September 21, 2023 - 10:30am

“Ukraine is behaving like a drowning person clinging to anything available… A drowning man is extremely dangerous, capable of pulling you down to the depths.”

Such comments would be surprising from any ally of Ukraine, yet especially so coming yesterday from Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Bound by shared memories of Soviet-era oppression, Poland has consistently been one of Ukraine’s most stalwart supporters, welcoming over a million refugees, supplying weaponry and agitating for others to follow suit. Duda’s comments were not the only sign of a recent decline in Poland’s commitment. Yesterday, the country’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, announced that the government would no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine in favour of “arming Poland”. 

What could have shattered such a close allegiance? The answer lies in tensions over grain. With the war shutting down Black Sea shipping routes, Ukrainian grain has been sent over land borders, subjecting farmers in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia to cheap imports which they feared were undercutting them and distorting local markets. When the EU decided not to renew restrictions on Ukrainian imports after the expiration of a ban on 15 September, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia announced their own unilateral embargoes, resulting in Ukraine filing lawsuits at the WTO. 

Poland remains defiant, with spokesman Piotr Mueller saying that “a complaint before the WTO doesn’t impress us.” Tensions which began on the farms of Eastern Europe this week spiralled out into the UN General Assembly. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his speech to complain of how “some in Europe play out solidarity in a political theatre, making a thriller from the grain” and “helping set the stage to a Moscow actor”, a meeting between him and Duda was cancelled, while Ukraine’s Ambassador to Poland was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry to hear “the Polish side’s strong protest”.  

The topic has taken on greater significance as Poland gears up for parliamentary elections on 15 October. The ruling Right-wing Law and Justice Party needs to maintain strong support in rural regions, with Morawiecki admitting yesterday that “for us, the interests of our farmers are the most important thing.” 

However, this also speaks to a broader malaise regarding Polish support for Ukraine. Challengers in the far-Right Confederation Party have been seeking votes by capitalising on the electorate’s rising resentment towards refugees. A poll last month found that the proportion of Poles in favour of permitting refugees from Ukraine has dropped from 91% in the immediate aftermath of the invasion to just 69%. Poles have expressed concerns about refugees ramping up house prices and increasing competition for jobs, as well as their receipt of free public transport, education and healthcare. 

In March, the country’s government cut funding for refugees’ accommodation and, as part of ongoing tensions, signalled this week that financial support for Ukrainians in Poland would not be extended next year. After Ukraine’s WTO lawsuits were filed, Confederation’s Slawomir Mentzen commented sarcastically that Poland would “probably hike Ukrainians’ 800+ (child benefits) and offer free loans for buying apartments in Poland”. 

As for what this means for the war, Poland is unlikely to actually withdraw weapons for Ukraine, not least as it would incur the wrath of allies in the EU and Nato — French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has already described the tensions as “regrettable”. Despite recent quarrelling, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, has asserted that Poland “will support Ukraine until victory”. As every politician knows, what is said during an election campaign to convince voters can be conveniently forgotten once the votes are counted. 

Yet champagne corks will be flying in the Kremlin at the appearance of such obvious cracks in allies’ solidarity with Ukraine. This row will prove another reminder to Zelenskyy of how dependent his fight is on the charity of others. Ukraine’s counteroffensive might survive without Polish artillery, but not without American. 

As the US enters its election season, Ukraine’s quarrel with Poland demonstrates the ease with which a country will choose national interests over international solidarity, and how contenders for public office can use threats to cut off aid to score votes from a war-weary electorate. An American variation on this spat would prove an existential threat to Ukraine’s progress on the battlefield.