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The invasion of Russia and the Polish cause

Russian Free Legion, 24 May 2023 (Source: armyinform.com.ua / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en)

The possible participation of Polish volunteers in raids on the Belgorod region is not in the interest of either Kiev, Warsaw or the West. Propaganda-wise, it serves Moscow the most. Who are the modern-day Death Hussars, who are believed to have taken part in the Russian aggression against Russia?

Maciej Pieczyński

At the end of May, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), together with the “Freedom of Russia” Legion, entered the Belgorod region. After two days of fighting, Kiev’s Russian allies retreated into Ukraine, but managed to discredit Putin once again, exposing the weakness of the empire and proving that Russia’s border is hollow. On the night between May 31st – June 1st, pro-Ukrainian Russians probably broke into Russia again. They clashed with Russian troops near the border town of Shebekino. According to Moscow’s version, this attack was resisted and the saboteurs did not even manage to cross the border.

Two days later, the “Freedom of Russia” Legion offered residents of the Belgorod region to help them evacuate to Ukraine. The volunteers convinced their compatriots that they were in danger from…Putin’s troops, who, clumsily trying to deal with the saboteurs, incidentally fired on their own citizens. In turn, Kremlin propaganda argued that Ukrainians were responsible for the shelling of civilian objects near the border. Or, more specifically, Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance groups. Moscow avoids as much as possible admitting that the aggressors are citizens of the Russian Federation (another matter is that they are indeed subordinate to the Ukrainian command).

Meanwhile, on June 4th, the Polish Volunteer Corps announced on its Telegram: “Everyone is asking us one question, whether we took part in the operation on the territory of the Belgorod region. The answer is unequivocal – of course we did.” Volunteers from Poland were to participate in operations on the Russian side of the border alongside the RDK. They are united, as you could read in the quoted entry, “not only by the ties of brotherhood of arms, but also by personal friendship and camaraderie.” The RDK is a unit of Russian volunteers with the goal of overthrowing Putin and replacing imperial ideology in Russia with nationalism, allowing for the existence of separate, independent nation-states – Ukraine and Russia. The corps positions itself as a right-wing conservative force, while its symbolism draws on the tradition of the “White Idea” organization, which brought together anti-Bolshevik, “white” Russian émigrés in the 1930s. Some of the soldiers wear the chevrons of Vlasov’s army.

DID THEY FIGHT OR NOT?

The Polish volunteers further boasted that they were the first to reach their destination, along with one of the RDC’s fighting groups. They specified that the first assault group of the Corps took part in the action. “Everyone returned from the mission safe and sound. The assigned task was carried out successfully,” they reported. They attached evidence in the form of photos and videos to the statement. They gained popularity and recognition on the Ukrainian Internet. Among others, Ihor Lachenkov posted them on his Telegram account. “The Polish Volunteer Corps comes to the defense of the Polish-speaking population of the BRL.” – the Ukrainian volunteer and blogger marked his post with such a comment. This is a satirical reference to Kremlin propaganda, which explains imperial conquests by the need to defend the Russian minority. BRL stands for Belgorod People’s Republic, which has already become a permanent part of the canon of wartime humor, as a humorous reference to the separatist Donbass, where the invaders also pretended to be liberators.

Burning vehicle on a road from Kharkiv to Kyiv, February 2022 (Source: Public Domain/Voice of America/Yan Boechat)

In one video, Polish volunteers are posing with a Russian post office sign bearing the state emblem. The faces are blurred, but a soldier can be heard joking in Polish: “Honey, I wanted to tell you that I received a package from the new post office. F***, you sent it far, I had to quite a f******* distance to get it.” Shots and explosions can be heard in the background.

