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Why is Poland no longer sending arms to Ukraine?

Priyanka Shankar in Brussels | Jessie Wingard
September 22, 2023

Poland, among Ukraine's staunchest allies, says it will stop sending weapons to Ukraine to aid its war with Russia. The spat comes amid a diplomatic row over grain exports.

Soldiers ride a Ukrainian tank near Bakhmut, an eastern city in Ukraine where fierce battles against Russian forces have been ongoing since the full-scale war began in February 2022
Poland says it will no longer arm Ukraine in a mounting row over grain exportsImage: Libkos/AP PhotoZ/picture alliance

A day after Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that Warsaw would no longer be transferring weapons to Ukraine, and that they would instead be focusing on rebuilding their own weapon stocks, social media platforms were abuzz with questions on whether ties between the two nations had become strained.

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Warsaw has been one of Kyiv's staunchest allies. To date, Poland has delivered military, financial and humanitarian aid worth around €4.27 billion (about $4.54 billion) to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute's Ukraine Support Tracker, which quantifies aid promised by governments to Kyiv. Since Moscow's invasion began, Warsaw has also played a pivotal role in lobbying other EU and NATO members to send more weapons to Ukraine.

Ukrainian grain import ban

In recent weeks, relations between the two allies have soured somewhat after Warsaw imposed a ban on Ukrainian grain imports in an effort to protect Polish farmers from an influx of cheap grain and food imports. Neighboring nations Hungary and Slovakia joined Poland in extending national bans on Ukrainian grain and produce imports. The restrictions were introduced after the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, decided not to extend its ban on imports into those countries, along with fellow bloc members Bulgaria and Romania.

Grain producers with heavy machinery gather on the road, connecting Bulgaria and Serbia, to protest against the decision of the Bulgarian Parliament to drop the ban on the import of Ukrainian grain
In May, the EU agreed to restrict exports to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, seeking to protect farmers who blamed the shipments for a slump in grain pricesImage: Borislav Troshev/AA/picture alliance

The countries argue that cheap grain and other goods from Ukraine are meant to travel further west but actually end up being sold locally. 

Alternatives sought due to Russian invasion, end of grain deal

Ukraine was forced to find alternative land routes to move produce after Russia unilaterally ended an internationally brokered grain deal that allowed for the export of Ukrainian foodstuffs.

Ukraine managed to broker an interim deal on Thursday to license its grain exports to Slovakia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian and Polish agriculture ministers said they were working towards an agreement that would help resolve the situation in a way that takes both countries' interests into account.

'Political theater' only helping Moscow: Zelenskyy

The mounting dispute saw Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tell the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that while Kyiv was working to preserve land routes for grain exports, the "political theater" around grain imports was only helping Moscow as he accused some European countries of showing solidarity in public, whilst indirectly supporting acts which favor Russia.

In response, Poland's Foreign Ministry summoned Ukraine's ambassador, and Polish President Andrzej Duda described Kyiv as being akin to a drowning man grabbing his rescuer and then pulling him into the depths of the water. 

Then came Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's announcement late Wednesday in a televised interview that Warsaw would no longer be transferring weapons to Ukraine. 

Ukraine's President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy participates in a discussion at the UN General Assembly in New York. He is wearing a dark green shirt, and is seated behind a sign which reads 'Ukraine'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his speech to the UN General Assembly to suggest that EU allies prohibiting imports of his nation's grain are helping RussiaImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

On Thursday, Polish officials were defending Morawiecki's comments, highlighting that Warsaw has always been one of the leading providers of arms and diplomatic support to Ukraine. While adding that Poland plans to deliver weapons to Ukraine in line with its current commitments.

"Poland is only carrying out previously agreed supplies of ammunition and armaments," government spokesman Piotr Müller told state-run news agency PAP in Warsaw.

"We would like to remind you that in the first months of the war, Poland supplied tanks, armored vehicles, planes, and ammunition that were key to preventing Russia from attacking Ukraine and potentially other EU countries — including Poland," Müller said.

