Poland & Ukraine Have Plunged Into A Full-Blown Political Crisis With No End In Sight

Yves here. Even for casual watchers of the Ukraine war, the signs of Ukraine’s deteriorating relationships with its sponsors have been increasing. Even as of summer 2022 (reported later), Biden made a tart remark to Zelensky about his lack of gratitude. In the US, Ukraine enthusiasm has waned as awareness that the war won’t be resolved any time soon, and not in a Ukraine victory, has been rising. European leaders are in even a more fraught position as they are bearing direct and highly visible costs of the conflict, in the form of pricey energy due to sanctions on Russia, and the destabilizing effects of Ukraine refugees. As some readers described, Ukraine arrivals were given lavish treatment, given large stipends, often well housed, given preferential treatment in schools. That has worn thin now that there is no prospect of them leaving any time soon. And citizens rightly question why Ukrainians are getting better social safety nets than they have.

One highly visible clash is over Ukraine grain sales to Europe, which is of such poor quality that it is fit only for livestock. Five European countries tried rejecting Ukraine shipments because they would undercut local farmers. Then Poland, Slovakia, and Poland passed import bans (despite arguably not being allowed to take this measure as individual EU states), which led to Ukraine suing all three countries at the WTO.

The Financial Times today describes how the grain row is generating fractures in the EU:

Brussels is considering whether to defend Poland, Hungary and Slovakia against a lawsuit filed by Kyiv, after the three countries broke EU rules to ban imports of Ukrainian grain that they said were flooding their markets.

The unilateral bans have thrown the EU’s trade policies into disarray and are the most striking signal of disunity among the bloc’s 27 member states over support for Kyiv as it continues to fight against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive, had initially demanded Poland, Hungary and Slovakia reverse their bans, but is now working to “co-ordinate” their legal rebuttals to Kyiv’s filing of a suit at the World Trade Organization….

The EU executive on Friday lifted a temporary embargo on grain exports from Ukraine into the bloc…

Poland, Hungary and Slovakia responded by imposing unilateral bans, going against EU policy of acting in unison on trade matters and raising an awkward situation for the commission….

Romania has not applied unilateral measures but Bulgaria introduced a ban on sunflower seeds from Ukraine on Wednesday after days of protests by farmers.

This is almost suicidally ill timed. Even if Ukraine thought it needed to sue, it would have been prudent to wait until elections were over in Poland and Slovakia (both in upcoming weeks) where anti-giving-Ukraine-a-blank-check parties are doing well enough that they could win or become the lead actors in a coalition government. If one or both countries wind up having their voters repudiate Project Ukraine, this will put the US on its back foot in a major way. A loss by Ukraine stalwarts would be a mere sighting shot but would greatly worry other EU leaders. But for Russia-hating Poland’s voters to back off from Project Ukraine would throw a wrench in any US “coalition of the willing” escalation fantasies, since many hawks have assumed Poland would be wiling to supply troops and materiel for direct action if push came to shove.

By Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst who specializes in the global systemic transition to multipolarity in the New Cold War. He has a PhD from MGIMO, which is under the umbrella of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Originally published at his website

Both parties are in a dilemma whereby each believes that they have more to gain at the level of national and political interests by escalating tensions than by being the first to de-escalate them. A self-sustaining cycle is thus in the process of forming, which risks leading to such a drastic deterioration of their ties that the presently dismal state thereof might soon be looked fondly upon.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s revelation to local media on Wednesday that his country had stopped supplying arms to Ukraine in favor of arming itself showed just how far bilateral ties have plunged over the past week. Warsaw unilaterally extended restrictions on its eastern neighbor’s agricultural imports upon the expiry of the European Commission’s deal on 15 September in order to protect its farmers, which prompted Kiev to complain to the WTO about it on Monday.

Later that same day, Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller suggested that Warsaw might let its aid to Ukrainian refugees lapse next spring instead of extending it, thus hinting at a willingness to expand their trade dispute into other dimensions. If that happens, then the over one and a half million Ukrainians temporarily residing in Poland would either have to return home or go to elsewhere to Germany for instance. Everything then snowballed into a full-blown political crisis on Tuesday.

Polish Minister of European Affairs Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek ominously warnedthat:

Ukraine’s actions make no impression on us… but they do make a certain impression on Polish public opinion. This can be seen in the polls, in the level of public support for continued support for Ukraine. And this harms Ukraine itself. We would like to continue supporting Ukraine, but, for this to be possible, we must have the support of Poles in this matter. If we don’t have it, it will be difficult for us to continue supporting Ukraine in the same way as we have been doing so far.

