Rifts and realities: The strained bond between Poland and Ukraine

In the dispute over grain and arms deliveries, Poland’s government is squandering the chance to shift Europe’s centre of gravity to the east

Handout file photo dated August 23, 2022 shows Polish President Andrzej Duda and Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskyy meet on National Flag Day in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. Poland said Wednesday it will stop providing weapons to Ukraine amid a growing dispute between the two countries over a temporary ban on Ukrainian grain imports. Poland has long been one of Ukraine’s staunchest backers since Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor, alongside multiple former Eastern bloc nations who fear they could be next if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist war is successful. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Handout file photo dated August 23, 2022 shows Polish President Andrzej Duda and Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskyy meet on National Flag Day in Kyiv
Image by picture alliance / abaca | ABACA

Last week was devastating for Polish-Ukrainian relations. It began with Warsaw’s rejection of the European Union’s decision not to extend its embargo on Ukrainian grain imports, imposed to protect farmers in Poland and four other eastern European countries. Ukrainian leaders called the closure of the Polish border unacceptable and filed a complaint against Poland at the World Trade Organisation.

Later in the week, the United Nations General Assembly witnessed a cringeworthy exchange of words between Poland’s president Andrej Duda and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, followed by Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s statement that Poland would not supply any more weapons to Ukraine – and would instead invest in its own defence.

Not so long ago, the Polish-Ukrainian pair was hailed as the axis of a new Europe that would emerge once Russia’s war on Ukraine had ended. But the events of the past weeks make this seem like wishful thinking. 

Poland will hold high-stakes parliamentary elections on 15 October, with campaign fever at least partly explaining the twitchiness of some Polish politicians. The country’s ruling Law and Justice party faces losing power, and is competing with the far-right Confederation party for nationalist and rural voters, who are increasingly sceptical of Poland’s support for Ukraine. Law and Justice therefore likes to refer to “defence of national interests”, even if its dramatic announcements on Ukraine are hardly in line with reality.

For instance, take the arms deliveries: Polish weapons depots are pretty much empty after Warsaw supplied almost 400 tanks and other equipment worth around €3 billion to Ukraine in the past few months. Poland’s leaders should not be ashamed of this. But simply stating that there’s nothing left to give would be far less impressive for their base than emphasising the importance of national defence – and garnishing that with anti-Ukrainian undertones.

A similar logic applies to the grain problem: it is easier for Polish leaders to invoke the grain issue for the benefit of their rural voters than it is for them to solve it. Polish farmers are suffering due to very low grain prices. However, these prices are determined by international markets – not Ukrainian imports. Experts in the grain trade do not expect Ukraine’s grain imports to cause any major market distortions this autumn. But the anger of Polish farmers is such that Law and Justice does not have time for nuance in its messaging; it is easier to blame Brussels, then Berlin, and now Kyiv.

It is easier for Polish leaders to invoke the grain issue for the benefit of their rural voters than it is for them to solve it

Despite this, election tactics alone cannot explain the crisis in Polish-Ukrainian relations. The dispute over grain testifies to the structural challenges in bilateral relations that will inevitably arise from Ukraine’s integration process with the EU. And the negative emotions that have erupted between the two capitals are a reminder that the war and Poland’s remarkable support for Ukraine have not eliminated their longstanding mutual grievances.

The two countries may have experienced a romantic phase since February 2022, but relations between Ukraine and Poland still require skilful diplomacy. Poland, as one of the largest EU member states and an important advocate for Ukraine, bears special responsibility in this regard. But Warsaw’s miserable foreign policy is damaging not only its partnership with its current most important neighbour, but also its wider ambitions.

In fact, Poland’s present dispute with Ukraine is largely the result of its marginalised position in Europe. Its unique support for Ukraine, as well as its geographical location as a logistics hub, enhanced Poland’s role in the Western alliance after Russia’s all-out invasion. But other countries have now ramped up their support, including the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. Poland’s relative importance for Ukraine has, in turn, diminished.

Moreover, Warsaw has not been able to keep its promise to shift Europe’s centre of gravity to the east. The Law and Justice government is in permanent conflict with the European Commission over the rule of law; its relations with Germany are disastrous; and its regional leadership role is an illusion.

Leaders in Kyiv appear to be paying less attention to their relations with Warsaw – and fighting hard when it serves their interests (such as in the grain crisis). In view of the debate on EU reform, enlargement, and reconstruction, Ukraine’s leaders have refocused on the countries that play a greater role in the EU, especially Germany. Zelensky’s declaration of support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for Berlin is particularly bitter for Warsaw.

Poland has thus not U-turned on Ukraine. But the Law and Justice party’s failed foreign policy severely limits the influence and impact of Kyiv’s most important European ally. When the dust settles after the Polish election, the country’s new government will need to ensure that its partners have more reasons to engage with Warsaw and take its positions into account. Otherwise, the Polish-Ukrainian rift could undermine the West’s efforts in the long war against Russia.

This article was first published in Tagesspiegel on 27 September 2023.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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