The Polish-Ukrainian grain dispute is the catalyst which has freed the demons of the past, and these demons are adversely affecting the Polish-Ukrainian relations.
With Polish parliamentary elections coming in late 2023, Polish government officials are happy to pander to their electorate’s populist inclinations. Marcin Przydacz, an aide to Polish President Andrzej Duda, has made a statement decrying Ukrainians’ lack of gratitude for Warsaw’s assistance in the war. Meanwhile caustic comments by government officials have fueled the anti-Ukrainian sentiment among the Poles.
As President Zelensky said: “But now we see various signals that politics is sometimes trying to be above unity, and emotions are trying to be above the fundamental interests of nations.”
Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS), is in danger of failing to secure a majority in the Sejm (Polish parliament) after the autumn elections.
Opposition leader Donald Tusk wants to restore hope to Poland on Oct. 1. The Million Hearts March is supposed to show the government that the majority of Poles have had enough of chaos and corruption in the country. Needless to say, things are heating up on several fronts.
Three recurrent themes
Given the unfolding chaos, it’s hardly surprising that Ukrainians living in Poland are following the news.
Yet I believe that Polish-Ukrainian relations will endure. Tough times in bilateral relations are ahead but I don’t necessarily see it as something bad. Rather, I see the unfolding crisis as a cathartic process leading to a powerful Polish-Ukrainian alliance. Speaking of catharsis, what are the negative things that Poles say about Ukrainians? When speaking with other Poles, I hear three recurrent themes.
1) I sympathize with them, but I don’t trust them
I’ve heard this one many times. Poles helping Ukrainians because they are human beings, and not because they are Ukrainians.
Poles I talk to are sympathetic to Ukrainians, but there is a sense of fatigue and annoyance. Some Poles don’t trust Ukrainians because of our rocky past. I remember learning about Volhynia all the way back in elementary school.
Fortunately, these fossilized narratives are being challenged now. It’s not a pleasant process, but it’s necessary if both our nations are to finally put the past behind us and move on to a bright future as allies.
2) They wouldn’t have helped us if the roles had been reversed
There is a belief among some Poles that, had the roles been reversed, Ukrainians wouldn’t have helped the Poles fleeing the war. Sadly, this sentiment links with ingratitude.
A volunteer I talked to a few months ago told me that, after seeing some refugees who were clearly rich and not fighting on the front lines, he had serious doubts about continuing to help Ukrainians. And yet, at the same time, he deeply respected Ukrainian soldiers and couldn’t wait to go back to Ukraine to help them. It’s vital to remember that, just like with any other nation, when we say Ukrainians, we’re talking about millions of people with dramatically different life experiences.
3. They are going to drag us into a war with Russia
The sentiment of being abandoned by our allies to fight Russia alone is definitely present. The fear of being abandoned by our allies, only to be devoured by predatory enemies, is deeply entrenched in the Polish psyche. Given our complex history, no one can blame us for being suspicious of alliances and silver-tongued promises. Poles like their wsi spokojna, wsi wesoła (peaceful village, merry village) and we just want to be left alone.
Some of us just want to reminisce about the past and quaint little traditions like kissing a woman’s hand. While it’s nice to reminisce about the past, the world is in a constant state of flux, particularly for nations like Poland – a bridge between the East and the West. We describe ourselves as neither Eastern, nor Western. We’re Polish, always in-between worlds. We don’t have the luxury of isolationism because someone is always going to come knocking on our doors.
And we have every right to be concerned that Russia is slowly but surely starting to knock on our doors again. The Wagner Group on the Polish-Belarusian border is a recent example of this. I’m sure our military has reached out to Ukrainians for advice, given how experienced Ukrainians are in destroying Wagnerites. To keep its hold on power, PiS might play the Wagner card to rally the Poles behind the ruling party in times of a national crisis. Nevertheless, most Poles don’t seem to take the Wagner threat seriously. We laugh at their threats.
Then again, not everyone laughs at the Wagner threat. Lech Wałęsa, a Solidarity icon and an expert on the Russian psyche, warns against underestimating Wagner and Russia. We’re going to pay a big price for underestimating Russia, he says.
Ukrainians understand the Russian threat better than the West
We also see Ukraine as a nation that knows exactly what the Russian threat is like. We’re skeptical that NATO nations would truly help us if Russia targeted Poland. The recent Polish airspace violation by two Belarusian military helicopters infuriated the Poles. Why was there no response? Turkey shooting down a Russian jet immediately comes to mind.
Not one, but three, missiles landed in Poland in December 2022, according to the opposition senator Krzysztof Brejza. Some Poles even wonder if there’s more to it than government incompetence. We appreciate the US officials saying the US military takes its commitment to NATO seriously. But if these incidents keep happening, as they likely will, strong statements won’t be enough. Will the US be there when we need its military might?
We hope so. Polish-Americans won’t let the Polish cause be forgotten. There are around ten million Americans of Polish heritage. Joe Biden grew up surrounded by Polish-Americans in Delaware. He joked about adding a ski to the end of his name. Clearly, Joe Biden likes Poland. Donald Trump, though unlikely to be POTUS again, likes Poland. Will it help Poland in time of need? We’ll have to wait and see. Just like Ukrainians won’t let their voice be silenced, so we Poles won’t let our voice be silenced ever again.
Russian propagandists are trying to drive a wedge between us
Are there Poles who actually want Western Ukraine to be Polish again? Sure, there likely are some strange, Duginesque, characters sitting in their dark rooms, dreaming about the long-lost glory days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Just like in any nation, there always is a group of deranged denizens who are stuck in a strangely romanticized version of the past. The version that only exists in their minds. Or their blog. Despite their delusions of grandeur, they have no impact on policymaking whatsoever. So don’t believe Russian propagandists who know full well they are spouting nonsense about Poland wanting to invade Western Ukraine and Belarus.
We Poles can barely keep Poland together as it is.
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