Zelensky then exploited his global pulpit at the UNGA to fearmonger about the following:

We are working to ensure food stability. And I hope that many of you will join us in these efforts. We launched a temporary sea export corridor from our ports. And we are working hard to preserve the land routes for grain exports. And it is alarming to see how some in Europe, some of our friends in Europe, play out solidarity in a political theater – making a thriller from the grain. They may seem to play their own role but in fact they are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor.

Polish President Andrzej Duda’s response that he shared with reporters showed how offended he was:

Ukraine is behaving like a drowning person clinging to everything he can… but we have the right to defend ourselves against harm being done to us. A drowning person is extremely dangerous, he can pull you down to the depths… simply drown the rescuer. We must act to protect ourselves from the harm being done to us, because if the drowning person… drowns us, he will not get help. So we have to take care of our interests and we will do it effectively and decisively.

It was against this backdrop that Poland urgently summoned the Ukrainian Ambassador on Wednesday, after which Morawiecki revealed later that day that Poland is no longer sending weapons to Kiev. Prior to Ukraine complaining to the WTO about Poland, which is what set this fast-moving sequence of events into motion, tensions were already boiling for some time as a result of the failed counteroffensive sobering them up from the mutual delusion of seemingly inevitable victory over Russia.

These neighboring nations then naturally began to fall out with one another as the full range of their preexisting differences were exacerbated and quickly reshaped bilateral relations. Their trade dispute was just the tip of the iceberg but it showed that each side was starting to prioritize their contradictory national interests at the expense of shared political ones. This signaled to their societies that it was now once again acceptable target the other with nationalist rage instead of focusing solely on Russia.

All this have been prevented, however, if only Ukraine showed some gratefulness to Poland for everything that Warsaw did for it these past 19 months and didn’t complain to the WTO about the grain issue. Even worse was Zelensky breaking the taboo of accusing his Polish counterpart of all people, who leads one of the world’s most Russophobic states in history, of supposedly doing Russia’s geopolitical bidding. He crossed a red line and there’s now no going back to their previously illusory mutual trust.

Polish-Ukrainian ties are expected to plunge even further in the coming weeks as the first approaches its next elections on 15 October, which the ruling “Law & Justice” (PiS) party hopes to win by making everything about national security. This explains why they cut off arms shipments to Ukraine in response to Zelensky’s ridiculous innuendo about Poland being a Russian puppet, and it’s possible that more such meaningful moves might soon follow to remind Ukraine that it’s indebted to Poland for its survival.

With these calculations in mind, it can confidently be predicted that Polish-Ukrainian ties will likely continue plunging till mid-October at the earliest, after which they might rebound if the “Civic Platform” (PO) opposition’s latest media campaignsucceeds in turning enough rural voters against PiS. It’ll be an uphill battle for them, and PiS could possibly form a coalition government with the anti-establishmentConfederation party if they aren’t totally trounced, so PO’s return to power isn’t guaranteed.

That being the case, there’s a credible chance that Polish-Ukrainian ties could plunge even further across the coming year, especially if PiS is forced into a coalition government with Confederation. The first has come to resent Zelensky in recent months while the latter was consistently against Poland’s leading role in waging NATO’s proxy war on Russia through Ukraine, which could lead to a devastating combination for Kiev. In such a situation, everything might get much worse, and at an even faster pace at that.

Absent PO’s victory at the polls next month, the only other variable that could realistically offset this scenario is if Kiev backtracks on its threatened WTO lawsuit and Zelensky finally shows sincere gratitude in public for everything that Poland has done for Ukraine. Nobody should get their hopes up about that, however, since he’s expected to seek re-election next spring and might worry that walking back on his newly assertive policy towards Poland could lose him the nationalist vote.

Both parties are therefore in a dilemma whereby each believes that they have more to gain at the level of national and political interests by escalating tensions than by being the first to de-escalate them. A self-sustaining cycle is thus in the process of forming, which risks leading to such a drastic deterioration of their ties that the presently dismal state thereof might soon be looked fondly upon. This is especially so if Poland moves to more openly exert its creeping hegemony over Western Ukraine in the near future.

To be clear, the aforementioned sequence of events is the absolute worst-case scenario and accordingly isn’t all that likely, but it also can’t be ruled out either since few foresaw how far their ties would plunge just a few short months ago. It’s undeniable that Polish-Ukrainian relations have entered a period of uncertainty that might last for a while so both would do well to prepare their societies for the possibility of continued tensions so that they can most effectively adapt to this emerging geostrategic reality.

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