Recently there have been voices saying that support for pro-Russian powers is increasing in the EU – especially in Poland. We have all seen disturbing incidents as well as disgraceful pro-Russian banners at the farmer protests on Poland’s border with Ukraine.

But as soon as one scratches the surface, a completely different picture emerges. What we are seeing is a mass movement of Polish farmers dissatisfied with the grain price drop that occurred during the previous Polish government.

In the meantime, the Russian disinformation machine has managed to successfully jump on this bandwagon, sending people, media and money in order to stir the crisis in their favor.

Some gullible journalists are buying it, believing that all of a sudden an anti-Ukrainian power is at play in Polish politics. But nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, we have the deployment of the usual smoke and mirrors, lies and propaganda, all skillfully managed by Moscow operatives.

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Let’s unpack it step by step.

Farmers needed to identify the source of the problem, and Kyiv and Brussels were obvious targets

What do the Polish farmers want?

Polish farmers didn’t take to the streets for no reason. In 2023 the prices they sold grain for were below their production costs. And they had done everything by the book: they had sown their fields, spread fertilizers, fought pests, harvested it all, and suddenly no one wants to buy it for a fair price.

At the same time, Polish warehouses saw Ukrainian grain being brought in. Farmers needed to identify the source of the problem, and Kyiv and Brussels were obvious targets.

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Back in June 2022, the European Commission suspended customs duties on Ukrainian food to help the war effort. The argument was simple: Ukraine must export its grain because it needs money for armaments, and since Russia is blocking the Black Sea ports, the wheat, corn and rapeseed must be transported by rail and truck through neighboring countries. Moreover, Arab countries need this grain very much, so the decision was made.

The former Polish government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party eagerly supported this idea. Even the opposition parties joined in. Everyone wanted to help Ukraine. So as time went by, Ukrainian grain started flowing in. But no effective security measures had been introduced to ensure that it proceed to the ports instead of staying in Poland. So it stayed and began accumulating in Polish warehouses, eagerly bought by Polish firms due to its lower price.

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With all this new, cheap grain on the market, the price of Polish grain begun to plummet. And the price of grain hasn’t gone back up, as promised.

The real reason for the grain price drop

Although imports from Ukraine have lowered sales prices in Poland and clogged some grain warehouses, they are not the main culprit of the price drop. The total volume of Ukrainian grain that made its way to Polish warehouses accounted for less than 10 percent of the total Polish annual production. The angry farmers blocking the border crossings will not tell you this, but in fact, the biggest culprit is somewhere else.

It is Moscow, not Kyiv, that has successfully spurred a decline in grain prices on international commodities exchanges. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter. And as it just so happened, Russia has had a great harvest two years in a row. After occupying parts of Ukraine, it also stole millions of tons of Ukrainian grain stored there. Since it needs money to wage war, it dumped its enormous surplus on the world market far below usual market levels. And that is why wheat on world markets today costs not $350 per metric ton, but $210.

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Yes, it is even cheaper in Poland, because Polish farmers sell it for $163 – and this is the result of the inflow of Ukrainian wheat. But even if not a single grain came from Ukraine, the price would not return to $350.

How is Russia taking advantage of the situation?

Where did the champagne corks pop? Obviously in the Kremlin. Nobody will find it surprising that Moscow uses elections, protests and social unrest as tools of its hybrid warfare. Within the last few years, there have been many reports about how Russia meddles in the domestic and bilateral affairs of third countries. Moldova, Slovakia, the Baltic states – wherever there is any pro-Russian sentiment, Kremlin operatives come in with cash, expertise and a plan.

In Poland, however, things are totally different. Not only is any form of pro-Russian sentiment non-existent in the mainstream of politics, but the society as whole is rooted in a deep distrust of Moscow. So if Russia can’t influence Polish society, the main tool left is trying to affect bilateral relations between Warsaw and Kyiv. And the tensions between the government and farmers couldn’t have come at a better moment.

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“Russian propaganda intensively uses incidents occurring during farmers’ protests in Poland to disrupt Polish-Ukrainian relations and negatively affect the image of the Republic of Poland in the West,” claims a Polish agency specializing in fighting disinformation.

Among the protesters who demand to secure their professional interests, there are groups of individuals with no factual arguments but alleged ties with Russia. The people you can find in this group are far-right nationalist Rafał Mekler and Sławomir Zakrzewski, who is known for his ties with the Russian embassy in Warsaw, among others. Freedom of speech and assembly is not limited in Poland, as long as it adheres to the law. This also applies to such events.

What we need to do to counteract Russian meddling

After Polish parliamentary elections on Oct. 15, 2023, the ruling coalition decided to continue the path of strong support for Ukraine taken by the former PiS government. Foreign relations are not a solid state but a process – Donald Tusk’s cabinet inherited the problems too.

