At the Nato summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, this July, Poland was Ukraine’s most stalwart champion. Warsaw, along with the Baltic states, pushed hard for Ukraine to receive an exact timeline for accession to the military alliance (other members, including the US and Germany, rejected the proposal). As the EU’s main point of entrance for Ukrainian refugees, Poland had also registered 1.5 million people for temporary protection. Many of them quickly found employment, winning Poland international praise for its integration of Ukrainians fleeing the war. Warsaw had also dispatched an impressive array of military hardware to Kyiv, including Leopard 2 tanks, Soviet-era MiG fighter jets, and Polish-made Rosomak armoured personnel carriers.
But it was an event on the eve of the summit that best illustrated the exceptional state of wartime Polish-Ukrainian relations: 11 July marked the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre, or “Wołyn 1943” as it is known in Poland, in which the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) undertook a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing to drive Poles from the border region in an effort to create a Ukrainian nation state.
Polish historians estimate that up to 100,000 Poles were murdered in the campaign. The slaughter is a matter of bitterly contested history between the two countries: the Polish parliament has designated Wołyn 1943 a genocide; predictably Ukraine objects to that characterisation. But on the anniversary of the massacre this year, which coincided with the start of the Nato summit, Ukraine and Poland appeared intent on keeping the historical acrimony in check. In a joint commemoration held at a cathedral in the Ukrainian city of Lutsk, Volodomyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, lit candles in honour of the dead. The service was ecumenical, with participation from both Orthodox and Catholic clergy. Ruslan Stefanchuk, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, told his counterparts in Poland that Ukrainians were prepared to speak openly about the Volhynia massacre. Zelensky and Duda also issued a joint message on Twitter: “Together we pay tribute to all the innocent victims of Volhynia! Memory unites us! Together we are stronger.” Even the most contentious history, it seemed, could be set aside in the face of the common Russian enemy.
That was twelve weeks ago. In mid-September, Polish-Ukrainian relations began a startling deterioration, a month before critical parliamentary elections in Poland. Tensions between the two countries had been intensifying behind the scenes for some time, but a combination of factors forced them into view in dramatic fashion. The clash first became apparent when, at the UN on 19 September, Zelensky accused some unnamed EU members of “feigning solidarity while indirectly supporting Russia“. The following day, Warsaw summoned Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland over the remarks. Within a few hours Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, had stunned the world by announcing that his country would no longer be arming Ukraine. Polish arms, he intimated, were now needed for Poland’s own defence. Meanwhile, Duda gave an eviscerating statement at the UN in which he likened Ukraine to “a drowning person clinging to anything available”.
“The combination of high stakes parliamentary elections coming up in Poland and Zelensky having a lot on the line – lobbying major Western capitals for more support (which may or may not come) and keeping up the counteroffensive – provided a perfect storm for a very unnecessary political row,” Pawel Markiewicz, executive director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs’ office in Washington DC, explained to me.
Zelensky had another, more mundane concern on his mind when he made his comment about feigned solidarity: the cost of grain. In 2022 the European Commission launched the Solidarity Lanes Action Plan, an initiative which allows Ukrainian agricultural goods to circumvent the blockaded Black Sea shipping lanes and be transported through alternate channels into the EU and beyond. But in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, vast quantities of Ukrainian grain began to accumulate, in part because Ukrainian freight trains use a different rail track gauge than the EU standard. This created a product glut, forcing domestic prices to plunge and bringing some farmers to near bankruptcy.
In Poland, Ukrainian grain imports rose to 2.4m tonnes last year, whereas in a normal pre-war year it would only be around 100,000 tonnes. This has created an intemperate political reaction. This spring protesting farmers threatened to interrupt Zelensky’s visit to Warsaw. And in April the Polish agricultural minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, was pelted with eggs while speaking on a panel with the EU agricultural commissioner. With hostility now in full view, the EU decided to impose restrictions in May that permitted Poland, along with four of Ukraine’s other neighbours, to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seeds. Early in September the EU decided against extending the grain ban. But with characteristic defiance, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia opted to continue with it anyway. “Poland will not allow Ukrainian grain to flood us,” Morawiecki tweeted last month. “Regardless of the decisions of the clerks in Brussels, we will not open up our borders.”
