Polish-Ukrainian relations: between the diplomatic crisis and another strategic communications failure
The grain issue that has persisted between Poland and Ukraine has become a real diplomatic crisis. While this rift will be seized on in Moscow, it is important to note that mistakes were made on both sides. Acknowledging this reality can only strengthen links between these close allies.
The recent situation between Warsaw and Kyiv gained great international publicity and was picked up by the world’s media, as well as Russian propaganda centres. What is particularly striking is the omission of a number of complex factors, which leads to an understanding based solely on the issue of the election campaign in Poland. This leads to many errors in assessing the situation in both countries, but also at the international level.
The ban on the import of Ukrainian grain to Poland was related to access to the Polish agricultural market. These products often did not meet European standards and should not have been admitted at the Polish border. However, they ultimately found their way into food production. Instead of going to global markets, including Africa, grain began to accumulate in Polish silos, complicating the market situation. Moreover, what is not mentioned a lot in the media is that Ukraine immediately reacted with the threat of a retaliatory embargo. This would affect the import of Polish onions, tomatoes, cabbage and apples to Ukraine. Finally, Ukraine made a formal complaint to the World Trade Organisation against Poland, which was followed by harsh statements at the UN. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential consequences and complications caused by this chosen course of action in Kyiv.
Polish internal context: why Kyiv does not care?
The important context here is the fact that despite Poland’s provided aid and admission of millions of Ukrainian citizens, Kyiv still decided to launch such a diplomatic offensive. Ukraine chose such aggressive language during an election campaign in Poland, completely ignoring a number of factors and internal conditions in the neighbouring country. There is a belief in Poland that direct communication has not been attempted and that Ukraine has, not for the first time, chosen Germany. Instead of Warsaw, Kyiv is talking to Brussels (especially the European Commission) and Berlin. The last component is also a gift for anti-Ukrainian politicians in Poland. For some people it may seem that Zelenskyy has just picked a side in the Polish election – the opposition.
Taking into account the growing cost of this war for the region’s societies, including rising energy prices, rampant inflation and rising costs of living and supporting refugees (which is constantly exploited by populist politicians), this is even less understandable. It is obvious that the current election campaign in Poland and the recent one in Slovakia are only raising tensions surrounding the actions of the Ukrainian administration and indirectly providing fuel for anti-Ukrainian rhetoric.
There is also speculation that Ukraine has not yet completed the “de-oligarchisation” process and that this dispute represents one of the main consequences. Such actions and statements also support the narrative that Zelenskyy fights primarily for the interests of the richest Ukrainians, and that the poor will simply suffer on the front line. The main problem with such messages and comments on social media is that they are used to undermine the sense of readiness regarding Ukraine’s potential membership in the European Union. Additionally, some speculative messages started to occur speculation surrounding the actions and supposed hidden motives of the EU itself (especially Germany), which may not like the close cooperation of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria – both on imports and other topics in the region and Europe as a whole. It builds on and resonates with different narratives, that Russia was amplifying for years, that the rich western European countries want only to economically use the CEE countries and do not treat them as partners, but sales market for their products and for acquiring of labour, especially to drain the most qualified employess.
Between the desire to help and legal difficulties: the problem of “technical grain”
In order to fully explain the Polish context, one important factor should be mentioned. Several investigations are currently underway in Poland regarding the falsification of grain-related documentation. Companies bought wheat that was declared to be Polish, while in reality they were sold Ukrainian grain. This entered Poland as so-called “technical grain”, meaning that it was intended for combustion or pellets. To facilitate administrative procedures, such a concept was artificially introduced for a product that did not meet any quality standards. It therefore did not have to be subject to any border controls.
