The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought Polish-Ukrainian relations to the center of world politics. Throughout 2022 the two countries enjoyed perhaps the most spectacular upturn in their bilateral history, bolstered by Poland’s support for the Ukrainian war effort and the mass welcoming of Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Last year, a dispute over grain trade spiralled into a public relations crisis. A new ruling coalition in Poland, having ousted the populist Law and Justice party last December, is now grappling with the Polish-Ukrainian relationship and its strategic meaning for global politics.
To explore how the Polish-Ukrainian alliance can be strengthened, Wiktor Babinski spoke with Paweł Kowal. Kowal is a member of parliament and chairman of the Polish parliamentary foreign affairs committee. He was recently designated as the point person in Polish-Ukrainian reconstruction efforts by Prime Minister Donald Tusk as Poland’s special Plenipotentiary for the Reconstruction of Ukraine. Remarks made by Kowal in this interview, given before he assumed his new role, do not reflect the policy, opinion, or position of his office.
Wiktor Babinski: How did it come about that Polish-Ukrainian relations, so celebrated in 2022, suddenly deteriorated so much last year?
Paweł Kowal: The fact that Polish-Ukrainian relations have temporarily deteriorated should not frighten people too much. It was probably to be expected given that bilateral relations after February 24, 2022, were founded on emotions that, at first elevated to extreme heights, then suddenly dropped when we faced difficulties of a practical nature. For this precise reason it was always my position that we should have forged those emotions into legal documents that would regulate our newly‑intensified bilateral relations and thus help avoid the clashes that led to this situation, such as the questions of grain trade and truck freight. The idea is to either create a new Polish-Ukrainian treaty that would describe the state of affairs after February 24, or new sectoral agreements in specific areas—for example, transport and agriculture—that would specify who owes what to whom. I think this groundwork was missing.
Of course, we still have ongoing issues, such as the border blockade, which is the result of the mistakes of the previous Polish government.* When it opened the European market for Ukrainian transport, no proper study was made of what effect this would have on Polish transport companies, and thus they suffered negative economic consequences. Even while seeing that the transport market was crashing, the government issued additional permits for non-EU carriers from outside of Ukraine, making the market situation even more difficult, which I think illustrates the problem. In addition, we also have a problem with Ukrainian grain and corn, which entered through Poland but were not transited further into the global market. Instead, they were incorporated into the Polish market, which greatly reduced prices and had a negative impact on the situation of Polish farmers.
WB: Would you say this is a matter of neglect by Polish and Ukrainian governments?
PK: This is a matter of an unprofessional approach by the governments to the new phenomena that resulted from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition to that, the perception of Ukraine in Poland suffers from the growth of a nationalist symbolism in Ukraine based on the traditions of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the memory of Roman Shukhevych, Stepan Bandera, and so on. These are elements that are of great importance to Polish public opinion and exacerbate certain problems related to wartime economic relations.
I am sure, however, that all of this does not negate the legacy of the humanitarian uprising of 2022 in Poland, the purpose of which was to welcome all Ukrainians seeking refuge and to show Putin that there is not a single Ukrainian who would feel uncared for in Poland if he is a refugee from war.
Now the new government is in a situation where it has to sort out these matters and deal with them. I would recommend approaching the matter with calm and composure. If there are two large countries and one of them is involved in a war, there is no way that there will be no problems. We must not present these problems as insurmountable or as some new quality, a new trend. These are simply elements of normality between Poland and Ukraine, which do not negate the achievements of 2022.
WB: In the October parliamentary elections the only openly anti-Ukrainian party in Poland (Konfederacja) performed significantly below expectations. Does this mean that anti‑Ukrainian sentiment is not as strong in Poland as was feared?
PK: The anti-Ukrainian and nationalist sentiment in Polish society is, in percentage terms, similar to the nationalist sentiment in Ukraine. I would estimate it to be around 10 percent of the electorate. However, in both Polish and Ukrainian contexts mainstream parties, such as Law and Justice in the Polish case, try to use this instrument of nationalist emotions to siphon votes away from smaller parties. This means that sometimes it looks from the outside like the anti-Ukrainian sentiment is very high, while in fact it is small and limited just like the hardline nationalist trend in Ukraine. It is important that everyone understands this. Today, there is no deep or even shallow crisis in Polish-Ukrainian relations.
If we were to recapitulate mistakes, and I already mentioned the Polish ones, I think that the Ukrainian government made two: First, in contacts with the European Commission, it started going over Poland’s head and communicating directly with Brussels. This had a tactical effect, but in the longer term it will make Ukrainian diplomacy more difficult, because it was observed not only by Poland but also by other member states that understood that Ukraine would use such tactics. I can say this openly, because I talked about it and sent signals to decision-makers in Ukraine that this is not a very good tactic. It brings short-term gains, but strategically will make it more difficult for Ukraine to navigate during the EU accession negotiations. Membership negotiations will be linked to the will of individual member states, and those countries will now be more cautious and attentive to Ukrainian movements.
Secondly, the Ukrainian government has avoided contact with the opposition in Poland for the last year and a half. Now, naturally, this process of rebuilding relations based on the new parliamentary majority in Poland will take some time. Although I believe that the Ukrainian government made a mistake here, there is no point in dramatizing it because such things happen. I understand that Ukrainians operate in the conditions of war and that Law and Justice pressured them not to contact the opposition. Apart from these two topics, there are no structural problems.
WB: Immediately after becoming chairman of the Polish parliamentary foreign affairs committee, you got closely involved in shaping the new coalition’s approach to Ukraine, not least by traveling to Kyiv. What is your outlook on the new government’s relations with Ukraine?
PK: Once we tell ourselves what mistakes have been made, these do not in the least invalidate one basic strategic imperative: Ukraine must win. For it to win, the West’s task is to support it politically, militarily, financially. For Poland—for the new Polish government and the new parliamentary majority—this task is even more difficult than before, because there is obviously some war fatigue, but we cannot give Putin time to rest and regroup. This means that the entire year of 2024 must be filled with military activity, which in turn means that the European Union and the United States must produce weapons. The EU has not switched to a sufficiently effective production of weapons, and we as politicians have to mobilize the member states. We cannot settle into thinking that we are safe because the front line has stabilized. This would be a historic mistake because it would mean giving Putin time to regroup and rearm.
WB: Conflicts of short-term interests between Poland and Ukraine exist and will certainly occur in the future. How can we ensure that they do not threaten strategic interests?
PK: I have been dealing with Poland’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe for over twenty years and I believe this gives me a broader view of the issue. I have one basic conclusion: Both Poland and Ukraine need to look at their relations with each other like the French view their relations with the Germans. A new underlying legal document, new contracts, and new official obligations are needed. There is no need to forever consider the relationship in terms of short-lived emotions. It is much better to approach it pragmatically, in a modern way, and say: It is time to base the very intense bilateral relations and the close proximity of our societies and political elites on agreements that give us structure and predictability.
Ukrainians will need such an approach very much during the EU accession negotiations, because the greatest illusion of contemporary Ukrainian elites is perhaps that they think that it is enough to talk to the European Commission. For now, yes; but later—when the negotiating positions will be established, when there will be negotiations in individual sectors—it will turn out that almost every European country has its own interests and is ready to make concessions to Ukraine, but in exchange for concessions from Ukraine on various matters. Then it will no longer be enough to say: We are in a war, so we expect concessions. Because everyone will know that they are negotiating something with a horizon much longer than this or any war.
Paweł Kowal is a Polish politician and historian currently serving as a member of parliament and chairman of the Polish parliamentary foreign affairs committee. Since this interview was given, he became Poland’s special plenipotentiary for the Reconstruction of Ukraine.
Wiktor Babinski is a graduate student studying modern East European history at Yale University. You can follow him on X at @WiktorBabinski.
Image: A graphic displaying sections of the Polish and Ukrainian flags. (Wikimedia Commons: ArturM)
* Since this interview was conducted, the new Polish government reached an understanding with the Polish freight carriers that resulted in them temporarily suspending their protest and lifting the road blockade on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
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