Poland-Ukraine diplomatic tensions: exhaustion from war?
    Resisting far-right challenge

    ANALYTICS  22 September 2023 - 16:23

    Fuad Shahbazov

    Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war, Poland has been among the staunchest supporters of Kyiv. Throughout the conflict, Poland supplied the Ukrainian army with sophisticated weaponry, including battle tanks, aircraft, artillery systems, and critical training for Ukrainian military staff.

    Amid this support, Poland's relations with Russia deteriorated significantly, reaching the point of no return with mutual threats and accusations. However, Warsaw's relations and support to Ukraine came into question following the recent war of words between the two neighbours.

    The deterioration of ties occurred in early September when the Polish government stated that the import of Ukrainian grain threatened to destabilise the Polish market.

    Ukraine has long argued that the duty-free import of Ukrainian produce to the bloc has caused havoc in their markets. On May 2, to allay their fears, the European Commission agreed to ban the sale or storage of certain Ukrainian produce in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia (though transit through these countries was still allowed). These measures expired on September 15. However, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia defied Brussels by unilaterally extending them.

    As such, a recent dispute over Ukraine’s agricultural exports — which have had to be transferred via Eastern European countries while Russia has effectively blockaded grain ships leaving the country’s ports — has threatened to break the alliance.

    Under a deal brokered by the European Union, Poland and four other neighbouring countries are allowed to ban Ukrainian grain imports to protect their domestic farmers but allow the grain to cross their territory into other countries.

    With the fierce comments of the Polish state officials, President Volodymyr Zelensky made a thinly veiled swipe at Ukraine's Eastern European allies, telling the United Nations General Assembly that Kyiv is working hard to preserve the land routes for grain exports, and it is alarming to see how some in Europe play out solidarity in a political theatre.

    They may seem to play their role, but in fact, they are helping set the stage for a Moscow actor.” In line with it, Kyiv filed a lawsuit against Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland at the World Trade Organization.

    On September 12, Hungary imposed a national import ban on 24 Ukrainian agricultural products, including grains, vegetables, several meat products and honey, while Slovakia's agriculture minister followed suit, announcing his country's grain ban. However, all three bans only apply to domestic imports and do not affect transit to onward markets.

    Nevertheless, Kyiv’s harsh statements toward Warsaw drew a sharp rebuke from Poland, with Warsaw summoning Ukraine’s ambassador over the remarks. Although the dispute between Warsaw and Kyiv unfolded over grain exports, it quickly became a comprehensive political dispute and muscle show.

    Notably, due to the rifts with Kyiv, Poland on September 20 announced that it would no longer send weapons to Ukraine. The dispute cast sudden doubt on the unity that had defined the neighbours' relationship before the grain dispute, a friendship that seemed to epitomise European solidarity with Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

    However, some senior government officials in Warsaw sought to downplay the prime minister’s words, insisting Poland remained committed to helping Ukraine and that no decision had been made about long-term weapons deliveries.

    Notwithstanding the criticism, Poland clarified that the country would honour its current defence contracts with Ukraine and would continue to operate as a transit hub for weapons shipments from other countries, including the U.S. Indeed, Poland is a vital route for arms going to Ukraine from its allies in the U.S. and Europe.

    Also, a further worsening could have direct implications for the war, as Poland is the primary destination for refugees and the gateway to about 90% of all the Western aid and military equipment headed for Kyiv. Therefore, Ukraine seemingly moved to ease the rift on September 22 as both agrarian ministers held face-to-face meetings to find a solution.

    Notably, Kyiv apprehends the fact that amid its ongoing counteroffensive against Russia, it cannot afford to antagonise Poland, its closest neighbour and ally, sheltering thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

    In this regard, putting pressure on Poland in multilateral forums or sending complaints to international tribunals are not appropriate methods of resolving disputes between two countries.

    For Poland, the issue is a political one. The ruling Law & Justice party, seeking a third term in office in next month’s contest, is reluctant to alienate its rural base while growing discontent over the cost of supporting Ukraine has boosted the party’s opponents on the far right. Therefore, Warsaw’s rhetoric against Ukraine will remain a bit tense, though the security partnership will be maintained.


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