Warsaw has supplied Ukraine with a wide range of weaponry, including Leopard 2 tanks and Soviet-era MiG fighter jets for use in the war against Russia.

"In the first months of the war, when other EU countries talked about support, Poland consistently helped repel Russia's attack," he added.

PM 'misinterpreted' on Ukraine arms statement 

Duda doubled down on Thursday, arguing Morawiecki's threat to stop providing weapons to Kyiv was "interpreted in the worst way possible." 

"In my opinion, the prime minister meant that [Poland] won't be transferring to Ukraine the new weaponry that we're currently buying as we modernize the Polish army," Duda told TVN24 television.

Warsaw has signed multiple arms deals recently, including with the United States and South Korea, from whom it ordered K2 "Black Panther" tanks and K9 howitzers.

What's behind Poland's row with Ukraine?

"As we receive the new weaponry from the US and South Korea, we will be releasing the weaponry currently used by the Polish army. Perhaps we will transfer it to Ukraine," Duda added. 

Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, an analyst at the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told DW that it is not in the Polish national interest to stop arms deliveries to Ukraine.

"The prime minister's remarks mainly indicate that he is keen to focus on replenishing the country's domestic supply of weapons because Poland no longer has the resources and is in need of a major weapons replenishment process which is going to take a long time ... [But] this is not a political declaration about stopping arms to Ukraine," Prochwicz-Jazowsk said.

Prochwicz-Jazowsk also pointed out that the prime minister's remarks were not just about the grain dispute, but the country's upcoming general election, which is scheduled to take place on October 15.

"There is also a national election coming up. So, there is no doubt that the prime minister, being on television, was campaigning for his own voter base." 

The current populist right-wing government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party has overwhelming support in Poland's farming regions.

"The campaign is extremely dirty and politicians, including the ruling PiS party, are using Polish farmers to win votes and openly saying that the number one interest is Polish farmers. But I do think that will go away even for the ruling party after the election campaign," she added.

Warsaw can 'continue helping Kyiv' 

Leading security and defense expert, Michal Baranowski, told the Associated Press news agency that Poland gave Ukraine what it could early in the war. With no plans for incoming shipments soon, Baranowski doesn't see Ukraine's fighting capabilities threatened in the near future — but still, he considers Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's comments troubling for Kyiv as it seeks to shore up Western support in the war. 

"The message is very bad, both for Poland's reputation but also because Poland has been one of the chief advocates of military aid to Ukraine. Saying Poland will not be sending more weapons means that Poland can no longer play this role," said Baranowski, managing director of Warsaw-based GMF East, which is part of the German Marshall Fund think tank. 

The Leopard Panzer weapons for Ukraine are seen in Poland
Poland has been one of Ukraine's staunchest military alliesImage: Polish Chancellery of Prime Ministry/Krystian Maj/AApicture alliance

With regard to Poland's prime minister saying Warsaw would look at focusing on modernizing its own forces, ahead of assisting Kyiv, Baranowski believes Poland is capable of modernizing its military whilst continuing to help Ukraine in the war.

Poland's attempt to show firmness towards Kyiv, Baranowski remarked, should be understood in the context of the election campaign. Any solution, his GMF colleague Jazowska added, can only be found after Poland's national election has concluded next month. 

Poland a key transit country

Aside from sending its own supplies to Kyiv, Poland is also a key transit country for weaponry that the US and other Western countries are sending to Ukraine, Svitlana Taran, a research fellow at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank, told DW.

"Poland is a very important transit hub for Ukraine and I do hope the recent remarks, even over weapons, were just emotional. A huge number of weapons [destined for] Ukraine also go through Poland. Meanwhile, for Poland, Ukraine is also important economically, so [they] are very interdependent," she said.

European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said that while the EU's executive branch would not comment directly on the remarks made by the different parties, the "EU's policy concerning Ukraine [will] not change [and] the EU's support for Ukraine remains firm." Stano added that all 27 EU nations have agreed to "fully support Ukraine," whilst ensuring that Kyiv can "reinstate its territorial integrity."

Edited by: John Silk