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A Shifting Dynamic: Poland's Evolving Relationship with Ukraine

Nicolas Buitrago


Source: Foreign Policy

Once Ukraine's most devoted ally, Poland is now seen as a bitter rival. Amid Poland’s parliamentary results, the recent tensions between the two nations, partly influenced by domestic politics, raise concerns about potential threats to EU cohesion in its support for Ukraine in the future.


Poland, Ukraine’s staunchest ally


Before Russia's incursion into Ukraine, Poland had persistently urged their NATO allies and European Union members to bolster their connections with Ukraine, anticipating the potential threat of Russian aggression, only to be dismissed as mere paranoia. The events of February 2022, demonstrated the accuracy of Poland's warnings. What had previously been deemed mere Polish criticism of Russia's imperial ambitions, sometimes labelled as post-communist stress disorder by the United States and Western allies, has now become widely embraced as mainstream talking points within NATO.


Poland swiftly became a key player in supporting Ukraine and deterring Russia after the conflict began. The Kiel Institute's Ukraine Support Tracker, a database whose role is to quantify aid promised by governments to Kyiv, shows that, to date, Poland has sent ammunition convoys, mortars, small drones, and MANPADS (Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems), as well as financial and humanitarian aid, amounting to around  €4.27 billion (about $4.54 billion). Additionally, shipments from various countries, including a 450 million euro EU-funded consignment, have been provided through Poland, rendering it a crucial route for military equipment.


Poland's strategic importance is amplified by its geographic proximity, size, and infrastructure, serving as the primary Western gateway to Ukraine. This also raises concerns about Poland getting more deeply involved in the conflict, given their 530 km border with multiple crossing points, enabling substantial movement and transportation access. Notably, Rzeszow Airport in Poland, just an hour's drive from the border, acts as the nearest major airport and NATO military hub to Ukraine. 


Poland's historical experiences of territorial loss and the trauma associated with sovereignty challenges kindled a strong sense of solidarity with Ukrainian refugees, driven by concerns that the conflict might spill over into neighbouring countries. At the government level, Poland, already home to Europe's largest Ukrainian diaspora of over a million, went to great lengths to open its borders to all Ukrainians irrespective of their legal status, with the Polish interior minister, Mariusz Kaminski stating that, “anyone fleeing from bombs, from Russian rifles, can count on the support of the Polish state.” Likewise, Slovakia and Hungary took steps to support Ukrainian refugees. Slovakia announced that all incoming refugees would receive automatic temporary residency, along with access to free healthcare and full work rights. Meanwhile, Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, issued a decree offering temporary protection to all Ukrainian refugees. 


The war has rapidly turned Poland into the second-largest host of Ukrainian refugees in Europe, with over 1.5 million Ukrainians seeking refuge since the invasion began. So far, more than 15.4 million Ukrainian refugees have entered Poland through its borders.  


Europe's War Fatigue and Poland’s parliamentary elections


As the invasion nears its second anniversary, war fatigue seems to have set in in Europe. Poland has managed the influx quite efficiently. However, its resources are under strain, as they anticipate the need for long-term preparations to accommodate the continuing arrival of Ukrainians. Currently, Ukrainian refugees are entitled to legally live and work across the EU, and qualify for the same benefits as Polish citizens, including health insurance, free public education and child allowance.


In Poland, the October 15 parliamentary elections, held amidst nationwide protests in support of the Civic Coalition party and its leader, former prime minister Donald Tusk, in preparation to contend the rightwing populist governing party Law and Justice (PiS), led by Mateusz Morawiecki, were marked by rising tensions between Poland and Ukraine. This worsening has resulted from a dispute over Ukrainian grain imports that were depressing prices for Polish farmers.


At the start of the invasion, Poland’s main political parties differed in opinion. Law and Justice vehemently backed Ukraine due to public sentiment. However, as support diminished, they centred on retaining power, particularly through the Ukrainian grain issue. The Civic Coalition, PiS’ main opposition, maintained a neutral stance on Ukraine, but called for increased military support for Kyiv, claiming that it was in Poland’s national interests. In contrast, the far-right Confederation party consistently expresses its opposition to Ukraine through the use of anti-Ukrainian rhetoric and strong anti-migrant campaigns.


Public opinion polls indicated that criticising Ukraine remained an unpopular sentiment among most Poles. However, as the war continued, this standpoint began echoing with some voters ahead of the parliamentary elections. This summer, the University of Warsaw released a study showing that 85% of Poles have an inclination to assist Ukraine in its war, yet the share of respondents with a strong leaning in favour of Ukraine declined to 40% in June from 62% in January. The study also identified that, for the first time, 55 percent of the majority of Poles are against additional aid


Ban on Ukrainian grains


Both Ukraine and Russia, two of the world's largest grain exporters via the Black Sea, saw a complete halt of maritime grain shipments as a result of Russia's invasion, which led to a rise in food prices and the threat of famine in low-income countries dependent on grain imports. To counteract this, Turkey and the UN, brokered the Black Sea Grain Deal between Ukraine and Russia in July 2022, allowing Ukraine to begin safely exporting grain from specific ports to mitigate a global food crisis.


