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Kiev needs Warsaw more than Warsaw needs Kiev. And yet it is Ukraine that is dealing the cards in this alliance, making demands, and defending its own interests. This needs to change.

Maciej Pieczyński

For several months now, the threat of Russian aggression has been hanging over Ukraine. It would seem that in the situation at hand, Kiev should strive for the best possible relations with perhaps its most faithful ally in the structures of NATO and the EU – Warsaw is one of the few European capitals that have consistently and comprehensively warned the world against Russian imperialism, constantly reminding about the situation in Crimea and Donbas. Poland is not only Ukraine’s advocate in its efforts to integrate with the West, but also a country on the territory of which there are real and potential supply chains of military aid to Kiev. We have declared that we will provide Ukraine with ammunition, anti-aircraft weapons, light mortars, and reconnaissance drones. A Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade has been operating for years, and the BBC has just announced plans to establish an alliance of Poland, Ukraine and Great Britain. In addition, there are over a million Ukrainians working in Poland. In the event of a possible Russian invasion, this number will increase dramatically. It is obvious that that they will be looking for shelter in Poland – this time it won’t be economic migrants, but refugees.

An ally that is a rival?

Warsaw is treating Kiev as an ally. Kiev is treating Warsaw as a rival. Or like a weaker partner who has to yield to the will of the stronger. This can be clearly seen in the conflict over the transport of goods. Ukraine has blocked rail transit from Asia to Poland. The official reason was the need for renovation work. In fact, Ukraine intended in this way to force Poland to make specific concessions. Kiev suggested that it would unblock transit if Warsaw increased shipping limits for Ukrainian drivers. There was parity in this matter. Poland annually issued 160,000 permits for carriers from Ukraine, and Ukraine issued the same number for Polish transport companies. Kiev wants more now – 200,000. Instead of civilized negotiations, Ukraine chose the path of blackmail. In order to force an increase in a specific number of permits for its drivers, it not only reduced the number of wagons transporting goods from Asia via Ukraine to Poland to zero, but also threatened to file a complaint against Poland with the European Commission. In one respect, paradoxically, a more predictable neighbor is Belarus, which, despite the hybrid conflict on the border, has not – yet – closed transit through its territory to Poland.

Ukraine has achieved its goal. It beat Poland. Talks have started at the ministerial level. Polish transit will be unblocked and the number of permits for freight transport will be increased. This solution is a compromise only on the surface. In practice, Warsaw has succumbed to blackmail and – it seems – will lose a lot. Polish carriers have not used the entire pool of permits so far. It is then hard to imagine that they would need more of them. After all, the game is about transporting goods to the West, not to the East. Poland is a tycoon in the transport industry. More permits for Ukrainian drivers mean supporting competition. If Kiev, even with Putin’s geopolitical knife on its throat, fights so much for its own interest in relations with Poland, why should Poland give way?

Ukraine needs us more than we need Ukraine. One ought to take advantage of this without changing the front, however. It is in our interest for an independent Ukraine to exist as a buffer between us and Russia. And preferably as a friendly country as well.

History shows that Russia needs Ukraine to be an empire capable of challenging the West. Moscow must be stopped. But military and diplomatic support need not go hand in hand with yielding in other areas. Let us defend Ukraine’s independence, not its economic interests. Let’s set terms and fight for what’s ours. Not necessarily using blackmail, because then Ukraine, as in Poroshenko’s time, would put its back to us, facing Germany. However, our partners in Kiev should be made aware that our support is not free. Even if we do not want a Russian soldier to stand on the San River, he must first stand on the Dnieper. Therefore, we do not have to become paranoid and take Russian imperialism more seriously than the Ukrainians. Instead, we should make them aware of a fact that they often forget about – that although we want to help them, our patience has limits, and they are the ones that need help, not us.

Not only the economy

Of course, we are divided not only by the economy, but also – and in fact primarily – by historical politics. One and a half years have passed since the announcement of the lifting of the ban on exhumation. The exploration work started, but for a short time. Anton Drobovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, is a more moderate version of Volodymyr Viatrovych. Although he is against the official state glorification of the OUN-UPA, the consent for the exhumation of Polish victims of Volhynia is conditional on the restoration of the destroyed UPA grave on the Monasterz hill in its original shape. “We can agree to the liquidation of the UPA monuments in Poland, but this means that there will not be a single Home Army commemoration in Ukraine”, he told me in an interview for the weekly “Do Rzeczy” last summer. There is no indication that he has changed his mind. Ukrainian historical politics today focuses less on the cult of the OUN-UPA than in the times of Poroshenko, but still pushes the thesis about the symmetry of fault in the Volyn tragedy.

Ukraine cannot afford to cut itself off completely from the UPA. The cult of Banderites, genetically anti-Polish, is currently clearly anti-Russian. For many Ukrainians, the UPA are heroes of the post-war fights with the NKVD. We need to know this, which doesn’t mean we have to accept it. From the very beginning, the presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to be an opportunity for Kyiv to make concessions regarding historical policy. Concessions, not surrender. Zelenskiy cannot completely and unequivocally condemn the UPA, although theoretically he could condemn the crimes of the UPA. Russian-speaking, but not pro-Russian, in opposition to Poroshenko’s hurrapatriot, which is portraying a man of compromise and consent, is not, unlike his predecessor, dependent on the Bandera electorate in Galicia. That hurrapatriot, liked by the Vistula on both sides of the political barricade for unknown reasons, gave Poland the cheek when he came to Sahryń on the anniversary of the UPA genocide. At the same time when Andrzej Duda was laying flowers in an empty field in Volhynia, Poroshenko, surrounded by activists of the Union of Ukrainians in Poland, was telling in Sahryń about Polish crimes, imposing a false narrative about the symmetry of guilt.

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Poland has to put more pressure on the current authorities in Kiev, but also in a smarter fashion. It should not limit mutual relations to the issue of military security. The dialogue between Kiev and Warsaw has been quite lively in recent days. First the presidents and then the prime ministers of both countries met with each other. Still, the dialogue between the parties is one-sided. Poland is offering more and more extensive assistance, but there is little evidence that it expects anything in return. We need to make our partners aware that they can count on consistent support, but they also have to give something back. Otherwise, Poland may limit itself to words, and be as restrained in actions as, for example, Germany. Without our ammunition, Ukraine will also defend the West against Russia, because it knows that the fight is about preserving her existence. But of course, with our ammunition, Ukraine’s defense will be more effective. Especially since, apart from us or Great Britain, hardly anyone in the West is eager to hold back Russia with such determination. Being one of the few advocates of Ukraine, and risking ending up almost alone with Moscow, we should all the more apply greater pressure on Kiev.

This article was published in February 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.