Russia uses disinformation as a foreign policy tool, and its military actions in Ukraine are supported by disinformation operations. Poland, as one of Ukraine’s main allies, is an important country against which the Kremlin uses disinformation. Russia’s goals are: 1) to weaken Polish-Ukrainian relations by creating antagonism between the two nations; 2) to reduce Poles’ support for further military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and 3) to undermine international position of Poland by attributing it to pursuing a provocative policy toward Moscow and seeking to draw NATO into the war with Russia. Russian disinformation covers different topics and is often based on emotions, and with its help, Russia also tries to create chaos and panic in Polish society. Disinformation is a readily available weapon with low cost and long reach, and due to the development of new technologies and new methods of deception, it can be increasingly effective, which makes it a growing threat. In this policy brief authors analyze how Russian disinformation spreads in Poland and which narratives are the most popular.
This report was prepared within the Kremlin Watchers Movement project. VoxCheck team adapted the text for its readers. Read the adaptation of the previous policy brief from the Kremlin Watchers Movement team here.
Kremlin Watchers Movement is a project which is running for almost 3 years now within the effort to fight Russian malign influence and disinformation in Europe. Gathered authors, junior analysts are producing content about Russian malign influence and disinformation on social media, informing not only expert society but also wide population about latest events in this field.
According to the Strategic Communications Division of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Russia remains the main actor responsible for foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI), which it conducts in 30 languages (including 16 belonging to EU member states). Between October and December 2022 Russia was responsible for 88% of all FIMI incidents detected and analyzed by the EEAS. As many as 60% of them were intended to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while 33% were directed against the Ukrainian government. In 35% of the cases, the Kremlin tried to distort the picture of the war in Ukraine by imposing its own interpretation of events, and in 42% of the cases, it tried to direct the attention of the public to NATO member states by attributing responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict to them. In addition to using the disinformation-propaganda apparatus, Russia is using the technique of impersonating in its influence operations in an increasingly sophisticated way, e.g. impersonate international organizations, media outlets and people who enjoy widespread trust. The technique of image and video forgery is also growing in importance, as exemplified by the deep fake with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi allegedly ‘calling on Ukrainians to surrender’. Russian disinformation operations are supported by China, but the extent of this cooperation is relatively limited, only 5% of the cases analyzed
Triggering ethnic tensions between Poles and Ukrainians
One of the main goals of Russian disinformation targeting Poland is to trigger ethnic tensions between Poles and Ukrainians. To this end, various narratives are used to cause conflicts between the two nations. When full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine began in February 2022, the Russians launched a disinformation campaign targeting refugees. False information began to appear on social media claiming that serious criminal crimes, such as burglaries, assaults and rapes, were allegedly being committed by Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl and border counties. In the following weeks Russia tried to stoke resentment toward Ukrainians by spreading narratives that Ukrainian refugees in Poland receive “everything for free”. Russian propagandists also used the May 2022 murder in Warsaw to create a negative image of Ukrainians in Poland, spreading false information that it was carried out by Ukrainians. At the same time, various manipulated videos were shared on social media purporting to show further alleged acts of violence by Ukrainians against Poles.
Another important disinformation narrative spread by Russia since the beginning of the war implies that Poland plans to occupy western Ukraine. According to it, the Polish government has declared plans to annex Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Volyn and the Rivne region to Poland. At the same time, these narratives seek to show that Russia is the real guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its current borders. Disinformation about Poland’s plans to seize part of Ukraine is intended, on the one hand, to undermine Ukrainians’ trust in Poland, but also to justify Russia’s actions by showing it as the only state that will guarantee Ukraine’s independence.
Disinformation targeting Polish-Ukrainian relations has been created by Russia since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and supported separatists in Donbas. Poland is one of Ukraine’s key allies and has long supported its European aspirations, backing its membership in the EU and NATO. For this reason, Russia is keen to weaken relations between the two countries and create antagonism between the two nations. After 2014, Russian propaganda centers tried to create a negative image of Ukraine in Poland, portraying it as a fascist state. Narratives of mutual territorial claims, i.e., the so-called “Polish Lviv” or “Ukrainian Przemyśl”, often appeared. The perception of Ukrainians among Poles was also influenced by narratives about harmful labor immigration from Ukraine, which is supposed to take jobs away from Poles.