As Wirtualna Polska journalists described it in their investigation: “this classification of grain is just a formal trick that was supposed to speed up the flow of goods from Ukraine across the Polish border. Thanks to false declarations that this grain is not a food product but, for example, intended for burning in ovens, transports from Ukraine did not have to wait at the border for inspections by the by Sanitary Inspection (products intended for human consumption), the Chief Veterinary Inspection (feed) and the State Inspection Plant Protection and Seed Management (seed material). The grain entered as a product not intended for consumption or agricultural production, so it was not tested.”
“In November 2022, when the media started writing about the problem of the so-called “technical grain” and the topic became very loudprominent, a record 701,000 tons of grain and oilseeds from Ukraine entered Poland, including 288 thousand tons of corn and 188 thousand tons of wheat. At the same time, the government assured stated that it was closely monitoring the situation and that any irregularities were quickly detected and eliminated.”
For now, it has been that 1,025 tons of such wheat was purchased by Polish companies without knowledge of its origin or quality. There is serious suspicion that it is only the tip of the iceberg. However, due to the current electoral campaign there is less willingness to analyse this issue to the fullest extent. Various prosecutors’ offices decided to not reveal the names of the companies involved “for the good of the investigation and the protection of the victims”. Everything indicates that a great amount of flour and animal feed was produced with Ukrainian grain that did not meet any standards. The extent of the operation has not yet been confirmed. Certainly, explaining this and providing all the information to the public is not in the interests of the ruling party. However, this does not mean that Poland did not want, and still does not want, to support Ukraine and the world in the transit of grain to countries where it is needed.
In July 2022, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki ordered the then Minister of Agriculture Henryk Kowalczyk to block grain imports from Ukraine. According to Polish data, from July 2022 to the beginning of April 2023, three million tons of grain were to be delivered to Poland. The agriculture ministry has still not confirmed this estimate. Based on journalistic findings from Ukrainian state registers, as many as four million tons of grain, feed and oilseeds were supposed to have entered Poland. Crucially, the Ukrainian rankings did not include product categories such as “technical grain”.
In November 2022, when the media started writing about the problem of the so-called “technical grain” and the topic became very prominent, a record 701,000 tons of grain and oilseeds from Ukraine entered Poland, including 288 thousand tons of corn and 188 thousand tons of wheat. At the same time, the government stated that it was closely monitoring the situation and that any irregularities were quickly detected and eliminated.”
Instead of going to Africa, they were picked up by intermediaries. According to media information from Polish agricultural organisations, Ukrainian transport companies presented some documents at the border and others during purchases in Poland. In addition, there was pressure from Warsaw to facilitate the import of Ukrainian grain and unblock exports to ports. This is because the Polish government had promised such support to the Ukrainian side. However, this did not happen, and various entities, Polish, Ukrainian and third party, took advantage of the entire situation to earn millions of euro. So far, there are no official answers as to why the customs and tax service allowed grain through the border that should not have either under Polish or EU regulations. And there are many more questions around this situation regarding the procedural, control, legal and institutional issues.
The informal leader of the opposition in Poland, Donald Tusk, commenting on the situation with grain, said that the government wasted time instead of solving the problem together with the European Union, securing Polish interests. In his opinion, “it was possible to calmly control sanitary issues at the border, in accordance with European regulations. The fact that there is no tariff in connection with the war and the desire to help Ukraine does not mean that European standards should have been abandoned, because helping Ukraine does not provide for this, that it will be possible to let in everything from Ukraine, regardless of whether it meets the standards or not.” He also pointed out that it should be fully explained why the issues of appropriate controls and sanitary measures at the border were neglected.
The Polish veterinary inspectorate registered transport on the Polish-Ukrainian border, but it also did not publish detailed information about it. there is no information about the volume of supplies, only about the type of grain. It is also known that in January and February 2023 alone, there were 20 companies importing Ukrainian grain, of which seven are companies founded or controlled by Ukrainian citizens. Companies from Lithuania, Germany, Malta, as well as the international concern Viterra, are also mentioned.
