Ever since Vladimir Putin launched his war of aggression against Ukraine, Poland has stood shoulder to shoulder with its stricken neighbour, providing it with weaponry, supply lines and a warm welcome for more than a million refugees fleeing the conflict. Warsaw’s repeated warnings before the invasion about the Kremlin’s weaponisation of energy supplies to Europe and about western delusions of “engaging” with Putin were vindicated. Such solidarity and foresight have enhanced its standing in Europe, despite concerns about rule of law breaches and democratic backsliding under its current conservative nationalist leadership.
That gain in moral authority has made it all the more shocking to witness the recent display of hostility by Polish leaders towards Kyiv in a row over grain exports. It may not be altogether surprising, with Poland in the midst of a bitterly fought election campaign. Yet the language has been stark.
President Andrzej Duda, aligned with the ruling Law and Justice party, likened Ukraine to a drowning man pulling his rescuer down to a watery death — an analogy that is both in bad taste and grossly exaggerated. After Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested the sniping from Warsaw was doing Russia’s bidding, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki appeared to threaten a halt in weapons donations to Kyiv. Warsaw has also hinted it may not extend the current level of support to Ukrainian refugees beyond 2024.
The trigger for the dispute was the European Commission’s decision last week to lift a ban on Ukrainian grain exports to five neighbouring EU states — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The ban, which excludes shipments in transit, was introduced in
May after Poland, Slovakia and Hungary introduced unilateral curbs — illegally, since it is the EU that sets trade rules. Brussels did assess, however, that local EU farmers were being undercut by cheap Ukrainian grain, even coughing up €100mn to compensate them. Last week it concluded those price distortions had disappeared and there was no need for a ban as long as Kyiv put in place an export licensing regime to prevent future dumping. However, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary refused to comply and introduced their own curbs.
It may be tempting to minimise the clash as electioneering — or, in Hungary’s case, the usual Ukraine-bashing. Slovakia goes to the polls on September 30 and frontrunner Robert Fico opposes aiding Ukraine. Poland’s Law and Justice is on course to lose its parliamentary majority in elections on October 15. It needs to shore up its rural vote and fend off the Ukraine-sceptic far-right.
But Warsaw’s grubbing for a few votes comes at a high price, and not just to its moral authority. Grain exports are an economic lifeline and vital source of hard currency for Ukraine. Its gain greatly outweighs Polish farmers’ pain.
Brussels, perhaps sensibly, believes there can be a negotiated way out of the grain impasse, and talks between Kyiv and its neighbours are now under way. But the EU’s credibility, in this case over trade, has been damaged. The vitriol over grain prices surely dispels any illusions about a smooth enlargement of the EU to Ukraine and the western Balkans, the bloc’s next big mission.
Poland may ultimately not stop sending arms to Kyiv; it cannot afford to see Ukraine falter and Russia become a bigger menace. But by threatening to withhold weapons, it has given cover to other capitals — or putative leaders — who are less committed to Ukraine’s victory. Furthermore, it risks reassuring Putin that his calculation of waiting until the west tires of war is the right one. For a Polish government, it is hard to imagine a more self-defeating strategy.