Polish president criticised for suggesting Ukraine may not recover Crimea

Polish President Andrzej Duda has sought to clarify remarks in which he expressed doubt that Crimea – which has been occupied by Russia since 2014 – will be returned to Ukraine and said that the peninsula has historically spent more time under Russian control.

The comments prompted a response from Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland as well as criticism from many Polish politicians and commentators. Duda responded by reiterating his strong support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russian aggression, including its “criminal occupation of Crimea”.

The controversy began during an interview Duda gave on Friday to Kanał Zero, a new online broadcaster. Asked whether Ukraine would manage to regain Crimea, the president said it was “hard for me to answer this question”.

“I don’t know if they will regain Crimea, but I believe they will regain Donetsk and Luhansk,” he said, referring to two eastern Ukrainian regions also occupied by Russia. “Crimea is a special place, especially for historical reasons. Because in fact, if we look historically, for more time it was under Russia’s control.”

Prezydent Polski Andrzej Duda nazwał Krym historycznie terytorium rosyjskim.

▪️W telewizji Kanal Zero wątpił także, czy Kijówowi uda się zwrócić półwysep. „Nie wiem, czy Ukraina zwróci Krym. Bo tak naprawdę, jeśli spojrzeć na historię, Krym był przez długi czas w rękach Rosji” –… pic.twitter.com/gzpgdOsx96

— Piotr Panasiuk (@PanasukPetr) February 3, 2024

Crimea has changed hands a number of times throughout history. In 1783, it was annexed by Russia. Later, as part of the Soviet Union, it was transferred to Ukrainian control in 1954. Since 2014, it has been under the occupation of Russia, which announced its annexation of Crimea that same year.

However, international organisations including the United Nations do not recognise the legitimacy of Russia’s control over Crimea, which is regarded as an occupied part of Ukraine.

This morning, in response to Duda’s remarks, Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland, Vasyl Zvarych, tweeted in Polish: “Crimea is Ukraine: it is and will remain so.”

“Russia’s temporary occupation of Crimea is a war crime for which it will be punished,” he continued. “The deoccupation of Crimea is our shared task and obligation with the free world. We will without doubt achieve it. We believe [in this] and work together.”

Krym to Ukraina: jest i pozostanie. Prawo międzynarodowe – podstawa. Czasowa okupacja Krymu przez Rosję to zbrodnia wojenna, za którą ona zostanie ukarana. Deokupacja Krymu to nasze wspólne z wolnym światem zadanie i obowiązek. Zrobimy to bez wątpienia. Wierzymy i działamy razem

— Vasyl Zvarych (@Vasyl_Zvarych) February 3, 2024

Commenting on Duda’s remarks, Polish historian Bartłomiej Gajos noted that historically Crimea was actually not part of Russia for very long. He joked it would make more sense to “give it to the Byzantine Empire”.

More seriously, Gajos wrote that “thinking in terms of ‘historical rights’ – who was there longer – is simply a recipe for chaos”.

The president’s remarks were “incredibly stupid”, wrote Roman Giertych, an MP from the ruling coalition, which is in conflict with the president. “I would like to remind Mr. Duda that there are cities in our country that in their history belonged to Poland for a shorter time than to another country”.

Paweł Kowal, the government’s plenipotentiary for supporting the rebuilding of Ukraine, told broadcaster RMF that “Crimea was actually Russian for as long as [the current Polish city] of Białystok was Russian. Stories about Russian Crimea are nonsense based on the fact that people do not know history”.

Foreign minister Radosław Sikorski also released a statement this morning making clear that “Poland recognises the independence of Ukraine within its internationally established borders”.

Polska uznaje niepodległość Ukrainy w jej międzynarodowo ustanowionych granicach, które wielokrotnie potwierdziła Federacja Rosyjska: poczynając od traktatu z 19 listopada 1990, poprzez memorandum budapeszteńskie z 5 grudnia 1994 oraz traktat o granicy z 28 stycznia 2003.

— Radosław Sikorski 🇵🇱🇪🇺 (@sikorskiradek) February 3, 2024

In response to the controversy, Duda today sought to clarify his position.

“My actions and position on Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine have been clear from day one: Russia is violating international law, is an aggressor and an occupier,” wrote Duda on X. “The Russian occupation of internationally recognised territories of Ukraine, including Crimea, is a crime.”

“This war cannot end with Russia’s victory. Russian imperialism must be stopped, defeated and blocked for the future,” he continued. “We all stand shoulder to shoulder for a free, sovereign and independent Ukraine against aggression and brutal imperialism!”

Moje działania i stanowisko w sprawie rosyjskiej brutalnej agresji na Ukrainę były i są od pierwszego dnia jednoznaczne: Rosja łamie prawo międzynarodowe, jest agresorem i okupantem. Napaść rosyjska na Ukrainę i okupacja międzynarodowo uznanych terytoriów Ukrainy, w tym Krymu,…

— Andrzej Duda (@AndrzejDuda) February 3, 2024

Previously Duda has made clear his view that Crimea is part of Ukraine. At the 2021 Crimea Platform summit he declared that “Crimea is Ukraine…We do not accept any other narrative. The previous year he condemned Russia’s “illegal occupation” of the peninsula.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Duda has become an even closer ally of Ukraine. In 2022, he became the first name inscribed in an avenue in Kyiv honouring those who have supported Ukraine during the war.

After the president faced criticism for his remarks yesterday, he was defended by Radosław Fogiel, a senior figure from the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, with which Duda is aligned. Fogiel suggested that the president’s remarks had been misinterpreted by some of his critics.

Wszystko fajnie, tylko PAD zupełnie co innego powiedział. Nie mówił, „że z Krymem to tak do końca nie wiadomo”, lecz odpowiedział wprost na pytanie o odzyskanie Krymu przez Ukrainę, że nie wie. Poniżej ten fragment: https://t.co/v4sSRGBkGc pic.twitter.com/j5NMyWhSga

— Radosław Fogiel (@radekfogiel) February 2, 2024

Following Duda’s clarification today, Sikorski said that this should now “close the matter”.

“Everyone can have a slip of the tongue, everyone makes mistakes sometimes,” said the foreign minister, quoted by the Polish Press Agency (PAP). “It seems to me that President Duda’s sympathy for Ukraine is beyond doubt…[and] consistent with the government’s position.”

Sikorski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose government took office in December, have made clear that they will continue the previous PiS government’s support for Ukraine. This week Tusk also called for the EU to impose the “broadest possible” sanctions on Russia.

Poland will “demand the broadest possible sanctions” against Russia – including an embargo on nuclear fuel and the transfer of frozen Russian assets to Ukraine – says @donaldtusk as the EU begins discussions over a new package of measures https://t.co/TUPnAKmlom

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 2, 2024

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Main image credit: Jakub Szymczuk/KPRP

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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