President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky

Part of the dominant Western narrative about the Ukraine War has been about the central and eastern European member states taking over the leadership of the European Union (EU) and rallying it against Russia.

The story was always exaggerated—the three Western founder states France, Germany, and Italy still dominate the EU economically. It’s now unravelling. Last week Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his government was halting weapons supplies to Ukraine.

Poland is the most important of the eastern member states, the fifth most populous in the EU, with a growing economy. For the best part of two centuries, Poland was dominated by Russian imperialism, so Russia-bashing is easy politics.

Warsaw has been very active in supporting Kyiv militarily and has taken in about a million Ukrainian refugees.

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is committed to raising the defence budget to four percent of national income, twice the Nato target.

But the PiS government’s right-wing authoritarianism gives the lie to the idea of a struggle between “democracy” and “autocracy”. It is at odds with the EU for attempting to make judges politically accountable.

As an article on the Bloomberg business website puts it, “a populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant, EU-sceptic government, with a near-paranoid view of its neighbours, has become the linchpin of European support for Kyiv.”

The conflict with Ukraine can be traced back to Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull out of the Black Sea grain initiative in July. This agreement, brokered by Turkey, allowed Ukraine, a huge grain producer, to continue routing its food exports by sea.

According to the Bloomberg article, “Thanks in great measure to a bumper Russian harvest, wheat prices plunged in September to a two-year low … Meanwhile, farming accounts for 10 percent of Ukraine’s economy and is a key earner of hard currency—not being able to export wheat is a major blow to the country …

“That leaves only the overland route through eastern Europe for Ukraine to get its vast harvests to market, yet that in the past caused local wheat prices in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and elsewhere to plunge, hurting farm incomes.

“When the EU on Friday lifted its May 2023 ban on Ukraine exports of wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, three of those governments rebelled.”

Competition from cheap Ukrainian grain already provoked Polish farmers’ protests last spring. Poland goes to the polls on 15 October. But the hottest issue in the election is migration. The PiS government is strenuously racist and anti-migrant, building walls along its eastern border.

But it faces attacks on its record from both the supposed “liberal” challenger, ex-president of the European Council Donald Tusk, and the far right Confederation Party.

Confederation may hold the balance of power after the election. Already government support for Ukrainian refugees, denounced by Confederation, will be allowed to lapse next year.

European solidarity against the Russian bear has been forgotten in the rhetorical war between Warsaw and Kyiv. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky accuses Poland of playing into Russia’s hands. Morawiecki replied, “I want to tell President Zelensky never again to insult Poles.”

As the war looks more and more like a long drawn‑out meatgrinder in which Russia may turn out to have the advantage, Zelensky’s grandstanding may provoke increasing impatience in the EU.

A recent article on the Politico website laments that “support is beginning to wane” for Ukraine in central and eastern Europe. Apart from the clash with Poland, one of Zelensky’s most strident supporters has been Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas. But she’s now on the backfoot after her husband was exposed as having a stake in a company that has carried on doing business with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.

Right across Central and Eastern Europe mundane economics and politics is reasserting itself to undermine the anti-Russian alliance.

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