Poland ramps up Ukraine criticism ahead of elections

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Poland has escalated its rhetoric against Ukraine beyond a trade dispute over grain, with president Andrzej Duda comparing the war-torn country to a drowning person clinging to their rescuer and endangering their life.

“Ukraine is behaving like a drowning person clinging to anything available,” Duda told Polish journalists in New York on Tuesday. “A drowning person is extremely dangerous, capable of pulling you down to the depths . . . simply drown the rescuer.”

The president’s unflattering remarks came after Poland led a coalition of central and eastern European countries that extended unilateral curbs on imports of Ukrainian foodstuffs despite the EU agreeing to lift them on Friday. 

“We have the right to defend ourselves against harm being done to us,” Duda said.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s rhetoric has grown increasingly bellicose ahead of parliamentary elections on October 15. The rightwing party of Jarosław Kaczyński, once an unflinching Kyiv ally, has seen its support erode, particularly among rural voters who are feeling let down by Warsaw.

During the campaign, PiS has pledged to safeguard Polish sovereignty and promoted farm protectionism — a clear U-turn after it spearheaded western efforts last year to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression. Warsaw also initially favoured the move by the EU to lift tariffs on Ukrainian grain following Moscow’s full-scale invasion in 2022 and welcomed millions of refugees fleeing the war.

Janusz Kowalski, Poland’s deputy agriculture minister, told the Financial Times that Ukraine should consider “the whole picture” and be more aware of growing refugee fatigue in Poland, which has helped boost support for the far-right Confederation party. Confederation is attacking the government for being too generous to Ukrainians who settled in Poland. 

“The Ukrainians are doing things that are against their interest, like for example to fight with Poland and try to convince the European Union to open our market,” Kowalski said. “When we look at the whole picture, not only agriculture, it is not in their interest because the crisis of Polish agriculture will lead to the erosion of social support to help Ukraine.”

Warsaw is now unlikely to extend the current level of support granted to about 1mn Ukrainian refugees beyond 2024. “These regulations will simply expire next year,” Polish government spokesperson Piotr Müller said on Monday.  

Daniel Szeligowski, senior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said Poland’s change of tack on Ukraine was a matter of self-preservation. “Poland’s government will continue to support Ukraine but it won’t shoot itself in the foot.”

After large farmer protests this spring in response to a grain glut on local markets, the Polish government changed tack and unilaterally introduced an import ban. The EU later agreed to temporarily back the import restrictions, which were meant to ensure that Ukrainian grain transits through Poland on its way to international markets.

Kyiv has threatened to retaliate with its own import ban on Polish agricultural products, in addition to a complaint at the World Trade Organization.

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Wednesday that Warsaw was also ready to extend its list of banned imports. “I am warning the Ukrainian authorities, because if they escalate the conflict in this way, we will add more products,” Morawiecki told Polsat news channel.

Brussels lifted EU curbs last week and Kyiv has pledged to enforce stricter export controls to make sure they are not having a negative impact on neighbouring EU countries. Still, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia refused to lift the restrictions.

The grain dispute is also playing a role in the election campaign in Slovakia, where the nationalist Smer party of former prime minister Robert Fico, who does not want to give further aid to Ukraine, is leading in polls ahead of the September 30 vote.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned on Tuesday that the feud would play into Russia’s hands. “Alarmingly, some in Europe play out solidarity in a political theatre — turning grain into a thriller,” he wrote on social media platform X. “They may seem to play their own roles. In fact they’re helping set the stage for a Moscow actor.”

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