The border was supposed to connect but divides the Polish people and the Ukrainians

Destructive emotions have once again arisen between Poland and Ukraine. Cooperation based on mutual interest and respect could improve the situation.

The situation on the Polish-Ukrainian border has been tragic since the end of November. Ukrainian drivers were stranded for several days, and trucks ran out of fuel for heating. Sadly, two deaths occurred, probably due to stress and exhaustion. It shouldn’t have happened, but it was only a matter of time before the crisis occurred. Several complex problems led to this situation. Firstly, the border itself has been generating tension for years. It started with the harsh treatment of the Ukrainians by the Polish border guard and customs officers. On the other hand, the Ukrainian border service has been plagued by chaos and cases of corruption due to the notorious negligence and underinvestment of the border services of both countries.

After Poland joined the European Union, it was expected to have the resources to strengthen its Eastern borders. It was no longer necessary to fully staff outposts in the West, South, and at the border with Lithuania. However, there is still a need for more workforce at border crossings, including guards, customs officers, and veterinarians, for the sanitary inspection of trucks carrying animals. The long queues that result from the shortage of staff are a violation of human dignity. Additionally, there is a need for more border crossings, and existing ones require better infrastructure to increase their capacity.

The border of pain and grievances

It should be noted that the Ukrainian side also bears some responsibility for the situation at the Medyka-Shehyni border crossing. While plans for expanding the crossing were made and funding secured, the construction has yet to begin. The Polish company UNIBEP SA, which won the bid for the project, has been unable to start work due to the Ukrainian authorities blocking the bidding in a way that lacks transparency. This absence of progress has only worsened the border authorities’ ongoing issues and challenges. The situation has been made even more complicated by the significant increase in passenger and goods traffic caused by the Russian war against Ukraine. Border crossings with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are Ukraine’s only gateways to Europe. Among these, the border crossings in Korczowka, Zosin, Dorohusk, Medyka, and others are the most important due to their logistics capabilities and the significant number of the Ukrainians living in Poland. These crossings are also crucial because of the military and other aid that comes through Poland, especially during times of war. Maintaining the capacity of the borders is vital for Ukraine as it helps transport Western mini-lend-lease supplies, including arms, and supports the Ukrainian economy.

The clash of Ukrainian and Polish economic interests was evident in these circumstances. It highlighted the fragility of the emotions that emerged in the early stages of Russian aggression last year and how easily the complexities of business can compromise them. Various groups with conflicting interests, such as Polish farmers versus Ukrainian agricultural oligarchs or Polish shipping companies versus their Ukrainian counterparts, can quickly torpedo these emotions. A new model of Polish-Ukrainian relations is arising. It is not based on excessive emotions, whether positive or negative. It is not established on formal agreements by diplomats or politicians. Instead, it is shaped by competing interests. If this model persists, the relationship between Poland and Ukraine will likely be marked by ongoing crises. It will ultimately deplete the goodwill between the two countries, deteriorate public support, and affect political decision-making.

Crisis cycles

The border has been a divisive issue for some time now. A notable crisis in Polish-Ukrainian relations, known as the Grain crisis, occurred a few months ago. This problem was triggered by the export of Ukrainian grain to the Polish market. Polish farmers could not compete with the lower prices of Ukrainian products, which caused them to be outraged. The situation peaked during the election campaign in Poland, making it a topic of pre-election games and emotions. However, some alarming comments by Volodymyr Zelensky imply that Poland was siding with Russia by refusing to accept Ukrainian grain. It led to a series of heated arguments between Kyiv and Warsaw, with both sides trying to outdo each other. The Ukrainian authorities resorted to emotional blackmail, attempting to prove that Ukraine required assistance during the ongoing war.

No one in Poland raised any doubts about the situation. However, there was a growing sense that the authorities in Ukraine were being ungrateful towards Poland. It was disappointing to see that they were putting the well-developing cooperation between the two countries at risk in the name of the interests of agricultural oligarchs. Such categories as “friendship” and even “brotherhood” are generally considered inappropriate in international relations, but we started using them last year in both countries. The grain issue has just been resolved, but another crisis is brewing on the border, seriously impacting good Polish-Ukrainian relations. Ukrainian drivers are providing competition to Polish shipping companies. They can enter the EU with the permission of Polish and EU authorities. The aim is to allow Ukrainian trucks to transport humanitarian and essential goods for the struggling state. It would be easier to transport goods to Ukraine with these trucks because European trucks don’t have full insurance in a country at war. Leasing companies usually don’t agree to travel to a war zone.

New model

Ukrainian shipping companies started to take advantage of the situation and transport various goods around Europe on a larger scale. However, this has impacted the interests of Polish freight forwarders, particularly those specializing in transport to the East. They have lost significant markets since sanctions prevented them from going to Russia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan. Polish drivers have pointed out that competing with Ukrainian shipping companies on prices is difficult. The Ukrainians are offering cheaper services than their Polish counterparts. Moreover, the fiscal costs and the requirements related to truck conditions are also lower in Ukraine. It has led to a conflict over competition in the market, which quickly intensified, fueled by emotions. As a result, there is a border blockade, leading to many kilometers of traffic jams, police interventions, and brawls. The situation has made everyone nervous at the border crossings. Also, there have been terrifying reports in Polish media that Ukrainian drivers planned to attack Polish drivers and break the border blockade. Ukrainian media outlets are reporting on the situation in a more subdued manner. The Kyiv authorities are not seeking to escalate the tension. Their primary concern is maintaining the integrity of the border, and they do not want to start a conflict with the new Polish government. As a result, the Ukrainian authorities are refraining from making harsh statements, unlike during the grain crisis.

In November, the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution that called for a solution to the crisis on the border. The resolution was written in a calming tone and was full of gratitude to Poland for supporting Ukraine. Both crises should encourage authorities in Kyiv and Warsaw to develop a different approach to dealing with such situations, as more crises are likely to arise in the future. There is no denying that the ruined Ukraine will desperately try to use its economic advantages over Europe to get back on its feet. Ukraine has several advantages, including its ability to compete with low prices across many sectors, such as agricultural production, food production, transport, energy, raw materials, and industrial production. However, these products are often of lower quality and will likely be the most competitive in the markets of neighboring Central European countries. Any emerging conflicts must be resolved through consultation mechanisms between Poland and Ukraine. It is essential that the operation is within EU structures and can make reasonable compromises, just as it did before Central European countries joined the EU. Around that time, Poland raised concerns among French farmers and the German labor market. However, today, the situation is much more difficult because Ukraine is at war, and market issues are directly linked to the state’s ability to survive.

Michał Kacewicz/

Translated by PEV

The opinions and thoughts expressed in the text reflect only the author's views.