Russia lashed out at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday, over a comment he made regarding Russia's role in the outbreak of World War II.
Zelenskiy made a reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 signed by the foreign ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, respectively. The pact, sealed barely a week before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, assured that neither the Soviet Union nor Germany would attack the other unprovoked.
Germany invaded Poland from the west within a week of the deal, the Soviets marched in from the east around two weeks thereafter.
In a joint briefing with Poland's President Andrzej Duda on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Zelenskiy said the Poles "were the first to feel the consequences of the criminal collusion of the totalitarian regimes."
"This led to the start of World War II and allowed the Nazis to launch the lethal Holocaust machine," the Ukrainian president added.
The Soviet collaboration with the Nazis is a highly sensitive topic among the ex-Soviet bloc and is vehemently rejected by Russia, which sees the deal as a necessary evil on its part and focuses instead on the pivotal role it played in defeating Germany after it broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
"We categorically disagree with this statement," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. He accused Zelenskiy of backing the "highly erroneous" position of Poland on the historical events.
Peskov said the Ukrainian president's comment had offended "tens of millions" of citizens of Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states that battled against Nazi troops.
"We do not accept this statement. We consider it erroneous and offensive from the point of view of our grandfathers' memory," Peskov added.
Poland and Russia spar over legacy
Russia, Poland and some other eastern European countries accuse each other of trying to airbrush out parts of their wartime history, with the debate intensifying since a recent EU resolution urging Russia to accept some responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict.
On Saturday, the leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party and former prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, broached the subject of Russia's stance on the issue — especially Vladimir Putin's recent comments focusing on Poland's ambassador to Germany at the time — during an interview a German newspaper.
"The world knows the truth: it was the Soviet Union who invaded Poland on September 17, 1939," Kaczynski said. "But Poland as victim and Russians as perpetrators — that is not a role that Putin likes. That is why he seeks to rewrite history."
When asked about the controversial topic of German reparations to Poland and whether Russia should also pay its dues, Kaczynski said Russia "would also have to pay."
"I do not believe that our generation will live to see Moscow face up to its responsibilities," he asserted. "One thing is certain: our demands have no expiration date."
The comment prompted a stark response from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday. "For the liberation of Poland from Nazism, our country paid with the lives of 600,000 fighters of the Red Army," the statement read.
"It is thanks to them that Poland exists as a state," the ministry added, saying that it was the former Soviet satellite state that was trying to rewrite history.