Similarly, the EU introduced an emergency initiative, allowing tariff-free food imports from Ukraine. This measure aimed to establish cost-effective and secure land routes, enabling the transportation of vital grain supplies out of the besieged country and reducing the risk of worldwide famine. However, this initiative unintentionally led to undercutting prices, raising concerns about the impact of a wave of cheap, duty-free Ukrainian grain on farmers in Eastern bloc nations of the EU, namely Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria.


In response, all five nations restricted Ukrainian grain even before the EU had formulated a comprehensive plan, causing tension between Brussels and Kyiv. Urgently prioritising the protection of their farmers, the EU subsequently imposed a temporary ban on Ukrainian grains in May of this year. This ban covered the exports of wheat, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds to all five nations, prohibiting domestic sales but permitting the transit of some grain through them.


Following multiple extensions, Russia decided to withdraw from the Black Sea Deal in July 2023, claiming that its demands to ship more of its own food and fertiliser were not being met. Over the next few days, Russia bombarded Ukraine’s vital grain port of Odessa, destroying over 60K tons of grain and provoking new global food prices surges. Simultaneously, Russia’s withdrawal heightened costs for road, rail and river routes across Europe, now serving as Ukraine’s primary channels for shipping its foodstuff, and triggered once again escalating tensions across Eastern bloc nations.


In the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections in Warsaw, the decision by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, to lift the ban in mid-September partly in response to counterbalance Russia’s pull-out, did not sit well with some members. The EU justified its decision by affirming that the ban had addressed specific issues and guaranteed the flow and even increase of exports to third countries outside the EU. The growing dispute served as an opportunity for various political parties to step up their populist rhetoric and surface to the defence of Polish farmers threatened by Ukrainian imports. In EU elections, agriculture is a contentious topic of conversation, particularly in member states where farmers are politically motivated agents and are driven to avoid food insecurity.


Deteriorating tensions


Amid farmers’ protests, Bulgaria and Romania agreed to lift the ban. Nevertheless, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia challenged the move and persisted in barring the sale of Ukrainian grain on their territory. The Hungarian minister for agriculture, Istvan Nagy, announced on social media tighter restrictions that would include more Ukrainian export items. Poland's president argued that the bar is necessary to safeguard their farmers, citing the unfavourable impact of inexpensive Ukrainian grain on the Polish markets. Similarly, Slovakia maintained the ban, emphasising that it did not apply to the transit through the country.


Brussels' decision not to extend the ban has revived sentiments of nationalism that could potentially threaten EU cohesion in its support for Ukraine in the future. The events ahead of the parliamentary elections in Slovakia and Poland, showed how domestic politics in both countries, where farmers constitute a significant voting bloc, fueled support for the continuation of the ban. Poland’s governing party’s decision to support the ban seemed to be part of a pre-election campaign, aimed at assuring voters that the interests of Ukrainian farmers would not take precedence over those of Polish farmers, who have shown anger over low prices for their produce. Moreover, Confederation began gaining more voters by consistently vocalising anti-EU policy, advocating for a reduction of Poland’s aid, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments, and exhibiting scepticism towards climate change.


At the United Nations General Assembly, Ukraine voiced disapproval of the grain embargo extension. President V. Zelensky expressed concern that the restrictions would continue to impact the country’s economy during wartime, and that “it is alarming to see how some in Europe, some of our friends in Europe, play out solidarity in a political theatre — making a thriller from the grain.” Zelensky added “they may seem to play their own role, but in fact they are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor.”


Zelensky’s remarks quickly amplified the grain dispute, prompting Ukraine to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the three countries. Ukraine contended that EU members could not independently force bans, as broader trade policy falls under the responsibility of EU authorities. However, Warsaw intends to maintain the ban, justifying its decision in the interest of Polish farmers.


Tensions between Poland and Ukraine escalated further when Polish President Andrzej Duda characterised Kyiv as being comparable to a drowning man grasping his rescuer and unintentionally pulling them into the depths of the water. Warsaw also denounced Zelensky's speech as “unjustified concerning Poland, which has supported Ukraine since the first days of the war”.

Subsequently, in a televised interview, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that Warsaw would no longer be supplying weapons to Ukraine as Poland's focus had shifted towards equipping itself with more modern weapons, considering that Poland’s military arsenal has been exhausted by nearly a third through deliveries to Ukraine. Despite Poland’s firm commitment to aiding Ukraine to defeat Russia, Morawiecki added that they would not agree to the destabilisation of Polish markets resulting from grain imports, and should the grain dispute escalate, Poland would seek to ban more Ukrainian import items.

Following Warsaw’s remarks, Duda clarified that only new weapons would not be provided to Ukraine, and that previously agreed contracts for armaments and ammunition would still be honoured. He also added that Kyiv had misconstrued his PM’s comments in the “worst possible way”. On the diplomatic front, Ukraine's Minister for Agriculture, Mykola Solskyi, met with her Polish counterpart, Robert Telus, to discuss the dispute and announced that they had agreed to seek a resolution that represents the interests of both parties.