With Polish parliamentary elections set for 15 October, the grain issue is of particular significance to the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), which counts rural farmers among its most faithful voters. Ukraine has not let the matter pass lightly either. On 18 September, Kyiv filed a complaint against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia with the World Trade Organisation, demanding financial compensation. There is some tentative hope now that tensions may soon be reduced: on 3 October, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania announced that they had a new plan to redirect grain inspections from the Poland-Ukraine border to a Lithuanian port on the Baltic Sea. But even if this relieves some pressure, the clash over grain is already something of a global matter, evident everywhere from recent social unrest in France prompted by soaring food prices to China’s efforts to reduce its reliance on grain imports from the US, which grand strategists like Edward Luttwak say amounts to all-out preparation for war.
Polish-Ukraine relations deteriorated further after a catastrophe in the Canadian parliament on 22 September, when a hall full of politicians, along with Zelensky, unwittingly gave a standing ovation to Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian veteran of a Waffen-SS unit that has been accused of killing Polish and Jewish civilians. The response in Warsaw was dramatic: Przemyslaw Czarnek, the education minister, announced that he was planning to secure Hunka’s extradition.
While the incident was covered in the Polish media, Markiewicz said its “reverberations were more global”, a rare international glimpse of contentious regional memory politics. “Of course, there were instances of Poles being killed by units of or [by those] working alongside the 14th Waffen SS Division, but my sense is that for Poles, the massacres conducted by radical Ukrainian nationalists in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia weigh much more heavily,” he said.
Beyond the contested history and price of grain, other fissures in Poland’s relationship with Ukraine had been forming for a longer time. While Poland has been lauded for its welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, popular support for so many newcomers is waning. A recent poll showed that among Polish men, only half wanted financial support to Ukrainians to continue next year. Among women, less than half wanted to extend that support. Among younger Poles, the numbers are even more striking: the demographic most opposed to continued assistance to Ukrainian refugees is Polish women between the ages of 18 and 39.
One explanation for this rests in competition for work. As of September of last year, Ukrainians in Poland had registered nearly 10,000 businesses; among those, more than 1,100 were hairdressers and beauty parlours, nearly all of them owned by women. According to available estimates, between 70 and 80 per cent of Ukrainian adult refugees in Poland are women, meaning Polish women have suddenly been forced into fierce competition with hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, particularly for feminised labour.
And in an announcement on 26 September that seemed layered with symbolism, Polish media confirmed that a missile that struck a grain silo in eastern Poland in November 2022, killing two people, was fired by Ukraine. The Polish foreign ministry had said the missile was manufactured in Russia. Zelensky had described the attack on a Nato member state as a “significant escalation” by Russia and called for “action”. While many had long believed the missile had come from Ukraine, the timing of the announcement seemed to put more stress on wartime relations, testing the idea, often attributed to modern Poland’s “founding father” Jozef Pilsudski, that “there’s no free Poland without a free Ukraine”. A protectionist backlash in Poland now appears inevitable, and will undoubtedly transpire elsewhere across Europe.
Such a turn will also come at a cost. Poland’s antagonistic turn imperils its efforts to shift Europe’s strategic centre east. As Chels Michta, a US Army military intelligence officer, wrote in Politico this year, “front-line” Poland has “the potential to change Europe’s internal dynamic, shifting Nato’s centre of gravity away from the Franco-German tandem”. It was Poland that applied significant pressure on Germany to “free-the-Leos” – Leopard 2 tanks – earning it significant political capital within Nato and promoting among the Poles a sense of moral superiority. At a political convention on 1 October, Morawiecki took efforts to revive this sentiment while still criticising Kyiv, cautioning Ukraine against establishing a close relationship with Germany. “I understand that it seems to President Zelensky now that he will have a close alliance with Germany. Let me warn you, Germany will always want to cooperate with the Russians over the heads of central European countries.”
The message was reinforced by a meme that circulated on Polish social media that day, depicting Zelensky held afloat by a lifebuoy emblazoned with the Polish flag, while a hand holding an EU dog collar attached to a leash printed in the German flag’s black, red and gold reaches out towards him. Whether the centre of gravity in Europe can still shift east as Poland and others in central Europe distance themselves from Ukraine now seems in doubt. And whether a Germany in recession, labelled “the sick man of Europe”, can uphold its traditional place as the continent’s engine also seems unlikely, leaving not just Ukraine’s future, but also Europe’s, far from certain.
[See also: The future will be made in America]