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  • Alexa Hankins

Shifting Support: Poland’s Falling Out With Ukraine

Courtesy of AP News

On September 20th, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced via X that Poland would no longer be providing arms to Ukraine, citing the need for Warsaw to build up their own weapons stockpile. This announcement came as a shock to many. Since Ukraine was invaded in February of 2022, Poland has been one of their most steadfast supporters. So what has changed between now and then? 

Poland’s initial solidarity with Ukraine was no surprise. Both countries historically have fought for their sovereignty due to Russia’s desire to be a regional hegemon. Poland and Ukraine were part of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Russia has frequently held dominion over the peoples of both countries throughout the history of the region.

This historic sphere of influence in Eastern Europe is part of Moscow’s rationalization for the invasion of Ukraine; it is well known that the outcome of the Cold War is deeply integrated into current Russian president Vladimir Putin’s worldview. He once referred to the fall of the Berlin Wall as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” In short, Moscow feels entitled to resurrect the dynamics of the Warsaw Pact: thus, any former Soviet country joining the European Union would be detrimental to Russia’s vision. 

Poland’s decision to send aid appears more of a politically advantageous move than an idealistic one. Poland, being a former Warsaw Pact country, is caught in the crosshairs of Moscow’s future agenda. In light of this, Morawiecki’s explanation of retaining Polish weapons is quite odd. You could argue that the question of Polish sovereignty is being fought right now, in Ukraine. Russia’s engagement in Ukraine makes opening up a second front improbable. 

So why does Poland suddenly feel the need to stockpile defense weapons? The answer is they don’t, really. Their decision, the withholding of aid, is actually meant to be a bargaining chip in the context of a larger issue. 

In February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine blocked Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. In peacetime, over 50% of Ukrainian exports leave the country via their largest Black Sea port. Russia’s actions temporarily stopped Ukraine from using these export routes. This disruption was quickly felt globally, as Ukrainian grain exports feed 400 million people worldwide. Food prices rose worldwide, and in developing countries, there were serious concerns of widespread famine. In short, "maintaining Ukrainian grain supplies remains critical to global food security," according to the EU. It was under these conditions that Russia agreed to the Black Sea Grain Initiative. 

This deal, referred to in the media as the “Grain Deal '' was brokered between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations. It allowed for crucial exports, such as grain and fertilizer, to be exported from three designated Ukrainian ports. The cargo ships were guided around the sea mines by Ukrainian vessels, and then proceeded through an agreed upon humanitarian corridor. Teams of inspectors from all the Grain Deal parties were tasked with inspecting ships that ran through this corridor.

Ukraine additionally combated the export issue by increasing their over-land exports. The percent of grain being exported through Black Sea ports has dropped to 40% post- initial invasion. Some supply was unable to leave the country, but the rest of it was transported over land, through neighboring countries. This became a point of contention for grain farmers in Poland and other nations, who were concerned about this new grain supply decreasing local grain prices. Back in April, Poland was the first to seemingly crack under this pressure when they banned the sale of Ukrainian grain in the country. Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria quickly followed suit, and the United Nations legalized these bands within the same month. Seeing this tension, Russia allowed the Grain Deal to expire in July which forced Ukraine to increasingly use their land routes for exports. 

Polish farmers, a large voting bloc, have become more agitated in recent months over fears of Ukrainian grain trickling into the local markets. On September 20th, the Polish Prime Minister tweeted, bluntly, that Ukraine would no longer receive Polish weapons. This statement remained unexplained and uncontested until the following day, when Polish President Andrzej Duda appeared to walk back this stance. He claimed that the tweet was “interpreted in the worst possible way” and that Poland wasn’t going back on any agreed shipments to Ukraine, just purchasing modern weapons for themselves in addition. Despite being technically untrue, this tweet clearly states Poland's intent to change their aid plan in the near future (but does not mention changing the country’s status as a stopover point for foreign aid to Ukraine). 

The significance of this tweet, and the new foreign policy stance it implies, is entirely dependent on the results of Poland’s parliamentary elections on October 14th. The election has been called “the most important election in Poland since 1989” by Bartosz Kubiak, head of the Warsaw office of the Aspen Institute think tank. Unsurprisingly, the current government’s support for Ukraine has become a major talking point for all parties. 

The current ruling party in Poland is Law and Justice (PiS). Since becoming a majority government in 2015, the party has pursued policies that erode the integrity of Ukraine’s traditional democratic bodies by knocking down structural checks and balances. This election season, their outright majority in the legislature is being threatened by Civic Platform, a pro-EU centrist party. According to Politico, the latter is currently polling at 30% of the popular vote to Law and Justice’s 37%. However, political theorists have not attributed PiS’s recent drop in support to Civic Platform.

Rather, many PiS voters, namely grain farmers, have been jumping ship to the further-right Confederation Party. This group has been very clear about its foreign policy platform, stating an intent to sever ties with the European Union and Ukraine. 

It was this situation, says Boston University Professor Dr. Lynch, that motivated Premeir Morawiecki’s tweet on September 20th. “It’s very similar to the Brexit situation,” he explains, “because Law and Justice radicalized their stance on the war, basically they’re backtracking to stave off a more radical group. But it clearly backfired internationally, so it made Law and Justice look ridiculous.” 

Despite Warsaw’s effort to walk back from this statement of intent, world governments see it as an indicator of a shift in Warsaw’s foreign policy moving forward. Experts agree that Law and Justice are likely to control a majority parliament, but their need to retain the support of Poland’s farmers will force them to dial back their role in Ukraine in a significant way. 

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