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Poland and Ukraine: A relationship in crisis

Lukasz Grajewski
December 1, 2023

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Poland has been a staunch ally of its southeastern neighbor. Now, cracks are beginning to show in this previously strong relationship.

A woman wearing a yellow-and-blue floral wreath on her head and with a Ukrainian flag draped around her shoulders holds large Polish and Ukrainian flags in her outstretched hands, Krakow, Poland, March 8, 2023
Ukrainians in Poland still regularly protest the war in their country. Pictured here: a woman takes part in a protest in Krakow in March 2023Image: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/picture alliance

"In Ukraine, the view of Poland's role is becoming increasingly negative," says Polish Ukraine expert Krzysztof Nieczypor of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.

Nieczypor has just returned from a trip to Kyiv, where he has, among other things, been taking the temperature of Ukrainian attitudes to Poland.

"In the press coverage in Ukraine, our country is seen as being on a par with Hungary and Slovakia, in other words with countries that are skeptical about the accession of Ukraine to the EU and military support for the country," he told DW.

Nieczypor is convinced that Poland's current negative image in Ukraine is the fault of the embargo on Ukrainian grain imposed by Poland's outgoing PiS government and the ongoing blockade of border crossings by Polish truckers.

Headshot of Krzysztof Nieczypor
Krzysztof Nieczypor says that Poland's embargo on Ukrainian grain and the Polish truckers' border protest have damaged relations between the two neighborsImage: OSW

"Above all," he says, "the situation at the border between the two countries is seen in a negative light because the Polish transport companies' protests are blocking the transportation of all goods — including fuels — which are of huge importance for the functioning of the state."

Earthquake in Polish-Ukrainian relations

The current problems between Poland and Ukraine are a massive rupture in their bilateral relations. Just last year, Ukrainians viewed Poland as an exemplary ally.

Journalist Zbigniew Parafianowicz, who has been reporting on Ukraine for 20 years, focuses on this phase of the relationship in his latest book, "Poland at war."

The book caused quite a stir in Poland because it provides hitherto unknown background information about the close relationship between the two countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine early last year.

Personal bond between two presidents

According to Parafianowicz, the close ties began with a two-day summit between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Polish President Andrzej Duda in the latter's official residence in the southern Polish town of Wisla a month before the start of the war. Parafianowicz writes that the two presidents and their advisors bonded during alcohol-fueled sessions.

Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy greet each other warmly as they stand in front of the Ukrainian and Polish flags after commemorating victims of World War II at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, Lutsk, Ukraine July 9, 2023
In the month before Russia invaded Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy struck up a close bondImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/REUTERS

This bond, he says, explains why Duda and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda were in the Ukrainian capital less than 24 hours before the invasion began. During this visit, Zelenskyy told Duda that the war was imminent and that they were probably meeting "for the last time."

According to Parafianowicz, Zelenskyy called Duda frequently in the early weeks of the war, not necessarily with a specific request, but simply as a friend and confidant.

Polish solidarity with Ukraine

The close political relationships and the wave of solidarity that greeted Ukrainian refugees in Poland led to further assistance.

"In the early days of the war, Poland was involved in the rearmament of Ukraine's ground forces, which was of decisive importance for the defense of Ukraine," Parafianowicz told DW.

A bald, bearded man in a black hoodie (Zbigniew Parafianowicz) stands with his arms folded and sunglasses perched on top of his head and looks into the camera
Journalist Zbigniew Parafianowicz says that Poland's early involvement in the rearmament of Ukraine's ground forces was hugely important to the defense of Ukraine Image: Grzegorz Olkowski

The author also revealed how Warsaw handed MiG fighter jets over to Ukraine. Parafianowicz claims that in order to avoid the lengthy and involved approval procedure, the Polish side simply left the aircraft close to the Ukrainian border and informally told Kyiv of the fact.

The message was that the Ukrainians should take apart the aircraft and reassemble them on their own territory.

German hesitation, Polish support

In contrast, Germany hesitated for a long time before providing Ukraine with military assistance. For this reason, Poland hoped that it would have a special role and felt it was finally being recognized internationally for its widely acknowledged support for Ukraine.

But, says Parafianowicz, "the Poles underestimated Germany's role in formats like the G7 and transatlantic relations. The Americans will not see Poland the way they see Germany. The difference in the political potential of the two states is too great."

Propaganda instead of politics

It was only in the second half of 2022 that Berlin offered to support Ukraine with air defense systems. Around this time, election campaigning got underway in Poland, and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party began portraying Germany as its archenemy.

Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk can be seen speaking in front of the logo of the European Commission and the flag of the European Union
Opposition leader Donald Tusk and his allies have a stable majority in the Polish parliament and are widely expected to take their reins of government in mid-DecemberImage: Johanna Geron/REUTERS

This put paid to a joint German-Polish strategy, and once again, Poland was seen as a minor player. In short, foreign policy was being held hostage by Poland's home affairs.

"In its relations with Germany, PiS mistook propaganda for politics," said Parafianowicz. "Ill will and resentment were raised to such a level that it later became impossible to bring them back down again."

A Ukraine-Poland relationship reboot?

Parafianowicz's book can be seen as describing a period that is now in the past: The right-wing conservative PiS that has ruled Poland for the past eight years lost the election in October and a new liberal, pro-European Polish government is widely expected to be sworn in on December 13.

Some members of this likely government have already made noises about wanting to resolve the crisis on the Polish-Ukrainian border. Experts doubt, however, that the relationship between Warsaw and Kyiv will reach the same heights as it did in the first year of the war.

People stand in front of the lowered barrier at the Raja-Jooseppi border crossing between Finland and Russia, November 28, 2023. Snow covers the ground and the trees
Finland has closed its last open border with Russia to stop the flow of migrantsImage: Natalia Smolentseva/DW

At the same time, both Parafianowicz and Nieczypor are of the opinion that Poland will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine. "I am convinced that Poland will continue to support Ukraine in its efforts to win the war against Russia and to drive forward the process of its accession to the European Union," says Nieczypor.

Not only Ukraine is at stake

For Poland, this is about more than just its own border with Ukraine. Warsaw sees the issue of security in a much wider context.

"Russia will be in a position to rearm within six years," says Zbigniew Parafianowicz. "And then it could attack one of the Baltic states. It's already testing Finland at the moment."

Tension has been rising at the Russian-Finnish border ever since Russia began allowing migrants to travel to Finland unhindered. Helsinki has responded by closing the country's borders with its eastern neighbor.

"So, the war is not just about Ukraine," concludes Parafianowicz. "It's about the entire security dimension on NATO's eastern flank and the Baltic and Black Sea regions."

This article was originally written in German.