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Ukraine Fatigue: The Decline in Enthusiasm from Poland

Lachlan Forster | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

"Poland stands with Ukraine." by alisdare1. Sourced from Creative Commons.

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a majority of European nations rallied around the latter in solidarity. One of Ukraine’s staunchest immediate allies was Poland, whose own tragic history throughout the twentieth century has fostered a persistent skepticism of Russia. Polish lawmakers quickly enacted a multitude of measures favouring Ukraine’s cause against Russia, offering arms, financial packages and refugee settlements.


However, with the war approaching its third year of active combat, there has been a noticeable slump in Polish enthusiasm to back Ukraine. Poland’s former government, led by the Law and Justice Party or PiS, has had a number of diplomatic spats with Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky over Ukrainian grain making its way onto the European market, as well as the leader’s level of gratitude for Poland’s support. Despite losing the 2023 Polish election, the PiS’ scepticism of Ukraine’s government has shed light on the topic of ‘Ukraine fatigue’. Prominent figures in the United States, Hungary and the European Union have expressed similar sentiments about the cost and effectiveness of supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia.


As Poland’s newly elected, relatively pro-European political parties begin negotiations to form government and domestic economic struggles and security concerns in other parts of the world add to its financial commitments, the country must consider how its support of Ukraine will take shape moving forward.


Poland’s Support of Ukraine


Poland’s immediate support for Ukraine was fuelled primarily by the nation’s relationship with Russia, who it sees as a significant security threat. Poland was a Soviet Satellite state during the Cold War, an era in which its population experienced political oppression, the suppression of the majority religion of Catholicism and exploitation at the hands of USSR authorities. The nation shed its Communist political system in 1989, following pressure from the Solidarity Trade Union and political party, and from figures such as Pope John Paul II, who was a Pole himself. Still, Russia remained a key concern for the now independent nation, particularly as the former occupier began meddling in conflicts within Moldova and Georgia.


Poland became one of the first Eastern European nations to join NATO in 1999 and has consistently encouraged other former Eastern Bloc states to join the alliance, invoking the horrors of the USSR regime and the dangers of an emboldened Russian state. The country’s population remains heavily biased against Russia, which fuelled a massive groundswell of support for Ukraine following the initial invasion.


As nearly 1 million Ukrainian citizens fled to Poland, thousands of Poles opened their homes to refugees while the government gave heavy weaponry and ammunition to Ukrainian forces. Poland was also an important advocate for Ukraine on the international stage. The government even criticised other Western countries for their perceived lack of support, with former Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki singling out Germany for being “not as generous as they should be”. It seemed as though Poland was willing to stick with Ukraine throughout Russia’s invasion, regardless of the circumstances.


Diplomatic Tensions


The decline in Poland’s enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine is the result of a number of factors which have overlapped to create a challenging economic outlook for Poles. As the nearly 1 million Ukrainian refugees began to settle into society and look for employment and education, certain financial pressures, such as the rising cost of living, were exacerbated. With new economic challenges, nationalist political parties within Poland began voicing their dissatisfaction over the domestic detriment of allocating taxpayer funds to supporting Ukraine and its refugees.


Struggles over grain prices also created a tense diplomatic environment as Ukrainian grain, previously sent primarily to Africa, began to be sold on the European market. This threatened Polish farmers, who were seeing their prices being undercut by Ukrainian products, leading Poland, along with Hungary and Slovakia, to retain a grain import ban which the EU had planned to lift on September 15.


Poland’s shutting out of Ukrainian agricultural products created friction between both nations’ governments, further escalated by comments from the President of Poland’s Office that Ukraine should “start appreciating” the nation’s assistance. President Zelensky responded at the United Nations General Assembly, suggesting that some EU countries had been “feigning solidarity” and had made “political theatre” over grain. Prime Minister Morawiecki hit back with a fiery response, demanding Zelensky never “insult Poles again”. The PiS government upheld the grain ban, whilst also halting the export of weapons and announcing that support for refugees would decrease in 2024.


Ukraine Fatigue


A year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that Poland would have a diplomatic dispute with war-stricken Ukraine. Over time however, the confluence of domestic economic challenges and the financial cost of supporting the neighbouring state has sparked Ukraine fatigue within Poland’s government and aspects of its society.


Some observers have interpreted the diplomatic dispute as an attempt by the PiS to attract nationalist support before the October elections. However, it is dangerous to simply brush aside the prospect of waning support for Ukraine as a political stunt. The Polish people are still firmly in support of Ukraine ideologically, however their economic reality reflects global challenges over the rising cost of living. It is this atmosphere of domestic pressures which has generated Ukraine fatigue.


Similarly in the United States, difficult economic conditions caused the White House to warn that it was running out of money to give to Ukraine. In spite of a desire to support the war cause within the west, it will be financial practicalities of the global economy that brings on Ukraine Fatigue, especially during election cycle where candidates may seek to weaponise humanitarian and defence donations for cheap political gain.


The Future


Although the PiS lost the October elections, they still won the highest percentage of votes for a single party within the nation at 35%, leaving them unable to form a coalition but still a popular political force. While the next most popular party, the Civic Platform, is likely to form a moderate-centre government and look to reaffirm support for Ukraine, the economic conditions which have contributed to the rise of Ukraine fatigue remain present.


Poland’s new government will have to find an effective way to tackle domestic challenges aggravated by Poland’s enthusiastic early wartime support, in order to balance the nation’s desire to help Ukraine with the reality of global financial pressures. Equally, other governments around the world will have to find a similar balance as Ukraine’s national struggle approaches its two-year anniversary.

Lachlan Forster is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

A student of international Relations and History at the University of Melbourne, Lachlan is currently in Malaysia on a 2023 New Colombo Plan Scholarship. He is a contributing writer with the Young Diplomats Society and Asia in Review, and has also been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Undergraduate Journal of History, and Farrago.


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