Journalists from the media outlet Interia have also quoted the statement of the dismissed Minister of Agriculture Henryk Kowalczyk: “I know who profited from this confusion, but I cannot say it for reasons of legal certainty, so as not to reveal the tax secret. We are considering how to disclose this.” Kowalczyk also admitted that the government allowed at least three million tons of grain to be imported from Ukraine without control. It was bought by local producers because it was half the price of the Polish equivalent. Some, including politicians of the Polish People’s Party, claim that it was supposed to be of lower quality than that in the country already.
Cessation of supplies of weapons and armaments by Poland: unfortunate “clickbait”, not reality
Mateusz Morawiecki’s statement about the suspension of arms supplies to Ukraine is unfortunate, to say the least, but that is all. It is not evidence of an escalation of tension between Kyiv and Warsaw, which the Russians would certainly like to prove. Poland has currently exhausted its stocks of old equipment, all of which was transferred to Ukraine if it was compatible with the Ukrainian army – from Mig-29 fighters to modernised T72 tanks. Currently, Poland is undergoing one of the largest military purchases in its history. In 2022, expenditure on the army amounted to 100 billion zloty, or over 21 billion euro. In 2023, the total budget will be higher and is estimated to reach almost 28 billion euro, which will constitute 4 per cent of Polish GDP (two times more than required by NATO).
The Polish shopping list is quite long: F-35 fighters, Patriot missiles, HIMARS systems, American Abrams tanks, South Korean K2 tanks, K9 gun howitzers, K239 Chunmoo launchers, AW149 multi-role helicopters, and others. Despite this, Poland has not changed its position regarding military, political and economic support for Ukraine. According to experts, Morawiecki may have made such a statement because there may be various pressures on Warsaw to transfer especially Korean equipment from the new purchase list to Ukraine instead of to the Polish army. The Polish government does not accept such a solution at this time and has decided to put an end to such suggestions publicly. However, taking into account the current situation, which has been significantly worsened by Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s statements at the UN, the media are presenting things in a different light.
A forgotten episode: Poles have already experienced a “slap in the face” from Ukraine in the agricultural sector
In July 2014, Poland, or more precisely Polish public opinion and the political class, encountered the incomprehensible politics of Kyiv. This is despite the pro-Ukrainian mobilisation of Polish society and enormous support for the Revolution of Dignity. On July 28th 2014 Ukraine introduced a ban on the import of Polish pork. Officially it was caused by an outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) in Poland, but it did not stop imports from Belarus or Russia, where the disease continued to cause problems. It is also worth noting that cases of this disease appeared in Poland precisely in the border zone with Belarus and it was from there that the disease entered Poland. At the same time, this ban was not introduced against Belarus and Russia – which conspired against Ukraine.
To this day, Ukrainian public opinion seems to have no idea this event even happened. In Poland it was particularly painful for all the pro-Ukrainian activists and politicians. It became a hot topic in the mainstream media at the national level. It gave fuel to anti-Ukrainian rhetoric and introduced to Polish public debate “hard political realism”, and was quickly connected with other problematic topics such as the countries’ difficult history.
Poles interpreted such events as ingratitude and giving in to Russian lobbying and influence, even despite the armed conflict. It was a great surprise for not only Polish manufacturers, but also politicians and journalists, as they became part of the arsenal that critics use to challenge aid to Ukraine provided by the Polish government. At this time, Poland was heavily affected by Russian embargoes on food, grain, vegetables and fruits. The economic losses arising from the consequences of Russian sanctions, basically punishing Poland for supporting Ukraine – made it worse. This also had an international context, as Germany and France started negotiations with Russia directly. Ukraine did not even ask for Poland to be present by its side – neither before or after the Minsk process.
