Poland and Ukraine: The Impact of the Grain Dispute

By Robert Czulda

When in February 2022 the full-scale aggression of Russia against Ukraine broke out, Poland immediately became one of the most important partners of Kiev.

It was not simply a state-to-state isue: ordinary Polish citizens were helping Ukrainian refugees with great kindness and dedication.

It is worth reminding that at a critical moment of the war, Poland provided Ukraine with 325 tanks (out of 575 received from abroad), several dozen KRAB (155 mm) and 2S1 GVOZDIKA (122 mm) self-propelled howitzers, Mig-29 fighter jets, BMP-1 armoured infantry combat vehicles, PIORUN anti-aircraft systems, WARMATE loitering munitions, fuel, spare parts, countless pieces of light arms, and tons of ammunition.

However, the honeymoon period is already over.

Last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky changed his tone. There was no longer any gratitude in his statements.

At the UN forum, he unequivocally placed Poland in the same category as Russia.

This marked the beginning of a crisis and the turning away of many Poles from Ukraine.

Some attribute these words to Zelensky’s lack of diplomatic skills, while others believe that he acted cynically, albeit self-destructively.

In Poland, there are many voices claiming that Ukraine entered into an alliance with Germany and contributed to the electoral defeat in October 2023 of the Polish right-wing government of Law and Justice (PiS).

This was a pro-Ukrainian and pro-American government, whereas the current government is often seen as serving Germany’s interests, for whom Ukraine is secondary.

In other words, Ukraine was supposed to gain closer relations with Germany, but ultimately not only did it not become a strategic partner of Berlin, but it also lost Poland’s friendship.

The main reason for further cooling of relations between Poland and Ukraine is the grain issue.

The Ukrainian approach – emotional, rigid, and unwilling to seek compromise – further undermined the support of a significant part of the Polish public opinion, which began to perceive Ukrainians as ungrateful even more widely.

Ukraine obtained a permission to transport its grain through the territory of Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries, but only in transit.

In other words, it is supposed to reach destinations outside the European Union, such as Africa.

From Poland’s point of view, as well as that of several other countries in the region (albeit to a lesser extent), the problem lies in the fact that some of this grain is illegally sold immediately after crossing the Ukrainian border.

Polish farmers cannot compete with Ukrainian grain because it is cheaper.

This is partly because it does not have to meet very strict standards of the European Union.

In other words, it’s unfair competition that Polish farmers cannot handle.

For Polish farmers, it is a matter of survival.

The problem is significant because there are over 1.3 million farms in Poland. 12% of Polish citizens make a living from agriculture. Only slightly over 40,000 farms have an area larger than 50 hectares (123.5 acres). 90% of farms in Poland are individual farms.

In the case of Ukraine, the situation is different because almost all agriculture remains in the hands of oligarchs and large international corporations.

It is estimated that 93 agro-holdings operate on 6.25 million hectares (15.44 million acres).

The largest company, Kernel Holding, is believed to produce 8% of the world’s sunflower oil and account for 15% of its global exports.

No wonder that in Poland many argue that President Zelensky is a puppet of these large companies and is pursuing their interests at the expense of partnership between Ukraine and Poland.

The fundamental problem is that the conflict is being played out emotionally, which undoubtedly serves the interests of Russia.

Moscow wants Ukraine to lose partners and international partners.

Chaos, hostility, and negative emotions are the Kremlin’s best allies.

Ukrainians accuse Poles of undermining their war effort. This stems from several incidents of Polish farmers destroying Ukrainian grain and blocking some aid transports from Poland to Ukraine (government convoys with aid are not blocked, but private initiatives lack such legal protection and have been detained by Polish farmers on several occasions.

Polish farmers, on the other hand, accuse Ukrainians of dumping and contaminating food. It refers to the use of so-called technical grain in food production, which should only be used in industrial production (for example, for biomass or pellets, which are eco-friendly fuel).

Moreover, according to Polish sanitary inspections, as much as 1/3 of Ukrainian grain contained harmful substances.

The situation is even more shocking because, according to Polish media, flour producers operating in Poland for a long time (often foreign companies) were buying grain from Ukraine that was not intended for consumption.

In the analysis published on bankier.pl, “According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 100,000 tons of technical grain from Ukraine entered Poland. Over 10 times more than in previous years (…) 300,000 loaves of bread made from technical grain from Ukraine have reached the Polish market (…) Polish warehouses are filled with grain.

“By the end of June, grain reserves in Poland amounted to almost 10 million tons. The total storage capacity in Poland is around 24.5 million tons. Farmers can consider this year’s harvest successful, but experts warn that the market may be flooded with a new wave of crops from Ukraine.”

The protests have been ongoing for several weeks. The situation has escalated. Polish farmers, fearing for their future, continue to protest consistently. They burn tires and block government offices.

The European Union, which has broad competencies in agriculture, does not attempt to find a solution

It is worth noting that farmers in Poland, as well as in other European Union countries, are also protesting against the so-called European Green Deal, which involves a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk is set to recognize Polish border crossings with Ukraine as critical infrastructure. This also applies to selected roads and railway tracks.

This means that any protests in these areas will become illegal.

While this will reduce a risk of blocking aid transports to Ukraine, it does not solve the fundamental problem, which is the situation of Polish farmers and the issue of Ukrainian grain. They want precise controls over the grain imported from Ukraine and its transport under supervision so that it does not remain in Poland.

This crisis is unlikely to be resolved soon because neither the current Polish government, which remains under the influence of Germany, nor Berlin, which perceives the recent Polish-Ukrainian partnership as a threat to its dominant position in Central and Eastern Europe, have an interest in doing so.

It is almost certain that the Polish-Ukrainian crisis is and will be exploited by Russia.

The narrative about ungrateful and greedy Ukrainians and about Polish traitors and Putin’s allies is as untrue as it is beneficial to the Kremlin, which has no intention of either relenting in its war with Ukraine or giving up its plan to subjugate Central and Eastern Europe.

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