Poland’s returning prime minister, Donald Tusk, now a seasoned eurocrat, will still have to prove himself back in his old role. In 2014, when Tusk was leaving for Brussels, Russia had just invaded Crimea while some of Europe remained set on economic cooperation and building partnerships with Vladimir Putin.
Today, Tusk will resume his premiership in radically different circumstances: with Ukraine, Poland’s neighbour, engulfed in a war with Russia, strained relationships with the EU, and looming US elections that could endanger commitments from Poland’s biggest military ally.
The run-up to the Polish election saw a deepening rift between Poland and Ukraine, despite unprecedented military cooperation between the two countries since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion. As an eastern flank state and the key channel of US armament deliveries to Ukraine, Poland has a high stake in the war across the border. For the incoming government, the question of national security must be high on the agenda.
Building the ‘strongest land army’
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted a huge boost in Poland’s defence spending from 2.2 per cent GDP in 2021 to an estimated 4.3 per cent in 2023. The lion’s share of this increase has been spent on replenishing equipment donated to Ukraine (as of July 2023, Poland delivered 21 per cent of its ageing stocks to Ukraine’s army which was familiar with it). Poland seized the opportunity to accelerate the modernization of its army, pursuing multi-billion-dollar defence contracts with the US and South Korea.
But heavy armament procurements, even if they include an astonishing number of 486 HIMARs, will not make Poland an unassailable fortress – or the ‘strongest land army,’ as outgoing defence minister Mariusz Blaszczak boasted. Poland’s combined troops, 163,000 strong as of late 2022, will not be able to operate all this new equipment.
Polish security previously relied heavily on the rotational presence of allied troops – but now, the numbers are not sufficient. To diversify its defence strategy, Poland needs to strengthen regional security cooperation – and there is no better candidate for this than Poland’s combat-experienced neighbour, Ukraine.
Souring relationship with Ukraine
The relationship between the two countries fell victim to Poland’s heated electoral campaign. The announcement of the Polish ban on Ukrainian grain imports on 16 September, largely calculated to swing farmers in support of PiS, the Law and Justice party, ahead of the election, put a strain on the relationship with Ukraine which relies on exports of grain to shore up its strained wartime economy. The grain question has been recurring since the EU lifted duties on Ukrainian grain exports in March 2023, causing some countries neighbouring Ukraine to introduce bans to ensure that local farmers can maintain competitive prices.
The heightened tensions between Poland and Ukraine over the ban manifested in Zelensky’s September speech at the UN General Assembly, where he accused ‘some’ European countries of ‘making a thriller from the grain issue’ and thus working in favour of Russia. The enigmatic quote was dismissed as ‘insulting’ by now-defeated prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki during an electoral rally.
In the following days he went further, announcing that Poland will end the supply of arms to Ukraine and focus on domestic rearmaments. The remarks came despite 74 per cent of Poles supporting continued military and political support to Ukraine as of September 2023.
What does Poland have to lose by alienating Ukraine?
The outgoing government led by PiS has repeatedly fallen for traps straight out of the Kremlin playbooks. During the war, the PiS government exploited the painful history of the Volynhia massacre and dwelled over whether ‘final Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation’ was even possible.