In other words, Poles faced a huge bill for their activities in favour of Kyiv but were ultimately challenged by the Ukrainian government. This has only strengthened anti-Ukrainian politicians, and influenced many future important future decisions, showing that no matter the support, engagement and how much help Poland can offer to Ukraine, Kyiv will focus on solving its own problems and not necessarily remember or show any gratitude. One of the most painful lessons for Poland’s enthusiastically pro-Ukrainian elites was the real example that Kyiv will always choose to work closer with Berlin. Warsaw will subsequently pay a heavy price for any engagement on the side of Ukraine and become a political loser. It appears that we learned nothing from this experience, and Kyiv made the same mistake. Ukraine placed its bet on Berlin, believing that only this will help them to achieve their strategic goal of joining the EU. Ukrainians have forgotten that this did not end well in 2014.
The Polish government finds itself in a very difficult situation. At least a dozen importers took advantage of the situation out of a desire to make a profit and introduced grain to the Polish market that was supposed to be shipped to ports and further to Africa. This was meant to bypass the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. Ukrainian companies were also among the companies that brought about this situation. Much of this grain did not meet EU and Polish standards, and yet it was used to produce food and animal feed, de facto posing a threat to the health of Polish citizens. In addition, their storage in silos meant that Polish farmers began to have problems with selling their products, and grain prices dropped very quickly due to the flooding of the Polish market with imports from Ukraine. This, in turn, resulted in large protests by farmers, which the government could not ignore during the election campaign.
This situation is not connected to Warsaw’s disputes with the European Union. This is not the main issue in the political campaign in Poland. There is also no doubt that the current Polish government or the opposition want to support Ukraine. However, both of them have to protect the position of Polish farmers and there is consensus on this issue – in the middle of a political campaign or not. There are other important questions that need to be answered. Poland is blocking Ukrainian grain from accessing the Polish market, but is not blocking its transit. For Ukraine, Poland was never the primary or even an important market for its grain. What is more, Kyiv is claiming that the highest priority is transit to Africa and other countries, which is impossible because of the Russian blockade of the Black Sea ports. Why then did Zelenskyy decide to escalate the situation to this extent? This does not make any sense. It may, however, result in a flood of new narratives, and, what is worse – conspiracy theories. These include a “planned” diplomatic offensive with Berlin and/or Brussels against Poland, direct involvement in the Polish electoral campaign on the side of the opposition, or fighting for the interests of oligarchs over the Ukrainian people.
From the Ukrainian perspective it may seem that Poland could not properly manage the controls at the border, as well as internal control regarding the grain trade deals and is shifting responsibility to Ukraine. However, from a Polish perspective, the country wanted to facilitate the transit of Ukrainian grain and not create delays at the border, that was why a facilitation of procedures took place. The result was that the grain did not go to Africa, but stayed in Poland and heavily affected the prices for Polish farmers. This is also another source for anti-Ukrainian narratives and conspiracies, which believe that Polish help for Ukraine is not only not appreciated, but will be used against Poland sooner or later. These coincide with many different narratives supported many years ago by Sputnik and other state mouthpieces, which are regularly amplified by different pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian actors (including the idea that after the war, Ukraine will turn its army against Poland).
What we know for sure is that there were mistakes on both sides and both sides decided to ignore these problems. There is a possibility that there was some abuse of the difficult situation and some companies (possibly linked to both governments) wanted to make a huge profit, not thinking about the consequences. There is not enough political will, data and evidence to make any final conclusions. Unfortunately, there is enough room for speculation, disinformation and conspiracy theories, which can be utilised to affect the political campaign in Poland and hurt both the international images of Poland and Ukraine. In the end, these can affect to some extent the will of the Polish people to support Ukraine and Ukrainians still staying in Poland. Poland may not have any older military equipment to give Ukraine, but Poland’s main role was not military support, but being a logistical hub for all Ukraine’s allies. It would be a mistake if Kyiv ignored the broad and complex context of each decision it makes and accused its closest friends of helping Russia, especially when they did and are doing everything they could to support the Ukrainian nation in this war. The transit of grain is not blocked. We can only hope that diplomacy will not be either.
Adam Lelonek, PhD, is a Polish researcher on information threats based in Brussels.
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