‘Realist turn’: Polish support for Ukraine shifts as war enters third year

Poland threw its full weight behind Ukraine after Russia’s invasion two years ago. Now, relations are more vulnerable.

Warsaw, Poland – On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki paid a surprise visit to Kyiv.

Standing next to Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a khaki jacket to match the Ukrainian president’s wartime style, he brought with him the first delivery of Leopard tanks, a solidarity gesture worthy of a good neighbour.

But as the war enters a third year, relations between Ukraine and Poland remain tense as the allies’ divergent economic interests have come to the fore.

No one expects grandiose expressions of support.

Instead, the February 24 anniversary will take place amid prolonged protests at the Poland-Ukraine border by Polish farmers who say the market has been flooded with cheap agricultural products from Ukraine.

“Week after week, Poland is killing Ukraine’s European future,” the European Pravda, one of Ukraine’s most news outlets, wrote in January.

‘Project Friendship’

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland welcomed more than a million Ukrainian refugees who crossed the border without documents and immediately accessed social benefits. Warsaw also supplied Kyiv with Soviet-era military equipment it had left in its reserves and flourished into Ukraine’s staunchest advocate among Western nations.

“The Russian invasion in late February 2022 brought the two nations and governments much closer. At the time, no questions were asked. We rushed to help Ukrainians,” said Bartosz Cichocki, Poland’s ambassador to Ukraine, who stayed in Kyiv following Russia’s invasion as the only NATO and EU ambassador. “While they fought, we took care of their families and provided them with ammunition. It was a fight for survival and a period of great solidarity and unity.

“Unfortunately, most Western capitals were convinced that this war would end in a few days and there was no point in sending tanks, ammunition, or other weapons, because the Russians would soon announce victory. Poland stood out in this context.”

Over the following months, Polish officials made more symbolic gestures.

Morawiecki was part of the first foreign delegation to visit Kyiv after the invasion, while Poland’s President Andrzej Duda reportedly had a direct line with Zelenskyy in the first months of the war.

Poland was also the leader of the European initiative. Initially opposed by Germany, it went on to provide Ukraine with the Leopard tanks.

It seemed as though the Poland-Ukraine tandem, united by strong anti-Russian sentiment, was there to stay.

The end of the honeymoon

According to Poland at War, a new book by Polish reporter Zbigniew Parafianowicz based on interviews with officials and decision-makers, relations between the two countries began to deteriorate when a Ukrainian stray missile fell on Poland’s eastern town of Przewodow, killing two.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Zelenskyy insisted that the missile was Russian, which sowed the first seeds of distrust between the allies, the author suggests.

The dispute rattling Polish farmers on the import of Ukrainian grain has also dampened ties.

In May 2023, Poland, along with other Central European states, banned imports citing protection of the interests of local farmers, a move cast by Ukraine as a stab in the back.

In response, at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Zelenskyy accused Poland of helping Moscow’s cause.

“It was an insult not only to [the governing Law and Justice – PiS – leader Jaroslaw] Kaczyński and PiS, but to the Polish political class, and the Polish political leadership that has supported Ukraine unconditionally,” Parafianowicz told Al Jazeera.

New opening?

With Polish parliamentary elections in mid-October 2023 approaching, the fight for Ukraine-sceptic voters among right-wing parties was in full swing. Polish leadership made sure not to present itself as weak or serving Ukraine at the expense of domestic interests.

In Kyiv, many saw the anti-Ukrainian turn as part of the election campaign. At the same time, hopes were high that if the opposition Civic Platform wins, Polish-Ukrainian relations would enjoy a new beginning.

“Commentators and decision-makers in Ukraine thought that this was a matter of the election campaign only. And when the elections passes and both PiS and [the far-right party] Konfederacja lose, the situation will change,” said Sergiy Gerasymchuk, deputy director of the Ukrainian Prism analytical centre.

But the opposition’s victory did not bring substantial change. While new Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited Ukraine in January and expressed further solidarity in the war against Russia, he made clear that Poland’s economic interests will remain his priority.

“It became clear that notwithstanding the composition of the Polish government, there is a need for negotiations. There is a need to look for compromises,” Gerasymchuk said.

Return of Realpolitik

“There is no collapse of Polish-Ukrainian relations,” Parafianowicz told Al Jazeera. “What we see is a realist turn … Ukrainians have begun to realise that Poland is going to assertively defend its economic interests.”

Both economies boast strong agriculture and transport sectors, meaning differences in those areas could seem inevitable.

Ukraine is likely to work on extending its cooperation with Europe, while Poland will continue to protect its market from possible negative influences of Ukrainian competition.

According to surveys by the Polish Mieroszewski Centre and Ukrainian Info Sapiens, in October 2023, 67 percent of Ukrainians thought positively of Poles. Three months later, the number fell to 44.5 percent. The survey’s authors cited border protests as the primary factor.

But Gerasymchuk remained optimistic.

For him, Poland, along with Lithuania, is still Ukraine’s most loyal ally.

“The European Union is not only about realms where we are all on the same page, but also about economics where we may have different interests,” he said. “Notwithstanding different interests, however, I do hope that the common threat that exists in the northeast will hold all Central Europe together.”

Source: Al Jazeera