After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Poland’s government unconditionally sided with its attacked neighbor. The dispute over Ukrainian grain imports is a turning point.
The tone between Poland and Ukraine is becoming increasingly harsh. For several weeks now, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as other representatives of the right-wing populist government camp, have been using language that was actually reserved during the election campaign for the traditional villains of the Polish right – Russia and Germany.
“Ukraine is like a drowning person,” polemicized Duda on Wednesday (September 20, 2023) in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “A drowning person is extremely dangerous and can drag the rescuer into the depths. It is said that a drowning man grasps at straws. In fact, a drowning man grabs everything there is.” Poland must defend its interests and protect itself from harm, Duda added.
Poland’s president responded with these statements to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the UN General Assembly. He had said, among other things: “It is disturbing to see how some in Europe are playing up solidarity in the political theater by turning the grain issue into a thriller. They think they are playing their own roles, but in reality they are helping to prepare the stage for the actor from Moscow.” Zelensky did not name any specific countries. But in Warsaw his words were understood as an affront to Poland. The planned meeting in New York between Duda and Zelensky did not take place “for scheduling reasons”.
No more weapons to Ukraine
Poland’s Prime Minister Morawiecki then poured fuel on the fire again – in an interview with the Polsat television station. “We will no longer hand over weapons to Ukraine. We are now arming ourselves by equipping ourselves with the most modern weapons,” said Morawiecki on Wednesday evening (September 20, 2023).
Poland will continue to help Ukraine, but cannot accept disruptions in its own agricultural market. Morawiecki assured that Poland would not interfere in the activities of the hub in the southeastern Polish city of Rzeszow, from where Western arms shipments are sent to Ukraine.
As always with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the Germans are allegedly behind all the machinations. “The EU is confronting Poland with moral blackmail, and Ukraine is entering into an alliance with the Germans against Poland,” said the influential PiS MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski to the radio station Polskie Radio24.
Is Ukrainian agriculture a threat to the EU?
Agriculture Minister Robert Telus warned that Ukrainian agriculture poses a “threat” not only to the “frontline states” but to all of Europe. “Ukraine cannot join the EU without conditions,” he emphasized as a representative of a country that had recently called for Ukraine to join the EU as quickly as possible. For his part, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said at an election rally that competition with Ukrainian agricultural products would “destroy” Polish agriculture.
“The PiS is sacrificing relations with Ukraine,” was the headline of a comment by journalist and political scientist Bartosz Wielinski in the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza on Thursday (September 21, 2023). In it he speaks of a “destructive politics that borders on treason”. In his opinion, the dispute over Ukrainian grain is just a pretext. “The PiS will stop at nothing in the election campaign. In order to mobilize their voters, Kaczynski, Morawiecki and Duda are inflaming the conflict with the neighboring country and the anti-Ukrainian sentiment,” writes Wielinski.
PiS returns to anti-Ukrainian rhetoric
The PiS, which has ruled Poland for eight years, cannot be sure of another victory in the parliamentary elections on September 15, 2023. It could lose important votes to the right-wing nationalist Confederation (Konfederacja), which openly uses anti-Ukrainian slogans in the election campaign. To win back these voters, PiS has returned to its traditional Ukraine-skeptical line. Farmers and the village population as a whole represent an important voter potential for the Polish right. These groups feel their existence is threatened by grain and other agricultural products from Ukraine.
The right-wing nationalist camp in Poland, which places historical politics at the forefront of its actions, has always viewed reconciliation with Ukraine with skepticism in the past. The bloody events at the end of the Second World War and in the first years after the end of the war still cast a long shadow today. The nationalists of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) attacked Polish villages in Volhynia in what is now northwestern Ukraine starting in 1943 to drive Poles out of the area.
Long shadows of the bloody past
Ethnic cleansing was intended to create favorable conditions for a Ukrainian nation-state after the war. According to Polish historians, around 100,000 Poles were murdered by the end of the war in 1945. Up to half a million people fled or were displaced. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Ukrainians died in retaliatory actions by Polish partisans.
The PiS maintains close contacts with Polish displaced persons associations that represent the Poles from Volhynia, and made a Ukrainian apology and condemnation of the former crimes a condition of rapprochement between Warsaw and Kiev. It was only the Russian war against Ukraine that pushed the problems of coming to terms with the past into the background. But as it looks now, only temporarily.
Are Kyiv and Warsaw coming to their senses?
Liberal opposition leader Donald Tusk described the Polish-Ukrainian conflict as a “moral and geopolitical scandal.” At an election rally in Kalisz (central Poland), he spoke of a “vile anti-Ukrainian circus” that PiS was organizing.
But there are also the first signs of relaxation. The agriculture ministers of both countries spoke on the phone for the first time in a long time on Thursday (September 21, 2023), the Polish news agency PAP reported. The Ukrainian ambassador Vasyl Zvarych, who was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry after Zelensky’s speech at the United Nations, also tried to smooth things over. “This was a good opportunity to exchange points of view. There is no crisis. “We’re moving on,” the diplomat explained.
Nevertheless, if the PiS remains in power after October 15th, Polish-Ukrainian relations will probably suffer lasting damage. Warsaw will not stop supporting Kiev because the Ukrainian victory against Russia is in Poland’s own interest. But the “honeymoon” that had been going on for a year and a half would finally be over.