Nevertheless, the issues mentioned thus far won’t worsen bilateral relations. Some conflicts of interests just can’t outshine things that unite the countries. Following-up on farmers protests, alongside the criticism over new EU regulations, we can all see some pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian slogans. Russia deliberately fuels it with anti-Ukrainian narratives and uses the protests to weaken relations between Warsaw and Kyiv, and between their societies, which makes it another front line in Russia’s hybrid war against the West.

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With regard to Polish support for Ukraine, the majority of the moods from right to left are enthusiastic, and anti-Ukrainian narratives face huge criticism, but there’s no denying that there’s a downward trend.

There’s no big change when it comes to the Polish political class and public debate. The radical voices that have been seen at the farmers protests are not a part of Poland’s political mainstream. However, it’s impossible to hide the fact that this is a domestic problem for Tusk’s cabinet. Especially in an ongoing election campaign, as Poles will go to ballot boxes and vote for local authorities in the beginning of April.

Further Polish support for Ukraine is not in dispute. Yet such a situation calls for mutual understanding, and joint solutions are necessary.

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After the Polish parliamentary elections on Oct. 15, 2023, the new liberal-left government decided to continue on the path of strong support for Ukraine. However, one must be careful ensure that the anti-Ukrainian sentiment does not spill out from what is still a niche, into the big arena.

Michał Kujawski is a Warsaw-based journalist focused on CEE region, former Head of Current Affairs at TVP World.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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Comments (4)

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slawko
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Michał wydaje się być zadowolony z bycia atutem amerykańskiego imperializmu, wstyd mi, że mój kraj jest dosłownie marionetkowym narodem zachodnich kapitalistów

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Anna
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In other words - Polish farmers were hit twice.
Not only by the fall of the prices on the global market - caused by the increased production of fertilizers but also
by the increased imports from Ukraine that caused a fall of the prices on the domestic Polish market - way deeper that on the global market

John
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@Anna,

You are correct that input cost (fertilizer, diesel) inflation impacts margins globally. Also that in the first year of the war Poland imported and domestically consumed 10% of its own production worth of grain from Ukraine.

However in 2023 while Ukraine common wheat exports to EU (4.38 million tonnes) represented 68% of EU supply last year, Poland itself only imported a minuscule 1 tonne:

https://agridata.ec.europa.eu/extensions/DataPortal/trade.html

This huge drop is explained by newer bilateral rules requiring Ukraine common wheat crossing Polands border, to now be 'bonded' (Sealed transportation), during transit only to nations outside of Poland.

I checked global commodity charts and the author is actually conservative estimating wheat prices drops of 40-50%. Bloomberg business news indicates russian wheat exports have almost doubled since this war started. High inflation, low commodity prices impact farmers globally.

Was there another cereal crop you wanted my to research further?

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Anna
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Polish farmers' protest is two-fold:
1. part is against Ukrainian imports
2. part is against the Green Deal which is raising the cost of production for the farmers while the prices on the global market fell.

Russia after being blocked from selling gas in Europe switched to using it to produce more and exporting more fertilizers, which increased grain production and caused the fall of the prices on the global market.
Therefore they protest against the Green Deal that is upgrading standards which leads to higher cost of production.

The increased Ukrainian imports to Poland in 10 months Jun22-Apr23 - wheat by 16 thousand percent and corn by 30 thousand percent - affected the prices on the Polish market where the Polish farmers could sell their product only below the cost of production.
Therefore they protest against Ukrainian imports.

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John
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We know the economic plight of many wheat farmers these last few years. Finally the cause is exposed.

As per this Polish journalist: "The total volume of Ukrainian grain that made its way to Polish warehouses accounted for less than 10 percent of the total Polish annual production" and thus "they are not the main culprit of the price drop."

Instead russia with its stolen Ukraine crops and own multiyear high surplus has "dumped its enormous surplus on the world market far below usual market levels. And that is why wheat on world markets today costs not $350 per metric ton, but $210." Stopping Ukrainian produce transiting across Poland -Ukraine's shared border has zero chance of fixing this. It just raises the costs of lost productivity for both allies.

Putin already had his trolls and hooligans lined up to foment foreign unrest over this issue. Poland being his most important strategic target.

However Polish people remain rightfully distrusting of their Ukrainian shared enemy; russia. Globally national leadership and farmers realize this is a macro economic event over which russia has considerable control (like OPEC with oil prices). As with all important national sectors that face economic downturn, it may be necessary to consider domestic subsidies until the cause of the downturn ends.