Not a day passed, and both the statement and the recordings and photos disappeared from the corps’ account on Telegram. However, the Russian comrades-in-arms of the Polish volunteers spoke out. They admitted that the Poles were fighting side by side with them for the freedom and independence of Ukraine. “The guys helped us a lot and demonstrated a high level of motivation and preparation. When it comes to military operations on the territory of the Russian Federation, the PDK fighters [an acronym for Polskij Dobrowolczeskij Korpus, or Polish Volunteer Corps in Russian – Ed.] provided a convoy of prisoners of war, military and medical logistics, but only within the national borders of Ukraine.” – the Russian Volunteer Corps stated, thereby contradicting the statement previously given by Polish colleagues. At the same time, the RDK expressed gratitude to the PKO for “their invaluable contribution to the common cause.” It also assured, “We always include them in the planning [of operations] and share our gains with them.” “The soldiers of the RDK are sincerely grateful to the people of Poland for their brave warriors fighting this war!” – with these words the statement ends. Warsaw also officially disassociated itself from the Vistula River volunteers. “The Polish Volunteer Corps described in the media is in no way affiliated with the Polish Armed Forces or any institution of the Republic of Poland. The actions of Polish volunteers supporting Ukraine in the fight against Russia should not be equated with the authorities of the Republic of Poland.” – Stanislaw Żaryn, secretary of state at the Chancellery, government plenipotentiary for the security of Poland’s information space, wrote on Twitter.

As could be predicted, Russian propaganda took advantage of the situation to hit Warsaw. Marina Piervukhina of Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper wrote that since there is anti-Russian hysteria in Poland and Warsaw is constantly sending weapons to Ukraine, Żaryn’s démenti smacks of hypocrisy. At the same time, she did not directly accuse the Polish authorities of directing the corps. Instead, she stated that if it were not for Warsaw’s policy, “the number of abnormal people ready to fertilize the South Russian black soil with their bodies for Ukraine would be much smaller.” On May 28th, i.e. between the first (actually confirmed by both sides of the conflict) and the second (according to Moscow, already stifled at the border) Belgorod raid, the region’s governor described to Telegram the story of a female resident of the region, allegedly wounded during the border fighting. Her husband, a member of the local self-defense, was allegedly killed before her eyes by saboteurs. Among them, the woman recognized two Ukrainians, while the others, according to her, were Poles and Americans.

POLES AT WAR

The fact that Polish volunteers were fighting in Ukraine was known practically from the first months of the war. At first, they were mainly part of the International Legion for Territorial Defense. After a while, independent national volunteer units began to form. Troops composed of citizens of post-Soviet states (Georgians, Belarusians) or Russian citizens (ethnic Russians, Chechens) played a special propaganda role, as they became a tool to pressure the aggressor from within. They enabled an attempt to rip the Russian world or Russia itself apart at the national seams.

The Polish Volunteer Corps was established in mid-February 2023. The identities of the commanders have not been disclosed. The corps reports directly to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, with which its soldiers sign contracts. It was formed in close cooperation with the RDK, which was an organizational model for the Poles. The unit was formed as a special unit, designed mainly to perform diversionary and reconnaissance tasks. Polish veterans of the International Legion and volunteers coming directly from Poland, including former soldiers, enlisted in its ranks. The conditions for admission to the unit were military training and the absence of alcohol or drug problems. On June 4th, the corps command announced the end of recruitment.

Officially, the unit uses a Russian and Ukrainian abbreviation of its name (PDK – Polskij Dobrowolczeskij Korpus in Russian and Polśkyj Dobrowolczyj Korpus in Ukrainian). In PR terms, this does not sound the most favorable. PDK can be associated with the Russian word piedik and the Ukrainian word pedyk, meaning faggot. It is a popular slur among both Ukrainians and Russians. In turn, this opens the field for unfunny jokes about volunteers. The emblem of the PKO (or PDK) is a human skull with two crossed swords against a background of a cross that only incidentally resembles an iron cross. In fact, it is an almost exact copy of the emblem of the Death Hussars. This was the name of the Polish Volunteer Cavalry Squadron, formed in 1920 to fight the Bolsheviks. The corps explicitly declared that it refers to this very tradition. The commander of the Death Hussars, Józef Siła-Nowicki, became the patron saint of today’s volunteers. His squadron became famous for not suffering a single defeat on its combat route during the Polish-Bolshevik war.

