As Poland votes, its close partner Ukraine becomes a political football
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If one European nation has stood by Ukraine in its war with Russia, it is Poland. But that partnership is under strain as Poland nears crucial national elections and parties try to take advantage of voters’ frustrations.
But national elections, like Poland’s parliamentary vote on Sunday, have a way of changing perspectives.
Amid squabbles over Ukraine’s grain shipments to the European market, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) has turned military aid to Ukraine and ongoing support for Ukrainian refugees into campaign issues in the upcoming elections. And the sharpness and frequency of acrimonious remarks exchanged between Warsaw and Kyiv have raised concerns from Brussels to Washington that the pro-Ukrainian Western consensus could unravel to the benefit of Moscow.
“This is severely damaging to the European-wide consensus and unity in Ukraine, because every country in Europe is experiencing war fatigue,” says Zofia Kostrzewa of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. is experiencing war fatigue. This is Poland, which has been perceived as Ukraine’s strongest ally. What kind of message does it send to others who are not so supportive?
“The honeymoon is over,” she adds. “[All] this has started a more realistic rethink about what the relationship between the two countries will be.”
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National politics gone international
Its no accident the right-wing Law and Justice chose “a secure future for Poles” as its campaign slogan. Poles have a lot of concerns related both directly and indirectly to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The ruling party promises to keep up support Ukraine, but not at the expense of Polish interests.
It is those interests that prompted the feud over Ukrainian grain in the EU market – a concern for multiple European nations due to the size of Ukraine’s grain production, but Poland was one of the few to implement a ban and refuse to lift it. Ukraine initiated a complaint against Poland with the World Trade Organization over the ban. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy escalated the diplomatic spat by implying in a speech at the UN that Poland was “feigning solidarity by indirectly supporting Russia,” deeply offending Warsaw.
“Zelenskyy’s speech from the UN in New York made a very bad impression,” says Michal Kacewicz, an expert and publicist at Belsat, a Polish television channel aimed at Belarus. “It was perceived in Poland as ingratitude and was condemned by virtually the entire political class.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, meanwhile, compared Ukraine to a “drowning man” that can drag others down with it. And the Polish prime minister announced a halt to weapon exports to Ukraine. The statement has been dialed back to clarify this meant no “new weapons” and that current contracts will be honored, but the damage was done. The foreign minister of Poland, like that of Hungary, skipped a historic gathering of Europe’s top diplomats in Kyiv this month.
The grain tiff plays directly to a key constituency of the ruling party: farmers. And while PiS’s largest challenger is the liberal Civic Coalition, led by former European Council President and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the ruling party also has to contend with Confederation, an anti-Ukrainian, far-right party that could both be a potential coalition partner and a direct competitor for conservative voters. Analysts say that such electoral calculations coupled with the grain issue – which portends a longer-term conflict if and when Ukraine joins the European common market – set the stage for the dispute with Kyiv.
“They will sacrifice everything just to win the elections and then try to reverse or make things right,” says Piotr Łukasiewicz, an analyst at the Polish think tank Polityka Insight. “That’s the mood among the PiS [politicians]. The relations were damaged between Ukrainians, Americans, and the European Union when it comes to Poland. … It should take a heavy effort from the ruling party to restore the former good relations. For the opposition [if they win,] it will be easier.”
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Fatigue, but not rejection
But while PiS lashed out at Ukraine hoping to win political points at home, it isn’t clear whether this will pay off in Sunday’s highly polarized vote.
A poll conducted by IBRiS indicated that 47.2% approved of Poland no longer arming Ukraine because “we are now arming ourselves with the most modern weapons.” Another 44.5% disapproved, while 8.3% gave no opinion. That stands in contrast to a December 2022 survey that showed 77.5% of respondents in favor of transferring weapons and armaments to Ukraine.
Support for Ukrainian refugees has waned as host-nation fatigue sets in. Robert Staniszewski from the University of Warsaw has carried out research that elucidate some of the reasons behind this downward trend. A June survey showed a 13% drop in the number of people who view Ukrainian refugees favorably. Some 39.4% of those who said their attitudes had changed for the worse, pointed to the “entitled attitude” of refugees. Still an overwhelming 85% of respondents said Poland should help Ukraine during the war.
“There is a fatigue,” says Dr. Łukasiewicz. “But support is still surprisingly high. It’s not like we became an anti-Ukrainian-refugee nation.”
And it seems unlikely that Poland will ever completely abandon Ukraine as long as Russia remains a common concern. A United Surveys poll conducted in May found 31% of Poles worry about a Russian attack on Poland. These concerns are mainly concentrated among supporters of the ruling party.
“The threat comes both from proximity to Ukraine, and the fear that given Russia’s belligerence, Putin’s desperate need to shore himself up, and a long history of past aggression, if Ukraine falls, Poland is next,” says Anna Grzymala-Busse, director of the Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University.
For most Poles, Russia is not the immediate danger it once seemed, according to Dr. Łukasiewicz. “Poles believe that that there is no imminent danger for Poland,” he says. “The coalition works. We are buying stuff, heavy stuff. I don’t think there is a feeling right now that we are in the situation when Russia could invade Poland next, at least not in the next few years.”
Still, Poland has doubled its defense spending in 2023 and is overhauling its air defense system. “Poland truly believes that Russia will not stop at Ukraine, that it will come for Poland, just like it’s been doing for … hundreds of years,” says Ms. Kostrzewa. “This historical memory is still very active for us.”