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Poland's spat with Ukraine angered many in Europe, and was a gift for Putin

2023-09-23 15:46
Europe's support for Ukraine faced an unexpected curveball this week as Poland -- hitherto Kyiv's staunchest ally on the continent -- seemed to declare it would stop sending arms to its neighbor.
Poland's spat with Ukraine angered many in Europe, and was a gift for Putin

Europe's support for Ukraine faced an unexpected curveball this week as Poland -- hitherto Kyiv's staunchest ally on the continent -- seemed to declare it would stop sending arms to its neighbor.

The move came after Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Warsaw for continuing to ban Ukrainian grain imports, and is the latest example of more confrontational behavior from Poland's government toward Kyiv, just ahead of a tight general election in the country.

The political theater has raised a number of important questions, most important among them, will this be the moment that Europe's steadfast resolve against Russia's full-scale invasion finally cracks?

So how did a dispute over grain imports escalate into a diplomatic crisis? The European Union placed a temporary ban on grain imports from Ukraine in May, to avoid a bottleneck of cheap grain that risked undercutting farmers in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. The EU suspended the ban last week, angering those countries, who vowed to keep restrictions in place, and in turn sparking protests from Poland.

Poland is weeks away from a national election on October 15 in which the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is expected to suffer losses. Anyone who follows European politics will tell you that agriculture is incredibly important. Farmers are motivated political agents and citizens tend to care about food security, sometimes disproportionately and irrationally. And the PiS will need rural votes to remain in power.

It therefore makes sense that the Polish government would want to make a tub-thumping, headline-grabbing, nationalist gesture. However, this relatively marginal spat spiraled out of control on Tuesday when Zelensky told the UN general assembly: "It is alarming to see how some in Europe, some of our friends in Europe, play out solidarity in a political theater -- making a thriller from the grain."

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki responded on social media the next day, saying: "We no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming Poland."

Poland has since moved to walk back those comments, promising that it will still send weapons it has already committed to provide. Polish President Andrzej Duda has said his prime minister's words were "interpreted in the worst possible way."

The dispute raised important questions about European unity.

The first and most important point, however, is that no European officials seriously believe that there is about to be a dramatic change in policy when it comes to supporting Ukraine -- especially from Poland.

"This is all elections blabla... farmers are a PiS constituency," says a senior European defense source. "Poland will continue to provide arms to Ukraine. As long as it takes. I have no doubts about that," says a NATO official. "Poles have a vital interest in Ukraine winning this war as otherwise they will be exposed to their arch enemy (Russia) directly, but they have to play muscles now because of the elections," says an EU official.

Despite the expectation that this is all noise aimed at a domestic audience, it is hard to overstate the level of anger at Poland.

A senior EU diplomat told CNN: "Ukraine already offered Poland a solution on grain. Which is why they're so pissed off at Poland. As are 24 member states who have been bullied for 18 months by Poland for not doing enough to support Ukraine."

This sentiment was echoed by sources at NATO, within the EU institutions and from national capitals across Europe.

The contempt is perhaps best characterized by one EU Commission official, who said: "It needs to be seen in the context of the upcoming elections, the nationalist agenda of the current government and aggressive stances on the grain issue, migration and anything they see as a 'threat' to national interests of Poland.

"They also attack Brussels and the EU when it fits their agenda. It's a desperate effort to mobilize the voter -- if you have no substance to offer then you start to create and blame an outside enemy to cover up for domestic policy failures."

The most serious takeaway from all of this is what it might mean for Ukraine in the long-term. The West is currently making a great effort to fold Ukraine into its institutions. The country is currently trying to join both the EU and NATO, for which it has unanimous support.

That support, however, already comes with caveats and conditions. Most EU member states accept that in order to accommodate Ukraine, there will need to be substantial reform to how the EU operates.

If Ukraine were to join as things stand, lots of the funding that currently goes to member states in the form of subsidies -- including for agriculture -- would instead go to Ukraine. Try selling that to Polish farmers.

The current EU structures would also give its newest member massive influence in the institutions, namely the parliament and council of member states.

When it comes to NATO, there are members of the alliance who don't love the idea of a country literally at war having access to the article 5 mechanism -- the "all for one and one for all" trigger that impels allies to support one another.

For a military alliance, many of the NATO countries don't particularly like spending money on defense for themselves, let alone each other.

Poland's arms tantrum allows countries who feel they have been strong-armed -- not least by Poland -- to support Ukraine can now legitimately push back on the wisdom of the West throwing so much support to a country that is not even in the alliance.

The final reason that officials across Europe are furious about this week's events is that it hands Russian President Vladimir Putin a propaganda coup.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the spat, used it to say "there are certain tensions between Warsaw and Kyiv. We predict that these tensions will increase."

Russia's misinformation war is often described by diplomats as a zero-sum game: what is bad for the West is good for Russia. Public spats between the West makes it easy to claim that the West is divided, and a divided West is certainly a good thing for the Kremlin.