The Corps does not take a stand on political or ideological issues. It remains in the media shadows. It does not describe its combat exploits as often as its Russian comrades-in-arms. It is known that individual subdivisions of the corps fought at Bakhmut or in the Zaporizhia region. Of course, it is impossible to conclusively determine whether the unit actually entered the Belgorod region or merely assisted Russian anti-Putin saboteurs while remaining on the Ukrainian side of the border. Published (and subsequently deleted) videos and photos make the first option quite likely. It is hard to imagine Polish volunteers bragging about something they did not accomplish. In that case, they would have to know that their Russian colleagues, present at the scene, would negate this false version.

This is what ultimately happened, but most likely not because the Poles in Russia were not there. More convincing is the version according to which the PKO’s participation in the raid was planned, but in doing so it was either made public against prior arrangements, or such arrangements were not made by the corps commands among themselves, while the Ukrainian or Polish authorities or the West reacted, expecting the matter to be hushed up. For in reality, the overt entry of Polish troops (no matter whether volunteer or regular) into Russia could only please Putin. In turn, it could have hurt all his opponents.

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu at Navy Parade. Saint Petersburg, 30 July 2017 (Source: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

The propaganda purpose of the Belgorod raid was to create, at least at the narrative level, an internal front in Russia. To convince Russians that not only the West and Ukraine, but also many of their compatriots are fed up with Putin. And if so, it is possible to join them and fight for a different Russia. This, of course, is a drop that drills the rock and is unlikely to ever hollow it out, but it can at least chip it a bit. This is certainly what Kiev is aiming for. That’s why it keeps useful vlasovists under its command. That’s why the Kremlin has avoided like hell admitting that the saboteurs are Russian citizens. In turn, a possibly proven attack on Russia by Ukrainian soldiers would draw the ire of the West, which generally prefers Ukraine to defend itself only on its own territory. For Moscow, it would be troublesome in terms of image (the “failed state” of Ukraine walks into the great Russia on its territory like butter), but acceptable. After all, Kremlin propaganda has already accustomed its audience to the idea that the Ukrainians, despised at the start of the war, are extremely dangerous – after all, the entire power of NATO is behind them.

The most advantageous thing for the Kremlin would be a proven (not made up, but really detected), widespread attack by Polish and/or Western saboteurs (the more of them, the better). First, Russian propaganda would gain confirmation of its thesis that it was not Russia that invaded Ukraine, but the powerful West against Russia. Second, such an attack would help turn the spec-op into another Patriotic War. If Russians believed that they were threatened by another (as under Napoleon or Hitler) invasion by the West, they would be much more willing to support their country’s war effort. As has happened so many times in history, the specter of an “external threat” would have led to patriotic intensification and strengthened the Kremlin’s position.

SILENCED IN TIME

This would be a real drama for Poland – a frontline state and one that is traditionally the most involved in containing Russian imperialism. In the event of an open, and no longer hybrid, West-Russia conflict, we would suffer the most. Another, perhaps even worse, option is also possible. Particularly likely if the responsibility for the Russian invasion fell not on the West in general, but on Poland specifically and exclusively. As is well known, there are different opinions within NATO and the EU about the scale (and even the sense) of containing Moscow. Warsaw’s irresponsible actions (if Russia had managed to attribute them to official authorities or if official authorities had firmed these actions) would probably have caused controversy and sharp disagreements with Western partners fearful of escalation. And they would give an argument to the proponents of one or another agreement with Russia. An agreement, the victim of which, inevitably, in addition to Ukraine, would also have to be a defiant and overly radical Poland.

Therefore, it is in Poland’s well-understood interest to fight Russia, but within Ukraine, not Russia. It is fortunate that the adventure-hungry volunteers were silenced in time.

This article was published in June 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.