Ukraine-Poland row exposes history, limits of devotion

The vitriolic dispute between Poland and Ukraine brings out some aspects of the West’s approach to the war in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government would do well to study carefully.

The dispute originated in charges by Poland and other central European governments that Ukraine’s greatly increased grain exports to Europe — a consequence of the Russian closure of the Black Sea to Ukrainian maritime trade — were flooding European markets and depressing prices for Polish and other farmers.

The relaxation of EU limits on Ukrainian shipments was supposed to allow Ukraine to resume exports to Egypt and other countries where vulnerable populations are suffering from increased prices as a result of the war. A considerable proportion has in fact gone to the EU itself instead. The EU imposed a temporary ban, which, however, it refused to lift when it expired on September 15th. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have however continued the ban, in defiance of EU rules.

The Ukrainian government has brought charges against Poland at the World Trade Organization, and alleged that the Polish move has been motivated chiefly by the government’s desire to hold onto farmers’ votes in next month’s Polish general elections. Speaking to the United Nations, President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Poland and other countries of engaging in theatrics and “making a thriller out of grain.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hit back ferociously:

“I want to tell President Zelensky never to insult Poles again, as he did recently during his speech at the U.N. The Polish people will never allow this to happen, and defending the good name of Poland is not only my duty and honor, but also the most important task of the Polish government.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda added:

“Ukraine is behaving like a drowning person clinging to anything available. A drowning person is extremely dangerous, capable of pulling you down to the depths…and drowning its rescuer.”

In a move widely interpreted as retaliation for Ukraine’s protests against the grain ban, moreover, Poland has halted arms shipments to Ukraine, insisting that it will now concentrate on equipping its own armed forces to defend Poland.

What makes this so extraordinary is that Poland has long portrayed itself as Ukraine’s greatest friend in the West, and has accused other Western governments of cowardice for not doing more to arm and support Ukraine.

The first lesson to be learned from all this is that even in countries whose populations are most supportive of Ukraine, that support will have limits when it imposes high and visible costs on themselves, and that politicians will inevitably exploit the resulting political backlash. This has implications in particular for Ukraine’s chances of joining the European Union.

In the case of Poland and other former Communist states of Central Europe, their path to EU membership was helped by copious amounts of EU financial assistance. The EU’s Regional Development Fund continues to support depressed areas of Poland and its neighbors. Supporting Ukraine to the point where it could enter the EU will, however, be a task of a different order of magnitude. Even before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an average GDP per capita in 2021 of only $4,828 (compared to an EU average of $38,436) and its chances of joining the EU in the foreseeable future were considered vanishingly small.

Moreover, EU countries (in Western as well as Central Europe) were always fearful of cheap Ukrainian food imports. Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU explicitly barred most Ukrainian grain exports as part of the EU’s strategy of defending European farmers through its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This ban was removed by Brussels only in response to the Russian invasion and blockade. Poland has now restored it.

In March of this year, the World Bank estimated the cost of postwar reconstruction up until then at around $411 billion, and that cost will of course increase further the longer the war goes on. The whole of EU spending on depressed areas within the EU in the seven years from 2014 to 2021 was $200 billion. To judge by Poland’s latest moves, it seems improbable that a future Polish government would ask its voters to pay Poland’s share of such costs; and if Poland won’t, who will?

The other thing to which Ukrainians should pay attention is that, as dramatized by Poland’s latest actions, hatred for Russia and real sympathy for Ukraine are not at all the same thing and may even contradict each other. Concerning Polish hatred of Russia, there can be no doubt; but underlying the remarkably harsh rhetoric of recent days has been the fact that historically speaking, Poles and Ukrainians also used to be bitter enemies.

The Polish kingdom, and the Polish republic between 1919 and 1939, sought to Polonize their Ukrainian subjects just as the Russians tried to Russify theirs. Ukrainian revolts against Polish rule massacred Poles along with Jews. Political struggles between Poles and Ukrainians for control of Galicia helped undermine the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years before 1914. After 1918, Poland annexed the Ukrainian areas of Galicia by force, and held them until they were transferred to Soviet Ukraine by Josef Stalin as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – which is why they are in Ukraine today, and not in Poland.

During and immediately after the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalist partisans massacred tens of thousands of ethnic Poles, and Ukrainians serving in the 1st Galician Division of the Waffen SS participated in ruthless German operations against the Polish resistance. In recent years, both Kyiv and Warsaw have sought to play down this history, but memories of it continue to flow very close to the surface on both sides.

This history is peculiar to Poland and Ukraine; but with regard to the United States too, Ukrainians should ask themselves how much of U.S. support for Ukraine is motivated by real sympathy for them, and how much is devoted to killing as many Russians as possible and weakening Russia as much as possible, no matter how many Ukrainians die and how much Ukraine is weakened in the process — as some statements by U.S. politicians and officials have tended to suggest. Thus Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) recently boasted, “We are destroying the Russian army without losing a single American soldier.”

Other hawkish U.S. commentators have argued that it is necessary to defeat Russia in Ukraine in order to weaken China – which is not why Ukrainian soldiers think they are fighting and dying.

An indefinite war with no clear victor will indeed weaken Russia; but it will also ruin independent Ukraine — something that now appears to be a key Russian war aim; and a ruined Ukraine will never be able to join the EU. If this is the case, then Western promises and declarations about Ukraine’s Western path will ultimately count for nothing. Ukraine will remain — as it was for most of history — an impoverished borderland between Poland and Russia.

That is not an outcome that the West should be working towards, however much Russia may also be hurt in the process.

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