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Entering third year of Putin's full scale invasion - tensions in Poland rise over support for Ukraine

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Warsaw, Poland -

As hundreds of people chanted “Slava Ukraini” in front of the Polish Parliament to demonstrate against Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, one young woman draped in the yellow and blue flag of her homeland, stood on the periphery of the crowd with tears welling in her eyes.

Victoria Hrynichyshun, a woman in her 20s, told CTV News, that she moved to Warsaw in 2015, fleeing with her family shortly after Russia's annexation of Crimea. Her “heart was still in Ukraine,” she said.

Now she was plagued by the same fear of uncertainty for loved ones who remained behind. In the two years since Russia launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine, two of her friends who joined the Ukrainian army were killed in combat, while her aunt’s neighborhood in Kherson has been repeatedly shelled.

“I see (the) news. Every day I don't know what will happen,” Hrynichyshun said as she wiped away tears.

Down the hill from the Sejm Parliamentary district, a makeshift memorial was erected in front of the towering gates of the Russian Embassy. Hundreds of wooden crosses, glowing in candlelight and bearing the names of Ukrainian victims stretched nearly 50 metres along the sidewalk. The memorial commemorated just a small number of people killed by Russians in the past 730 days.

The United Nations estimates that at least 10,000 civilians and nearly 20,000 more have been killed since Feb. 24, 2022. The death toll of combatants is even higher.

In November, a Ukrainian civil group estimated that more than 30,000 of the country’s soldiers have died, while a declassified U.S. intelligence report estimates that more than 315,000 Russian troops, or 90 per cent of its personnel have been killed attacking Ukraine. A summer 2023 report from the New York Times, meanwhile, cited estimates from U.S. officials of 70,000 Ukrainian soldier deaths as of August.

In Kyiv Sunday, Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy said that 31,000 of Ukraine's soldiers had been killed in the conflict, dismissing higher estimates made by what he described as Putin's "deceitful circle," according to Associated Press reports.

As he read the names of the Ukrainian victims inscribed on the crosses, a Polish resident railed at Putin.

“He deserves to die,” said Marius Luszowski. “Russia murders people who love living in peace.”

But there are cracks in support among Poles. Just last week, farmers blockaded roadways and freight lines along the border with Ukraine. The farmers nationwide were protesting against imports of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products they believe are pushing down prices. The demonstrations are putting pressure on Poland’s new government, which was elected last fall, to reconcile support for its agricultural sector with solidarity for Ukraine.

“We should keep the two issues separate in domestic and international debates,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Thursday. “There’s no question about supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia. That’s not negotiable.”

Tusk said that he will work to protect Polish farmers from the negative consequences of trade, but also condemned pro-Russian sentiment. In Silesia, a region mostly in southern Poland, a tractor was seen flying a Soviet flag and bearing a banner supporting Putin.

The Western Slavic nation has a muddled political history. In the 2000s, a Polish commission determined that members of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a Ukrainian unit that pledged allegiance to the Nazis, were guilty of war crimes against Poles. During the Second World War, the volunteer unit fought against the Soviet Union on what is now Polish territory.

That history brushed up with Canada’s Parliament last year when a 98-year-old veteran who fought with the Ukrainian Nazi unit was cheered in the House of Commons during a visit by Zelenskyy.

In an interview with Canadian journalists in Warsaw, Canada’s Ambassador to Poland, Catherine Godin, says that the country’s support of Ukraine is “firm” but that its politics are still impacted by its experience in the Second World War when it was occupied by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

“By virtue of history and geography, this is a country that feels that Ukraine is right on the other side,” said Godin. “Regardless of party affiliations - the population in Poland is very much in support of continued engagement and continued support to Ukraine.”

The ambassador said that Poland wants Canada to continue demonstrating its support for Ukraine through military and humanitarian measures.

In Kyiv, to mark the two-year anniversary of the war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced another $3 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine. The funds, to be used this year, include $2.4 billion dollars in loans to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat and $600 million in military aid.

After Russian forces invaded Ukraine's Donbas region on Feb. 24, 2022, six million Ukrainian refugees fled to other parts of Europe. The latest figures from the UN show Germany has taken in the highest number of Ukrainian refugees at 1.1 million, while 960,000 are temporarily settled in neighbouring Poland.

Meanwhile, Canada has taken in more than 220,000 displaced Ukrainians, while another 740,000 Ukrainians who were issued emergency travel documents have not arrived. Pre-approved Ukrainians have until the end of March to use their temporary visas to come to Canada to work or study while they wait out the war.

As the deadline looms, Godin says she does not expect a surge of refugees into Canada because most of the Ukrainian applicants are opting to stay in Europe, closer to home.

“We’re an ocean away. So the people who felt the need to use that visa, they have it,” Godin said. “But right now we don’t have any indication that there will be a surge.” 

With files from the Associated Press. 

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