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by Bethany Elliott
Thursday, 21
September 2023
Analysis
10:30

Has Poland grown sick of helping Ukraine?

The country's leaders are choosing national interest over foreign aid
by Bethany Elliott
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Andrzej Duda meet in Ukraine in July. Credit: Getty

“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.

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iambic mouth
iambic mouth
2 months ago

This widely proclaimed Polish-Ukrainian friendship has never existed. It’s Realopolitik and who can know better than Polish people what Russians are capable of. Now, with endless and, much too often, unwarranted demand from Zelensky, brought on top of complex historical relationship between Poland and Ukrainian, these cracks started appearing quickly.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
2 months ago

It’s pretty clear that the war has settled into a bloody stalemate phase. Everyone knows how it will end. Time to end it.

D Walsh
D Walsh
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Long way to go yet, the Russians will end it on their terms

martin logan
martin logan
2 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Er, it will be a first then, since WW2.
Russia is no longer a significant power.
All its other adventures since then have gone haywire. Even Putin’s solution to Chechnya just made the latter effectively an independent state, to which Muscovy owes annual tribute, very much as in the days of the Tatar khanate.
And selling oil for nonconvertible Indian rupees is rather less than genius.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

“ 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”.

Re the US- Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy denied Zelinski his request to address the House of Representatives today – 26 Republicans sent a letter demanding to understand how much has already been spent there (the guess is $119BB) and what the end plan is. Zellinski needs jets and they’re finally on the way (being built and Ukraine pilots being trained).

No one seems to be able to estimate how much is enough. If Complete “Victory” means getting the Russians out of Crimea then I agree: we all now how this will end.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
2 months ago

I met Poles in Krakow who were complaining about house prices.

R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Ard these the same ones that made so much money in London in the 2000s?

R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago

If I understand this correctly, the EU Commission let the grain deal collapse to try and damage the Polish conservatives and it backfired in an extremely indirect way.

Tom Gallagher
Tom Gallagher
2 months ago

The ‘malaise’ in Poland-Ukraine relations is perhaps being exaggerated. Another interpretation might suggest that it reveals how good Central Europeans, in countries battling a communist legacy, are at doing democratic politics.
Ruling Polish conservatives know how much disgruntlement exists among swing Polish voters. It arises over the volume of refugees from Ukraine and how the war has hugely disrupted daily life in Poland.
Of course, the great majority are on the side of Ukraine but Polish farmers facing insolvency over grain dumping from there won’t meekly embrace destitution.
The election is close and the government has to address those feelings. The fact that there is visible tetchiness in Kyiv toward Ukraine suggests a tango is being performed by two countries whose fate is intertwined.
Kyiv has no wish to see former top Eurocrat Donald Tusk installed as PM. He himself has been engaged in political games, insisting on his anti-Kremlin credentials. But if back in charge in Warsaw, his track-record suggests that he would be content to push into a negotiated peace that will make Ukraine’s options as desperate as Armenia’s currently are, once Russia regroups.
So both allies need to offer a performative display of discord, giving the impression of a big rupture. Zelensky’s call for a UN security seat for Germany merely reinforces the desired impression. He knows the likelihood of this declining and internally troubled country receiving such an accolade is zero. But it wrongfoots the German-owned TV networks in Poland who are eager to install a globalist government there.
As I say, politicians in the land between the rivers Oder and Dnieper are politically savvy. In a bookthat I recently wrote on car crash politics, ‘Europe’s Leadership Famine
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Europes-Leadership-Famine-Portraits-1950-2022/dp/0993465447/ref=sr_1_1?crid=ODAXOOBTZE2I&keywords=gallagher+%2B+famine&qid=1695295729&s=books&sprefix=Gallagher+%2B+Fam%2Cstripbooks%2C82&sr=1-1
I deliberately overlooked them because the rot is to be found in Berlin, London, Paris, and Madrid.
But let’s say that the view of many fellow conservatives is correct and that Zelensky is a puppet of globalist forces who is willing to opt for a compromise peace that he and Lavrov will sign, is the true one. Then, I would humbly contend if such a view gained ground at home he would be out of office and denied a renomination even faster than Biden is likely to be!
Hissy fits and walk-outs occurred regularly between Western allies in World War II. I think the Poles and Ukrainians of today are likely to handle them better than Churchill, de Gaulle and Roosevelt did.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
2 months ago

The Poles are doing a huge amount of the heavy lifting and are probably tired of doing it alone. Perhaps they’d like a ‘thank you’ once in a while. Mind you, memories of Banderas in 1943 haven’t gone away either.

Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
2 months ago

The whole “91% to 69%” shows you just how much people are incapable of sticking to their principles when push comes to shove.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 months ago

Similar to democrat voters in New York when faced with direct consequences for voting in pro immigration leaders.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
2 months ago

Poland was able to dump its Soviet-era military surplus on Ukraine, charge the EU for it at replacement cost, and earn kudos from the US for doing so. As Poland has openly stated, their goal was to modernise its military and replace Germany as the US’ go-to ally in Europe. It it well on its way to achieving both objectives,

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 months ago

I am suspicious of the motives of any journalist who uses the term “far right.” This usually means the writer is far left but wishes to disguise it.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
2 months ago

Everyone in the developing and geopolitically compromised east of Europe is now expected to do the heavy lifting for western Europe and, by extension, the North Atlantic alliances.
This is strikingly different from the liberal interventionism of the Clinton/Blair years but rarely remarked upon in the Western news media. It expresses a monstrous level of moral complacency.

martin logan
martin logan
2 months ago

I think this is best seen as posturing for the upcoming Polish election.
Every person in eastern Europe knows the consequences of anything less than full Ukrainian victory: years of a very expensive new Cold War.
It means US and UK troop levels have to go up to that in 1975. It also means much larger defense budgets for every eastern European nation.
For Russia, it means decades of a low level insurgency in whatever part of Ukraine it finally winds up with. Even without outside western support, it took a much larger Soviet Union 10 years to suppress Ukrainian guerrillas.
So it’s in Russia’s very best interests to be defeated in Ukraine.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

I m not sure there are enough tough, mentally and physically, teenagers and those in the early twenties in Europe to be able increase troop levels. The British Army is struggling. I would sugest that British teenagers would need six if not twelve months of training to bring them up to the fitness levels of those who volunteered in the early 1970s. What is lacking is, the fortitude, the mental strength to endure pain and hardship with courage.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
2 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Even without outside western support, it took a much larger Soviet Union 10 years to suppress Ukrainian guerrillas.

The terror campaign by the Nazi-remnant Banderistas in mostly western Ukraine was one the US and UK’s most heavily-invested operations, written about by John LeCarré. It was thanks to the information provided by Kim Philby that the Soviets were able to stop their activities.
But of course, they never went away completely, and are now back with a vengeance.