Stoking an atmosphere of panic and fear
After the invasion began, Russian propagandists began spreading information in Poland aimed at creating panic and fear in Polish society, mostly through social media. They informed, for instance, that Poland would run out of fuel, which contributed to huge traffic jams at gas stations. These were not caused solely by Russian disinformation, as people tend to react this way in crisis situations, but Russian propaganda may have reinforced their beliefs. Similarly, there were warnings that ATMs would run out of money. Disinformation on this subject is especially dangerous because it can push people to run to the banks and take out money en masse. If a lot of people want to take money out of the bank at one time, the reserves held by the bank will not be enough, which could shake the stability of the financial system. At the end of February 2022 in Poland, there were indeed a lot of people rushing to ATMs, and because of this there were delays in providing money in some places. However, banks were prepared for this, as there was a similar situation after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russian propagandists also spread false information that food and other basic products would be taken away in Poland, and some people shopped for supplies, leading to empty shelves in some stores. Disinformation regarding the above topics was spread by many social media accounts, which published posts and weaved these issues into discussions with other Internet users, particularly on Twitter and Facebook.
A significant event used to create an atmosphere of fear in Polish society was the incident in Przewodów, when two Russian-made missiles hit Polish territory near the border with Ukraine. In connection with the incident in Przewodów, the Russians spread various false information, such as:
- Ukraine is a threat to Poland,
- Ukraine wants to drag Poland and NATO into the war,
- The West seeks to provoke World War III,
- The missile incident is a provocation by the West to escalate the conflict.
The Russians are using such narratives to try to create chaos and panic among the Polish public, and to undermine Poland’s support for providing aid to Ukraine.
Weakening Poland’s position in the international arena
Russian disinformation also seeks to weaken Poland’s position in the international arena. To this end, Poland is portrayed in Russian messages as a puppet state, totally dependent on the US. After the damage of the Nord Stream I and Nord Stream II pipelines, Russia regularly spreads false information on this subject. Some of it assumes that Poles are responsible for the damage of the pipelines, having done it on the orders of the US. Russian propagandists have also tried to devalue the recent visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to Warsaw and Kyiv, by showing that in fact it is of no significance and Russia is on the right track to achieve its goals. Narratives were also created about an alleged crisis in Polish-American relations, which was supposedly evidenced by the fact that Joe Biden went to Kyiv first and only then to Warsaw. In fact, the choice of Poland to visit this part of Europe on the anniversary of the Russian invasion underlined Poland’s importance in helping Ukraine. The U.S. president’s second visit to Poland in a year demonstrates the maintenance of the highest intensity in bilateral relations in years.
Disinformation about Polish participation in the war
A key element of the Russian disinformation targeting Poland is the narrative about Polish participation in the war against Russia. One of them assumes that Polish special services are involved in the war in Ukraine, and that a team of Polish officers was supposed to appear in the town of Marhanets in the Dnipropetrovsk region to expel and repress pro-Russian residents of the town. According to the narrative of Russian propagandists, the officers were to be dressed in Ukrainian uniforms and operate under NATO command, cooperating with the Security Service of Ukraine. The baseless accusations brought against Poland and NATO are designed to portray the Russian-Ukrainian war as a confrontation with a “Russophobic” NATO, and the actions of Poland and the Alliance as aggressive toward Russia. While claiming that NATO is directly involved in the war in Ukraine, Russia seeks to justify its actions by suggesting that they are defensive in nature. Russian propaganda centers have also spread reports about the alleged participation of Polish mercenaries in the war, suggesting that some 1,200 of them were killed. This message is based on the fact that the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine is taking part in the war in Ukraine, with more than 20,000 foreign volunteers, including Poles. Importantly, the volunteers volunteer to serve in it voluntarily, according to a special procedure, and their motivation is not financial, so they should not be classified as mercenaries
Countering Russian disinformation in Poland
As of 2014 Poland is one of the key targets of Russian disinformation efforts. In 2015-2019, a total of 28 foreigners were expelled by the Polish Internal Security Agency (ABW) for hybrid activities against Polish national interests. In the years that followed, 45 Russian ‘diplomats” has been expelled and dozens of people linked to Russian or Belarusian intelligence services (often using journalist cover) involved in gathering information and spreading disinformation in Poland were declared persona non grata. The leading role in combating Russian disinformation in Polish national security system is played by the Spokesperson for the Minister of the Coordinator of Special Services, which reports on activities undertaken by Polish intelligence and counterintelligence services. A special government website publishes analyses of disinformation campaigns targeting Poland. Supporting role plays Government Security Center (RCB) informing citizens through social media about identified narrative lines promoted by Russia in the Polish information space, and computer science institute NASK conducting project #WłączWeryfikację debunking fake news. Some ministries (e.g., ministry of foreign affairs) have established special departments responsible for strategic communications. However, there is no overarching institution with the authority to coordinate the activities of the entire state administration in the early detection and counteraction of foreign disinformation operations. There is also a lack of greater cooperation between the state and analytical institutions, academia and the non-governmental sector (NGOs).
