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Ukrainians aghast as Poland stops sending guns to struggle Russia | Russia-Ukraine warfare Information


Kyiv, Ukraine – “I can’t believe the friendship is over.”

That is what Maryna Vasilevskaya, a Ukrainian woman of Polish origin, told Al Jazeera with a heavy sigh on Thursday after learning that Warsaw halted arms supply to Kyiv – and may cut aid to a million Ukrainian refugees it hosts.

Poland has supplied hundreds of Soviet-era tanks and 14 Mig-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in its time of need amid Russia’s invasion, served as a major transit hub for weapons from other Western nations, and provided its military bases for training Ukrainian servicemen.

It has also spent billions of euros on other forms of aid from the construction of temporary houses for refugees to donating medical supplies and power generators.

Vasilevskaya and her children were among the most vulnerable and desperate recipients of Poland’s aid – as well as its overwhelming, heart-melting moral support.

Her paternal grandparents were ethnic Poles, and she spent four months in the eastern Polish city of Krakow with her daughters aged five and eight last year after fleeing the Russian onslaught.

She returned to Kyiv in August because her husband Vladislav had a medical emergency and her eldest daughter Darya missed her schoolmates.

But despite the latest tensions, Vasilevskaya says she remains “eternally grateful” to Polish authorities and public.

She arrived in Krakow in mid-March 2022 on a slow overnight train jam-packed with crying children and frightened, disoriented grownups, but Poles welcomed them all like “dearest friends”.

“They helped us any way they could with everything, absolutely everything, from food and clothes to lodging and healthcare,” the 34-year-old, who works in marketing, recalled with tears in her eyes.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ our dislike to each other is finally over.’”

Poland once conquered huge swaths of Kyivan Rus, a medieval Eastern European confederation of principalities that spawned what is Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

It also was a conduit of Western influences from philosophy to visual arts, but its efforts to convert its Orthodox Christian subjects in what is now Ukraine to Roman Catholicism met resistance that partly paved the way to Moscow’s takeover.

The fertile “black earth” of Ukraine was Poland’s breadbasket – and the continuing diplomatic spat is also grounded in grain.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki embrace during a joint news briefing on a day of the anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, February 2023 [Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters]

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Wednesday that Warsaw is “no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons”.

His announcement followed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in which he accused Poland, Slovakia and Hungary of aiding Russia by banning the import of Ukrainian grain.

Presently, the grain cannot be shipped across the Black Sea because Russia pulled out of a UN-brokered “grain deal” allowing safe passage of cargo ships.

“It’s alarming to see how some in Europe play solidarity in a political theatre – making a thriller from the grain,” Zelenskyy, a former comedian and film actor, said.

“They may seem to play their own role, but in fact, they are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor.”

Kyiv complained to the World Trade Organization about Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, and embargoed the imports of Polish apples, cabbages, tomatoes and onions.

The embargo became a final straw – it enraged Poland’s governing right-wing Law and Justice, which relies on the support of farmers and rural residents and is readying for the October 15 parliamentary elections.

On Monday, Warsaw said it may also not extend support for Ukrainian refugees that includes work permits, free schooling and access to healthcare and other benefits.

“These regulations will simply expire next year,” government spokesman Piotr Mullter said.

‘Sensitive, abnormal’

The halt of Poland’s military aid is “sensitive”, said a top Ukrainian military expert.

“This is all abnormal, it all waters [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s mill,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s general staff of armed forces, told Al Jazeera.

“In the nearest future, [Polish and Ukrainian] presidents have to meet and find points of understanding,” he said.

Other analysts were less optimistic.

“Polish elites are enraged, and this could become a freezing point of relations,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

He believed that ties could only be mended after dismissals in the Ukrainian halls of power.

Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka who introduced the embargo on Polish foodstuffs and his boss Yulia Sviridenko may be among those who have to be sacked, he said.

Some Ukrainians viewed the spat as nothing but a temporary blunder.

“Of course, they have to protect their farmers, just like we have to protect ours,” Volodymyr Sinitsa, a retired bus driver who grew up in a village in the central Ukrainian region of Cherkasy, told Al Jazeera.

But some responded with indignation.

“They’re revengeful; they always accuse us of genocide and other things we never did,” Konstantin Davydenko, a 22-year-old serviceman, told Al Jazeera.

He referred to what Warsaw calls the “Volyn massacre” of civilians in Nazi Germany-occupied Poland.

Warsaw has claimed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that sided with Nazi Berlin to expel Russians from Ukraine killed up to 100,000 ethnic Poles and considers their massacre “genocide”.

Ukraine, where UPA’s key leaders are lionised as war heroes and freedom fighters, has disagreed with the term and the number of victims.

The massacre took place in the regions of Volyn and Galicia, which were annexed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and are now part of western Ukraine.

After World War II, ethnic Poles who remained there faced discrimination.

One of them was former refugee Vasilevskaya’s great-grandfather Felix, who lost his job as chief doctor at a children’s hospital in the western city of Lviv.

He was sentenced to 10 years in Siberian jails and survived only because he “helped fix career criminals” who provided him with food and support from prison guards, she said.

When growing up, she occasionally heard an ethnic slur demeaning her Polish roots, but hoped that the help Poland provided to Ukrainians during the war would put an end to tensions.

“I hoped our countries could overcome this darkness between us. I still do,” Vasilevskaya said.

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