Polish-Ukrainian Grain Dispute Explained

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 149

(Source: President.gov.ua)

On September 15, the European Commission decided not to extend the ban on imports of certain grain exports from Ukraine. The ban was imposed after five European Union member states—Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia—effectively pressured Brussels to impose it, fearing destabilization of their domestic agricultural markets (see EDM, May 15, June 19). Before the ban expired, some national officials said they would introduce their own bans if it was not extended. Hungarian Agricultural Minister István Nagy even threatened to extend the list of banned products (Facebook.com/MagyarországKormanya, September 13). Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki linked the grain issue to Ukraine’s oligarchic system and the need to protect Polish farmers (PolskieRadio24.pl, September 8).

Ukrainian oligarchs and other large corporate holdings dominate agricultural production and ownership of arable land.  This raises legitimate concerns in some EU member states where agricultural production is fragmented. Of the five countries that had supported extending the ban, only three (Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) decided to maintain it after September 15 (Magyarkozlony.hu, September 15). Bulgaria eventually decided to maintain the ban on sunflower seeds after the protests of local farmers (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 20).

The magnitude of the Polish-Ukrainian dispute is pivotal in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine (see EDM, February 25, June 22, 28, 2022). Tensions began escalating long before September 15. Some Ukrainian officials propagated a false narrative alleging that Poland was impeding grain exports from Ukraine to the EU and global markets. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal described the actions of the Polish authorities as “populist” and likened their actions to those of Russia (Twitter.com/Denys_Shmyhal, June 20). The Polish analytical community perceived this as a possible negotiating strategy. Such an approach may have intended to establish more favorable transit conditions for Ukrainian grain and ultimately access to the Polish market.

Kyiv continued to turn the pressure up on Warsaw. On September 15, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that Ukraine might sue those member states that chose to extend the ban. He posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Kyiv will respond in “a civilized manner” (Twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa, September 15). On September 18, Ukraine moved to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Kyiv warned of potential “retaliatory sanctions” on Polish onions, cabbage, apples and tomatoes (Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, September 20).

The dispute intensified as Polish and Ukrainian officials responded publicly in an emotional and accusatory manner. Tensions peaked at the United Nations General Assembly where Zelenskyy hinted that Poland and others were allegedly supporting Russian policies with the grain ban. He voiced his alarm that “some of our friends in Europe” are sacrificing continental solidarity and “helping set the stage for Moscow” (President.gov.ua, September 19). Following Zelenskyy’s remarks, Polish President Andrzej Duda released a statement using an unfortunate analogy to describe Ukraine as a “drowning person clinging to anything available” (PAP.pl, September 19). Duda also assured the media of continuity in Polish support for Ukraine.

Duda’s and Zelenskyy’s words served to further enflame tensions. The planned meeting between the two presidents on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly was canceled. On September 20, the Polish Foreign Ministry summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, Vasyl Zvarych, to discuss Ukraine’s complaint to the WTO (Gov.pl, September 20).

The dispute then began to extend beyond grain exports. On September 20, Morawiecki, during an interview with a Polish television station, mentioned in passing that “Poland is not transferring weapons to Ukraine” at the moment (Polsatnews.pl, September 20). The declaration rapidly gained international attention. It was incorrectly linked to the grain dispute and misrepresented as a retaliatory measure against Ukraine (Al Jazeera, September 21; Die Welt, September 22). On September 21, Duda publicly asserted that Morawiecki’s words had been “misinterpreted” and did not mean “a complete cessation of arms supplies” to Ukraine (Mind.ua, September 21).

Logistical and military support to Kyiv remains an imperative for Warsaw. The temporary decrease in the amount of Polish arms transferred to Ukraine is due to limited stocks. Poland is in dire need of backfilling those arms already supplied to Ukraine (Osw.waw.pl, accessed September 26). Warsaw is actively pursuing defense production contracts as a means of solving this problem.

In response to Duda and Morawiecki, Ukrainian officials began to strike a more conciliatory tone. On September 20, Deputy Minister for Economic Development Taras Kachka stated, “Ukraine wants to avoid court proceedings in the WTO and reach an understanding through negotiations” (Twitter.com/mineconomdev, September 20). Zelenskyy, following his return from the United States and Canada, visited Lublin expressing his appreciation for the Polish people’s assistance (T.me/V_Zelenskiy_official, September 23). On September 21, the ministers of agriculture from both countries held a phone conversation during which they announced the start of negotiations (Minagro.gov.ua, September 21). And in an interview on September 23, Kaczka stated that Ukraine plans to offer new strategies for trading grain with Poland (Onet.pl, September 23).

This pivot suggests that Ukraine hopes to not only open the export routes through Polish territory but also sell its agricultural products to Poland. During an interview with Freedom Ukraine on September 23, Zelenskyy indicated that Ukraine would seek compensation for losses incurred as a result of the one-sided bans on its exports, which was not received enthusiastically in Warsaw (Uatv.ua, September 23).

It is unlikely that the dispute between Poland and Ukraine will be resolved at the WTO level. This is primarily because the organization does not have the power to compel Poland to take concrete action; not to mention both sides have already expressed their willingness to reconcile their differences through bilateral negotiations. Legally, EU institutions have more leverage in exerting pressure on Poland.

The conflict will likely be resolved only after the parliamentary elections in Poland on October 15. Nevertheless, the potential inclusion of the right-wing Konfederacja party, which advocates for a more assertive stance toward Ukraine, in the government may further complicate the situation (Ukrainska Pravda, August 26).

The upcoming Polish elections importantly factor into the ongoing dispute between Kyiv and Warsaw. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is determined to retain the support of rural voters who have largely contributed to its past electoral success. It is important to recognize that it was not PiS officials who instigated the current row. The ruling elite in Ukraine hold the view that the PiS government sympathizes with Ukrainian affairs. For them, PiS remaining in power will result in continued support for Kyiv. The toughening of Ukraine’s rhetoric may in fact be a ploy to provide PiS with the opportunity to present a robust position in defense of Polish farmers. Alternatively, some Ukrainian officials may anticipate a PiS defeat and are hoping to reconcile with the Polish opposition.

It is critical that Warsaw and Kyiv come to the understanding that both are working in good faith to protect their respective national interests. Poland’s concerns are well-founded, as the influx of Ukrainian grain may destabilize the Polish agricultural market. Ukraine’s position is understandable in economic terms as revenues from its agricultural exports remain a central component of the government’s budget. Kyiv, nevertheless, must be careful in its bargaining strategy so as not to alienate its allies. The breakdown in Polish-Ukrainian relations benefits several external actors (e.g., Moscow and Brussels) and to some extent is being fueled by them in an attempt to achieve their own interests.