for the USSR.”

The narrator of the video explained that there were obvious signs before the outbreak of the war that Germany would attack Poland but that

…the Polish government was reluctant to let Soviet troops through its territory to fight the German units. The hatred in Warsaw’s ruling elite for the Soviet Union, their anti-Semitism, and dalliance with the Nazis all affected their judgment […] By mid-August of 1939, negotiations had finally reached an impasse. The Soviet Union had to urgently deal with its own security issues and prepare to ward off an attack in the west at a time when Japan remained a threat on its eastern borders. The country faced the prospect of waging a two-front war without allies. Under these circumstances, the Soviet government was looking to buy some time to prepare for the inevitable war. The Kremlin decided to accept Germany’s proposal to start political negotiations. The Non-Aggression Pact, as well as the accompanying Secret Protocol which delimited spheres of influence, yielded certain strategic benefits for the Soviet Union such as additional time to mobilize forces and move Soviet borders westward. However, Moscow had no illusions about Hitler’s hatred for Communism and that he would strike sooner or later.

According to the video, the Soviet Union was effectively forced into signing the pact with Nazi Germany.

This line of reasoning serves one purpose: to whitewash the Soviet Union’s history and justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Furthermore, on September 17, the Russian Embassy in South Africa wrote in a tweet that the Soviet Union did not invade Poland, but rather “entered Polish territories” after the Polish government fled the country, its forces defeated following the Nazi offensive of September 1, 1939.

These claims contradicted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements from a decade ago, in which he admitted that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was “from a moral point of view unacceptable and from a practical point of view pointless, harmful, and dangerous.”

Nowadays, Russia insists on denying that the decision to attack Poland was a deliberate and coordinated one with Nazi Germany under the “secret additional protocol” of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, executed in violation of a 1932 Soviet-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. Before the war, Polish state borders were recognised internationally, including by the Soviet Union.

The Russian Embassy in the United States claimed that Poland no longer existed when the Soviet Union invaded its territory on September 17, 1939, because Germany’s earlier invasion had put an end to its statehood.

The Russian Embassy’s claim was false. The Polish government was still in place, and the Polish army was still fighting against foreign enemies in Warsaw, when the Soviet Army invaded. Furthermore, the Polish government never signed a formal capitulation; Polish officials instead fled the country and continued to operate as the Government of Poland while in exile.

Conclusion

The current leadership of the Russian Federation still denies the role of the Soviet Union in the dismemberment of Poland and division of Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. Furthermore, the Kremlin accuses Poland of starting World War II, justifying its invasion of the country with an urgent need to ensure own security. Russian propaganda sources characterize Poland as an imperialist country, despite it having been subject to Soviet Russia’s oppression for almost half a century. Meanwhile, they exalt the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as an achievement of Soviet diplomacy.

All of these narratives represent a dangerous attempt to rewrite history by whitewashing the Soviet Union’s role in World War II and falsely portraying Poland as the villain.


Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.

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