Anna
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@John, so you think that the increase of Ukrainian grain imports in 10 months June 22 - April 23 by 16 thousand percent for wheat and 30 thousand percent for corn did not affect the price of wheat and corn on the Polish market? It was Russians?
hmm... interesting

John
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@Anna, Its all relative. Poland produced 13,200,000 tonnes of its own wheat in 2021/22 fiscal year (FY). In that prewar year Poland imported a modest 3,033 tonnes of wheat. In the subsequent 2022/23 FY year it imported much more: 579,315 tonnes of wheat. Thats a whopping 191 X increase in Polish wheat imports. Is that significantly impactful though?

Doing the math even the 2022/23 fiscal year's increase wheat import still only represent 4.38% of what Poland produces. Not much really and even not all of that can be attributed to Ukraine. The EU and assumedly Poland also imports wheat from Canada, Moldova, Russia and Serbia.

Now what impacts Polish wheat prices more:

1. A 4.38% Polish wheat crop supply dilution from importing
- lowers consumer price and farmer sell price marginally.

2. The EU price increase of a railcar of fertilizer from $2500 prewar to $7000 in 2023?
- that's almost a 300% input cost increase. Note diesel also rose 30%.

3. Global wheat prices dropping 40% in part due to Russian flooding the market with a 100,000,000 tonnes of stolen / surplus wheat last year

Answer: #3 followed by # 2. # 1 ...hardly at all.

Please also read my note above.

Anna
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@John, no it is not relative it is simple:
Polish farmers were hit twice.
Not only by the fall of the prices on the global market - caused by the increased production of fertilizers but also
by the increased imports from Ukraine that caused a fall in the prices on the domestic Polish market - way deeper than on the global market
That is why the Polish government is negotiating with Ukraine the bilateral trade agreement
and
with the EU on the exemptions from the Green Deal.

John
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@Anna, Reread your post. Perhaps you erroneously typed that 3rd sentence?

A fall in prices cannot be caused by increased inflation. Inflation raises prices. Deflation can only be caused by increased supply....as happens when one country dumps a surplus of a commodity on a market.

Ukraine's prime wheat production land has mostly under Russian occupation the last two years. Its' related infrastructure to harvest, store and ship also vastly damaged and reduced.

Ukraine's export of wheat in 2023 was only ~12 million tonnes compared to Russia's increase to ~104 million tonnes. (given stolen Ukraine crops and its own bumper crop). Which nation can better manipulate global prices?

Why is it when only a mere 1 tonne of any foreign wheat was legally imported into Poland last year, that you feel Ukraine can possibly be the cause of low wheat prices in Poland?

These riots are being fomented by russian trolls / operatives based on debunked claims. Apparently 14 were arrested last week in Poland.

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Anna
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@John, both this article and your comments are trying desperately to say
OH, but Ukrainian imports are inconsequential!
yeah the entire two Polish governments consist then of idiots who suddenly decided to

a) introduce a ban on Ukrainian imports in April 2023 - previous Polish government
b) to keep up this ban and negotiate with the Ukrainian side to ... keep up this ban - the current Polish government

and that is according to this enlightening article and your comments because .. Ukrainian imports are "inconsequential"

Congrats on logical thinking!

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Anna
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@John, and before you risk an opinion that protesting farmers are forcing the Polish government to do negotiations

- farmers did not protest in April 2023 when the previous government imposed the ban

- they started to protest only this year - about 9 months later when the Ukrainian side DID NOT bother to negotiate with the Polish side.

John
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@Anna, You've not provided any data that debunks the readily available EU crop data data I provided. Are you saying the EU's data is incorrect?

The angst of Polish farmers is real, but caused almost entirely by low global commodity prices which have dropped >40% for many cereal crops. Ukraine is not in position to significantly impact those. Russia is. The recent arrest in Poland of russian linked riot fomenters seems to confirm their intent to divide allies on this topic.

All markets go through cycles, but this one was triggered by a war in which Russia being the leading global exporter of many grains, has used that power to destabilize crop prices. In alignment with OPEC they tried to drive up oil prices. Commodity weaponization can be used in both inflationary (limit supply) and deflationary (increase supply) directions

Those understanding the data recognize global grain prices plummeting is the biggest hardship farmers face.

You seem desperate to say otherwise. Why?

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Anna
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@John, I am sorry but Mr Kujawski presents only one side of the story - - the problem with the exports by the Polish farmers/
But the Polish farmers are caught in double jeopardy and their protest is twofold - about Ukrainian imports and about not raising costs of the production.

And that is why the Polish government negotiates with Ukraine the bilateral agreement to curb the excessive imports and with the EU they negotiate exemptions from the Green Deal for the farmers so their cost of production does not go up so they would not be cut out of the global market completely.

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