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Polish government has taken a number of measures aimed at reducing the harmful impact of Russian disinformation. As early as February 24, 2022, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) adopted a resolution to remove Russian propaganda channels such as RT (Russia Today), RT Documentary, RTR Planeta, Soyuz TV, Russiya 24 from the register of television broadcasts. In practice, this made it impossible for Russia to distribute manipulated image of the war in Ukraine via the aforementioned programs on cable networks, satellites and internet platforms. The basis for the decision was a provision in the Broadcasting Law (1992) giving the KRRiT the right to strike a program from the register if, within a 12-month period, it had at least twice posted content that promoted actions that were contrary to the Polish law or raison d’état, and attitudes and views contrary to morality and social good, and which, among other things, posted content inciting to commit a terrorist crime or threatening the security and defense of the state.
Following Poland’s decision, the European Union (EU) in early March 2022 decided to impose sanctions on RT and Sputnik, and leading Kremlin propagandists. In June, sanctions were extended to further Russian television programs (Rossiya RTR/RTR Planeta, Rossiya 24/Russia 24, TV Center International), which may not be distributed throughout the EU by cable, IPTV, satellite, via the internet or mobile applications.
Meanwhile, the KRRiT expanded the scope of the sanctions to Belarusian state television program, while the Polish Internal Security Agency (ABW) has already gone a step further and blocked access to more than a dozen Russian propaganda channels (e.g. Lenta, RIA, Sputnik, Ruptly) and pro-Russian media outlets in Poland (e.g. Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny, Myśl Polska, Wici Polskie, Wolne Media, wRealu24, Xportal) spreading Russian disinformation. The decision was made on the basis of Article 180(1) of the Telecommunications Law (2004), which clearly states that a telecommunications entrepreneur is obliged to immediately block telecommunications connections or information transmissions, at the request of authorized entities, if such connections may threaten defense, state security and public safety and order, or to enable such blocking by these entities.
In addition, Google Poland has decided to block access to YouTube channels belonging to RT (4.7 million subscribers) and Sputnik (317,000 subscribers). The blockade was not meant to remove the channels from the service altogether. Its territorial scope is limited to Poland, however, by which means it is territorial in scope and valid only in Poland, Google also decided to demonetize content published by RT and Sputnik, i.e. prevent them from receiving funds from advertising on online platforms. Restricting the ability to spread disinformation online led Russian propaganda machine to redirect its harmful involvement to the Telegram app, which popularity raised from 35 mln (2014) to over 700 mln (2023) downloads across the globe (over 40 mln in Poland).
The impact of Russian disinformation regarding war in Ukraine on Polish society
Despite measures taken by Polish authorities to limit the impact of Russian disinformation on society, the Kremlin’s information manipulation continues to affect people’s perception of the war in Ukraine, as well as topics related to it. This is indicated, among other things, by survey research conducted by Maison & Partners on behalf of the Warsaw Enterprise Institute in September 2022 and January 2023. The survey was conducted on a representative sample of 1,061 Poles, who referred to eight theses considered consistent with the message of Russian propaganda aimed at foreign audiences. A comparative analysis of responses given 5 months apart may indicate the growing influence of Russian information manipulation in Poland. The results of the survey indicate that:
- 63% of Poles believe that „Poland cannot afford refugees” (3% increase);
- 41% of surveyed claim that „refugees from Ukraine are actually economic migrants” (6% increase);
- 40% of the public think that „Russia should not be teased because it has nuclear weapons” (5% increase);
- 36% agree that „Poland should promote peace even at the price of territorial concessions from defending Ukraine to the Russian aggressor” (4% increase);
- 34% of those surveyed claim that „Poland should not provide military aid to Ukraine because it leads to an escalation of a conflict of which Poland is not a part” (4% increase);
- 34% of the Polish public adheres to a conspiracy theory believing that „the war in Ukraine is a conspiracy of the liberal West, which is also responsible for causing the coronavirus pandemic” (3% increase);
- 30% of Poles believe that „we should not help Ukraine until Ukrainian society apologizes for Volhynia and condemns Bandera” (5% increase);
- 26% say that „the reason for the Russian military assault on Ukraine is NATO’s expansion to the East” (2% increase).
