Zelensky’s blunders risk alienating Ukraine’s allies

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky

While delivering aid to Kherson Oblast, Dnipro, and Kharkiv, I was struck by the warmth and gratitude extended to us by the Ukrainian nation. Upon presenting our Polish and British passports, one border guard, Igor, greeted us with the words, “Welcome, you are one of us.” The military were shaking our hands and expressing their appreciation for the support their embattled nation received. An elderly woman called Iryna, who lost her home and relatives in Kherson, cried, and hugged us. The sentiment of the people near the frontlines served as an enduring testament to the indomitable spirit of Ukraine.

Yet this sentiment has been curiously absent from diplomatic discussions. President Zelensky’s recent characterisation of Poland – and other Central and Eastern European countries – as collaborating with a “Moscow agent” has left many Poles and their allies disheartened and feeling betrayed. While Ukraine grapples with a brutal invasion, its president sometimes appears more interested in picking fights with his nation’s allies.

Zelensky is under increasing scrutiny for what some see as a lack of gratitude. Not such a long time ago, Ben Wallace, then British Defence Secretary, voiced the sentiment that Ukraine should exhibit some measure of gratitude. This was publicly echoed by Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor. The comments made by one of Zelensky’s advisers regarding India’s purported “weak intellectual potential” have not been easily forgotten in a country of a billion and a half inhabitants, either.

It is entirely understandable that the Ukrainian leadership, engaged in a relentless 19-month battle to defend their homeland, is under immense stress. But the emerging pattern of diplomatic missteps is alarming and could weaken support from allies who have paid a high price in aid, weapons, and economic damage.

Perhaps the most glaring error is the ill-advised trade dispute Ukraine has entered with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. Poland, in particular, has been unwavering in its support of Ukraine since the outset of hostilities. The Polish ambassador in Kyiv was the only ambassador who stayed in the capital throughout the invasion, while his country opened its doors to millions of Ukrainian refugees, providing them with food and shelter in an unprecedented display of solidarity.

I vividly recall talking with United Nations officials at the Polish-Ukrainian border in February 2022, who told me that they had never witnessed such a monumental outpouring of grassroots and governmental assistance in their  experience of conflict observation.

Poland has also bolstered Ukraine militarily, dispatching over 300 of its tanks to aid its beleaguered ally, and pressuring Western Europe to contribute drones, tanks, and fighter jets when Germany was still hesitant and contemplating the dispatch of old helmets.

And after all this, Zelensky felt it wise to suggest that Poland and its Central and Eastern European counterparts were collaborating with Moscow. It is beyond perplexing, as too are his efforts to pressure these countries into importing Ukrainian grain.

It is not unreasonable for countries, doing a great deal to assist Kyiv, to wish to shield its people from some costs. Poland cannot jeopardise its agricultural sector merely to boost the profits of Ukrainian farmers who wish to sell to Warsaw rather than Paris.

In 2022, when Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, Brussels granted Ukraine access to the entire European market, a significant boon without EU membership. This led to a nearly threefold increase in grain imports into Poland, sparking understandable protests from farmers. While they had to grapple with burdensome EU regulations, their new competitors did not, and they found themselves ill-equipped to compete.

The EU eventually imposed a ban on grain imports into Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, but allowed transit through these nations to continue. To the astonishment of these five Central and Eastern European countries, the EU Commission abruptly rescinded the ban. In response, these nations either individually reinstated the bans or negotiated deals with Ukraine.

Zelensky and the Ukrainian grain magnates, rather than engage in constructive dialogue, have opted for public confrontation, resorting to legal action through the World Trade Organisation. This goes beyond a mere lack of gratitude; it signifies the initiation of animosities with steadfast friends who stood by Ukraine during its darkest hours.

Should this stance persist, countries already bearing a significant burden in supporting Ukraine may reconsider or weaken their positions. Oleksiy Arestovich, a former adviser to Zelensky, has said that Ukraine is entering a self-destructive political spiral. My colleagues within the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry have extended apologies to me for their government’s treatment of Poland.

One can only hope that the Ukrainian leadership will awaken to the reality that disputes and trade wars with their allies are not the path to victory against Russia.

George Byczynski is the Chief Adviser to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poland

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