Poland’s pro-EU opposition beats populists


Poland’s opposition parties, headed by Civic Coalition, gained enough seats in last month’s parliamentary elections, potentially ending the PiS party’s leadership since 2015. While PiS surfaced as the largest party with 35.4%, it could not secure a majority to form a coalition. The Civic Coalition, Third Way and the Left, with a combined 248 seats in the 460-member lower house and 66 of 100 seats in the Senate successfully bolstered their chances of governing Poland over the next 4-year period.


Vowing to reinstate Poland’s legal order and enhance its international standing and security, particularly in response to Russian aggression against neighbouring Ukraine, the opposition alliance has agreed to a coalition deal to form a new government led by former prime minister and European Council head, Donald Tusk from the centrist Civic Coalition. After eight years characterised by nationalist, socially conservative rhetoric and policymaking, the opposition’s deal aims to alleviate political influence on Poland’s courts, rescinding a 2020 ruling that nearly banned all abortions, ensure a secular state, and depoliticise state media, military and special services. Additionally, it intends to unlock EU funds, previously allocated to Poland from the COVID-19 pandemic recovery fund, which were halted due to concerns over judicial independence and rule-of-law reforms. The goal is also to reduce Poland’s proclivity to obstruct EU integration policy.


In line with the constitution, President Duda, an ally of PiS, is mandated to nominate a prime minister, and he has chosen Morawiecki. Morawiecki is given two weeks to put forward a Cabinet to the president, followed by an additional two weeks to submit it to the lower house (Sejm), deliver a policy speech, and secure a confidence vote. Granted his probable failure, the Sejm will then have an opportunity to nominate Tusk as its candidate for forming the government, a move that Duda has signalled he would support. 


Poland experienced a record voter turnout of 74% on October 15th, signalling a clear refusal of the controversial, populist-nationalist PiS party and likely preventing the emergence of populist Eurosceptic coalition in Europe. This stands contrary to the recent swing of illiberal populism in Hungary, Italy and Slovakia, and is now viewed as a relief, considering the potential outcomes had PiS remained in power for another term. 


With Tusk presumed to be the new prime minister by December, Poland is expected to firmly support Ukraine's resistance against Russia's aggression and advocate for its accession to the EU. This commitment remains robust despite potential shifts in political dynamics, emphasising the strong, shared common interest of Poland and Ukraine in countering Russian hostility. Poland would presumably continue to play a vital role in supplying humanitarian aid, supporting sanctions against Russia, as well as accommodating more Ukrainian refugees, in spite of electoral outcomes and possible resistance from coalition partners that would demand the current protectionist measures on grain imports remain in place. However, there is a realistic apprehension that Ukraine may prioritise relations with Germany over Poland for EU membership, making it taxing to fully re-establish the previous ties between Poland and Ukraine.


While the future seems hopeful for Poland, at least for now, concerns remain about the level of unity within the multi-party opposition alliance and its ability to execute its agenda. All coalition members are pro-EU and advocate for reinstating the independence of the courts and public media. However, they disagree on significant social and economic issues, from social spending to the liberalisation of abortion laws. Enacting legislation may pose challenges, too. Polish President Duda, as the head of state, holds veto power, and a Constitutional Tribunal controlled by PiS allies has the authority to nullify laws.


From a broader perspective, the recent election results in Slovakia and Poland show, on the one hand, the inevitability of illiberal populist parties coming to power, serving as a reminder of the persisting threat to EU cohesion, as seen with the victory of pro-Putin left-wing populist Robert Fico in Slovakia. On the other hand, they also reveal that populism in Europe faces competing forces, especially when proportional representation compels populists to form coalitions with centrist parties, often leading to compromises on their extreme positions, as was the case in Italy with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. For Poland’s PiS, retaining power poses a challenge as they depend on finding coalition partners, given their hostile governing rhetoric and style. While extended power, as seen with Hungarian PM Orban’s Fidesz party, has led to ‘competitive authoritarianism’, limits remain, noticeable in Hungary and Poland, as they count on significant EU funds.


 

Nícolas Buitrago holds a BA in International Studies and French from RMIT University. His interests in post-conflict reconciliation and migration movements were influenced by his passion for travel, photojournalism and participation in international development projects, focused on the complexities of creating an environment for sustainable peace in Bosnia and Colombia, and the displacement challenges facing tribal communities in India. After working at a Sarajevo-based NGO, where he contributed to the development of multidisciplinary initiatives aimed at engaging youth in peace education and genocide prevention in the Balkans, Nicolas began working remotely within the division for gender equality at a civil society organisation in Colombia while also volunteering for a Melbourne-based non-profit committed to eradicating childhood illiteracy. Nicolas has further study interests in climate change policy and youth’s role in peace-building processes, particularly in countries emerging from conflict.

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