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WARSAW — Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is in the fight of its political life ahead of next month’s general election — and in its scramble for votes it’s taking aim at the country’s alliance with Ukraine.
The latest blow came from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who on Wednesday said that Poland has halted shipments of its own armaments to Ukraine.
“We are no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons,” Morawiecki told Poland’s Polsat television.
It’s true that Poland has sent most of its Soviet-era tanks, fighters and other weapons to Ukraine and doesn’t have much left in its stocks. Warsaw will also continue allowing arms shipments from other allies to pass through its territory.
“Poland still functions as a hub for international aid,” said government spokesperson Piotr Müller, adding that the country is fulfilling its existing military supply contracts with Ukraine.
But Morawiecki’s comments come at a time when relations between Warsaw and Kyiv are the frostiest since Russia’s invasion a year and a half ago, and add to the impression that the nationalist party is undermining its alliance with Ukraine for electoral gain.
“Morawiecki wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t obvious … but to say such a thing at such a time escalates the conflict,” said Marcin Zaborowski, a director with the Globsec think tank.
The catalyst is grain.
Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have closed their markets to Ukrainian grain imports, in violation of the rules of the European Union’s single market, arguing they need to protect their farmers from price drops.
Ukraine has retaliated by filing a lawsuit against them at the World Trade Organization. It has also threatened to block some Polish agricultural exports to Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took a swipe at those countries at the United Nations this week, saying: “Alarmingly, some in Europe play out solidarity in a political theater — turning grain into a thriller … they’re helping set the stage for a Moscow actor.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda scrapped a meeting with Zelenskyy in New York due to a scheduling conflict, and the Ukrainian ambassador to Warsaw was summoned to the foreign ministry to explain. Morawiecki characterized relations with Kyiv as “difficult.”
In Poland, the core reason for the move is PiS’s need to shore up its support among rural voters and also to peel away supporters from the far-right Confederation party, many of whose backers are skeptical about helping Ukraine.
“Ukrainians ruthlessly took advantage of the Polish government being a sucker, emphasized their sympathy, which of course was not there, took the cash, and now they will declare a trade war on us,” Confederation leader Sławomir Mentzen told the Polish press.
Jacek Kucharczyk, head of the Institute for Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, characterized the shift in tone by the ruling party as “a desperate electoral ploy.”
In POLITICO’s poll of polls, PiS has the support of 38 percent of voters while Civic Coalition, the leading opposition party, is at 29 percent. If that holds, Law and Justice won’t have enough seats in parliament to rule on its own and so will have to try to form a coalition; Confederation is the likeliest target, although the party says it won’t join forces with PiS.
But the trends look worrying for PiS.
The government has been hit with a growing visas-for-bribes scandal that now has the European Commission asking for explanations. A new poll by United Surveys shows that if the main opposition parties join together, they would be able to cobble together a majority government after the October 15 election.
The U-turn on Ukraine may help shore up some of PiS’s electoral base. But it could cause other problems.
It undermines the government’s main foreign policy win. After years of bitter conflicts with the European Union and other key allies over rule of law, media freedom and backsliding on democratic standards, Poland’s strong support for Ukraine changed the narrative in Brussels and in Washington.
Millions of ordinary Poles helped Ukrainian refugees fleeing across the border in the immediate aftermath of the Russian attack. The Polish government sent tanks and jet fighters to Ukraine at a time when many other countries were balking at sending such equipment to Kyiv, fearing Russian retaliation. Warsaw also took delight in pointing out the shortcomings of European countries like Germany and France.
Zelenskyy even called Poland a “sister.”
In an address to the Polish nation made last year in Polish, he said: “I will remember how you welcomed us, how you help us. Poles are our allies, your country is our sister. Your friendship forever. Our friendship forever. Our love forever. Together we will be victors.”
Opinion polls show there is still strong support for helping Ukraine, with about three-quarters of Poles wanting to accept refugees.
“The risk is that PiS voters broadly support the pro-Ukraine policy, and such a rapid policy change could be difficult to explain,” said Kucharczyk.
PiS has toyed with skepticism about Ukraine in the past — raising the issue of wartime massacres of Poles by Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas — but the overarching message was that Poland is Ukraine’s firmest friend.
The narrative shift is being welcomed in Moscow.
In New York, Duda compared Ukraine to a desperate, drowning person.
“A drowning person is extremely dangerous, he can pull you down to the depths … simply drown the rescuer,” Duda said.
That got a thumbs-up from the Kremlin.
“Never before did I agree with Duda as strongly as I did after this statement. Everything he said is correct,” said Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
The Polish opposition is also going on the attack.
Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister and now a member of the European Parliament for the Civic Coalition, called Morawiecki’s comments “criminally stupid.”
“Even if we don’t have much more to give then why is he saying this in public! Does he really want [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to calculate that one or two more pushes and Ukraine will fall?” he tweeted.
Kyiv is now trying to downplay any rift with Warsaw.
Oleksandr Merezhko, head of Ukraine’s parliament committee on foreign relations, said he felt Morawiecki’s weapons comments weren’t linked to the growing trade fight.
“Like every politician, I know that during an election campaign, rhetoric can be quite emotional,” he said.
Bartosz Brzeziński and Veronika Melkozerova contributed reporting.