Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest backers in the fight against Russia’s invasion, said it was halting new weapons shipments to Kyiv, as tensions over grain exports continued to escalate between Ukraine and its Central European neighbors.
“We are no longer transferring any weapons, because we will now arm ourselves with the most modern weapons,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a Wednesday evening interview with Polsat News.
Poland will only fulfill existing contracts and deliver previously agreed-upon supplies of weapons, Polish government spokesman Piotr Müller clarified to the Polish Press Agency on Thursday, saying that included Polish-made Howitzers. He cited “totally unacceptable statements and public gestures” by Ukraine in the decision.
But Poland appeared to attempt to ease tensions later Thursday, as President Andrzej Duda called for calm and warned against an “over-interpretation” of the prime minister’s comments. He said Morawiecki meant that Poland wouldn’t transfer new weapons from the stocks it had purchased from countries such as the United States and South Korea. Speaking to Polish reporters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he said it was still possible that weapons from old army stocks could be transferred to Kyiv “just as we have done before.”
Russia has targeted Ukraine’s vital agricultural sector, disrupting transit routes in the Black Sea and repeatedly bombing the country’s grain infrastructure. That has left Ukraine desperate for other export routes, but it also prompted Poland and other neighboring countries to seek to protect their farmers from a market flooded with low-cost Ukrainian grain.
Poland, Hungary and Slovakia said last week they would keep in place a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain products as an agreement with the European Union expired.
For Poland, the end of the E.U.-sanctioned embargo occurred just a month ahead of elections, in which the right-wing populist Law and Justice party is battling to stay in power. The party presents itself as the champion of Polish farmers and had amped up rhetoric against the E.U. at campaign events, promising to protect Polish grain producers.Ukrainian officials pledged this week to take legal action against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia to overturn the ban, though Kyiv’s chances of achieving a quick remedy seemed virtually nonexistent.
The increasingly bitter dispute has upended the relationship between Ukraine and one of its strongest backers. Poland is the sixth-biggest military donor to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and it has taken in more than 1.5 million refugees.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky caused fury in Warsaw on Tuesday when, during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he insinuated that Poland was playing into the hands of Russia. He accused “some in Europe” of feigning solidarity in “political theater” and creating a “thriller from the grain.”
“They may seem to play their own role, but in fact, they are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor,” Zelensky said.
Poland summoned the Ukrainian ambassador in Warsaw on Wednesday in response to the comments.
Speaking to Polsat, Morawiecki condemned Zelensky’s “very strong words,” which he said Poland “fundamentally” rejects.“We send words of warning to Kyiv not to play such notes, which were in fact immediately picked up on in Poland by the so-called Russian trolls,” he said.
Given Poland’s support for Ukraine, including by lobbying Germany to send arms, such words are “doubly unfair,” Morawiecki said. Talks between Ukraine and Poland are ongoing, but the interests of Polish farmers “will certainly always be the most important to me,” he said.
On Thursday, the Polish Embassy in Washington elaborated on the government’s position with a nine-point statement, concluding that while Poland continues to support the beginning of negotiations over Ukraine’s membership in the E.U., those talks “will need to take into account Polish interests.”The fight between Warsaw and Kyiv demonstrates that Moscow has achieved some success with its brutal and sustained attacks on Ukraine’s agriculture sector.
Morawiecki’s Law and Justice party counts the agricultural areas along the border with Ukraine as its heartland of support and is battling ahead of next month’s elections to maintain the backing of voters there, including those who have been considering the extreme right-wing Konfederacja party, known for its anti-Ukraine rhetoric.
Like Poland, Slovakia is facing a hard-fought election, with voters there going to the polls Sept. 30. Appeasing farmers is seen as key to keeping populist former prime minister Robert Fico from returning to power.
Slovakia and Ukraine reached agreement on a new licensing system for trading in grain during an online meeting between the two countries’ agricultural ministers Wednesday, the Slovak government confirmed Thursday. The country’s ban on Ukrainian grain will continue “until this system is launched and its full operation is tested,” the agricultural ministry said, without giving a timeline.
Ukraine also agreed to halt its legal action against Slovakia within the World Trade Organization and drop threats for reciprocal bans on Slovak products.
While many farmers have decried the imports of cheap Ukrainian grain and support a ban, experts have questioned the impact of an embargo given that prices are more closely linked to global market fluctuations than local conditions.
When it decided not to extend the import restrictions last week, the European Commission said “market distortions” caused by Ukrainian imports had disappeared.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. government official played down the rift, casting it as a heat-of-the-moment bit of electioneering.
“I know some folks feel like the prime minister’s remarks maybe were a reflection that the unity is finally cracking, and I just don’t see any evidence of that at every level,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic relations. “Throughout the bureaucracy in Poland, we saw a firm commitment to stay the course. They see no alternative.”
Morawiecki’s remarks, the official continued, are a “reflection that at the end of the day, we’re all human and there are moments of tension and there can be frustration on all sides, but that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be some dramatic shift in alliance unity or even Poland’s fundamental position and determination to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
“Each country that’s contributing to Ukraine has its own domestic politics. And that’s just the reality,” the official said.