In addition, Poles were asked about two issues that were not included in the September 2022 survey. First, as many as 52% of the public believe that „by helping Ukraine, Poland will be dragged into the war”. Second, 40% of Poles believe that „the Ukrainianization of Poland is currently taking place, which is destroying our culture and society”. The result of the survey may be influenced by Russian disinformation operations conducted in the Polish information space after the February 24, 2022 invasion, but, as the authors of the report point out, it cannot be ruled out that the result is related to greater fatigue with the war and its consequences, as well as the generally negative mood observed in society (including high inflation, rising costs of living, fears about the future). A key finding of the survey is that there is a higher degree of agreement with the theses of Russian propaganda (50-60%) among young people (18-34), for whom social media is mostly the main source of obtaining information about the world.
Polish „Anti-War” Movement in the service of the Kremlin
In early February 2023, the „Polish Anti-War Movement” was established, which main slogans are „to stop Americanization and Ukrainianization of Poland”, as well as „it’s not our war!”. Under the guise of ‘pacifist’ slogans, representatives of the movement reproduce the pro-Russian narrative in the Polish information space. These activities are part of the Kremlin’s broader propaganda campaign in Europe (including Slovakia and Germany). Recently, the neo-fascist „Kamractwo” has also been conducting similar activity in Poland.
The Polish „Anti-War” Movement was founded by Dr. Leszek Sykulski an academic lecturer known for his pro-Russian, anti-American and anti-Ukrainian statements. He has close links to Russian geopolitician and creator of information warfare concept Alexander Dugin, as well as pro-Russian circles in Poland (e.g. the „Patria” association). The movement’s co-initiator is architect Sebastian Pitoń, creator of the so-called „Highlander Veto” – an initiative calling on businesses to disregard sanitary restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leszek Sykulski’s „Polish Anti-War Movement” website was blocked in its first 24 hours of operation in order to curb the damaging activities of this initiative. With their social media activity, representatives of the movement support the Russian narrative falsifying the real picture of the war in Ukraine. Among other things, they reproduce the main theses of Russian disinformation and propaganda suggesting that:
- Poland is pursuing an adventurous policy toward Russia;
- Poland is a satellite state of the US pursuing its interests;
- The US and the Polish government are seeking to drag Poland into a war with Russia;
- the war in Ukraine was instigated by the West;
- arms supplies to Ukraine are contributing to the escalation of the war;
- the influx of refugees from Ukraine is a „resettlement action”;
- Poland should not offer social benefits to Ukrainians and bear the financial consequences of the war in Ukraine.
The aim of these actions is to undermine Polish support for supporting Ukraine, especially the transfer of armaments and other military equipment that is needed to stop Russian aggression. It is also in the Kremlin’s interest to stir up ethnic tensions between Poles and Ukrainians who have found refuge in Poland from Russian rockets, artillery fire, murder, rape and ethnic cleansing. „Anti-war” initiatives are also promoted by people who support the pro-Kremlin narrative in Poland, such as Agnieszka Piwar a journalist who publishes on the „Sputnik Polska” and „Myśl Polska” a nationalist portal with extreme anti-Western and pro-Russian overtones. Piwar is also linked to Mateusz Piskorski and Janusz Niedźwiedzki, who have been accused of working for Russian and Chinese intelligence.
Conclusions and recommendations
To improve the state’s effectiveness in countering disinformation, we recommend creating an institution responsible for coordinating efforts to combat disinformation and conducting active strategic communication on behalf of the state. This institution should be established under the Council of Ministers and should be superior to the organizational units responsible for strategic communication in the various ministries. In doing so, the intelligence services should become more involved in informing the public about the hostile activities of Russia and Belarus in the information space, e.g. by delivering preemptive information about the threat (pre-bunking).
State structures should also make greater use of the support of the analytical community, academia and the non-governmental sector through the establishment of permanent cooperation formats to more effectively monitor hostile disinformation activities. The result will be improved situational awareness and early detection of disinformation campaigns directed against Poland. To increase the effectiveness of the reconnaissance and analytical activities of these structures, the state should create a special system for early notification of citizens about ongoing hybrid activities (e.g., in the form of a mobile application).
As the most vulnerable group to the impact of disinformation are those who use social media, we recommend that media literacy classes (including the use of social media) and critical thinking be introduced into curricula at all levels of education in Poland.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations