Row over Ukraine Grain Risks Overshadowing Opportunities Ukraine Offers Europe

Assurances of solidarity with Ukraine become empty platitudes without real commitment

19 May 2023

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The economic rift between Kyiv and Warsaw over agricultural goods prompted a dramatic plea from President Zelenskyy not to allow self-interests to drive new divisions between European nations.

The recent visit to Poland by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, represented a real triumph for relations between the two countries.

The dramatic context in which this visit took place cannot be ignored. Poland has never before provided such effective and significant support to Ukraine, becoming one of Kyiv’s main allies in the fight against Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Domestic squabble leads to Ukrainian pain

However, during Zelenskyy’s visit to Warsaw, a simmering problem with Ukrainian grain exports came to a head. Although one might have thought that a visit by the Ukrainian president could provide a good opportunity to resolve the dispute, no agreement was reached. Even worse, after Zelenskyy’s departure, Poland was the first Central European country to decide to suspend imports of Ukrainian agricultural products. This ban not only applied to grain, which was demanded by the protesting farmers, but also to a whole range of goods that have long entered the Polish market.

This decision was met with disappointment by the Ukrainian president and other officials in Kyiv. Similar measures have also been taken in several other Central European countries. In his speech at the presentation of the Charlemagne Prize in Aachen, Zelenskyy noted that “any new barriers that are so reminiscent of old mistakes – whether political or trade barriers – are a threat not only to a particular  European nation but to the whole of Europe”.

Addressing Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sitting next to him, Zelenskyy exclaimed: “Mateusz! No seeds of misunderstanding between any nations of Europe should give rise to conflict! It is in the fundamental interest of our nations. Europe becomes stronger and more prosperous every time barriers on the continent are removed.”

Warsaw’s tough skin

This emotional reaction of the Ukrainian President was unlikely to bring tears to the eyes of the Polish Prime Minister and members of the government and ruling party in Poland.

Why? Because making pathetic speeches and calling on Germany or France to give more military and economic support to Ukraine, which the Polish leaders have done a lot in the last year,  is different from putting the interests of your own potential electorate and hence your electoral result at risk.

However, the problems in relations between Ukraine and Poland are not just about electoral prospects.

This is important, but at the same time, we need to understand that Ukraine and Poland need each other, that Ukrainian and Polish leaders need each other, and that no one wants to lead to a serious conflict. The main question is: what will happen after the war is over?

The grain crisis highlighted the obvious — “open trade” with a large, agricultural country like Ukraine really threatens the interests of Central European producers. Agricultural output forms a significant part of the Ukrainian economy, and with Russia’s de facto destruction of Ukraine’s metal sector, this imbalance will only worsen. If Ukraine becomes a full member of the EU, neither Warsaw, Bratislava nor Budapest will be able to stop its farmers from taking advantage of the single market. So what should be done in this situation?

Poles, just like the inhabitants of the neighbouring countries, have to ask themselves a simple question: are they ready for economic sacrifices, for the restructuring of their economy, for new competition? Ukraine’s European integration will inevitably lead to such consequences. Moreover, it inevitably leads to a redistribution of resources and money among the EU countries. Does Poland really want an accelerated European integration of Ukraine? If so, it will have to be ready to pay for it. It is indeed a risk for Poland and its regional peers. Some have taken a different position – the Czechs said they would not block Ukrainian grain.

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At the same time, Poland and others should understand the consequences of focusing on risks,  “protecting national interests” and electoral results rather than on opportunities. Ukraine’s membership should be seen as an advantage –  it will help expand the European space and create real opportunities not only for competition but also for the integration of the Polish and Ukrainian economies.

It will help solve the complicated problems of the past, such as historical grievances, within the framework of European narratives rather than Polish and Ukrainian stereotypes. The opportunity is to prevent wars in Europe and ultimately make Russia realise that its attempts to “reclaim” Ukraine and other former satellites are pointless. The opportunity is to rebuild the civilisation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a new European political and economic space, in a union of equal nations. If you ask my opinion, the risks are definitely worth taking.

We must understand that risk-aversion is a success not for the civilisation of the Commonwealth but for the civilisation of Moscow. Yes, Ukraine can fend off Russia with the help of the allies, but at the cost of huge human and economic losses. However, abandoned outside the invisible wall of the European Union and NATO, Ukraine is doomed to return to the Russian sphere of influence. A case in point is Georgia, whose leaders, 14 years after their war, still maintain that cooperation with Moscow is the only clear way to achieve economic prosperity.

Therefore, the statement that “we want to help Ukraine win the war and therefore we are its best friends” is not entirely true. The truth is that this sentence should be reformulated to say:  “We want to help the Ukrainians to survive in their country and give them the same chance that we have been given. To this end, we are prepared to take risks.”

It is not only Mateusz Morawiecki, Andrzej Duda or Jarosław Kaczyński who should be saying this – although, of course, it would be helpful if they did.  It is ordinary people who should say it to each other, and then their view will become the view of politicians.

Without this understanding,  support for Ukraine will turn into empty platitudes that will be forgotten in the face of not even the military but the post-war problems of our country. I would very much like it to be different. I would like us to focus not on empty platitudes but on understanding and seeking a common future.



Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Featured image from this set on the Presidential Office of Ukraine. All materials featured on this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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