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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Zelenskyy visits Poland in hopes of shoring up support

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine at the Royal Castle in Warsaw on Wednesday.

By Andrew Higgins

Trading his signature olive-green sweatshirt for a more formal black one, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine was welcomed in Warsaw on Wednesday by a military band at the start of his first official visit to neighboring Poland, one his country’s staunchest supporters in its struggle to repel Russia’s military invasion.

Although Zelenskyy has stopped off in Poland several times since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022, his current trip is his first there to be enveloped in the pomp and formal pageantry of the Polish state. Arriving with his wife, Olena, he was greeted at the presidential palace by President Andrzej Duda, dressed in formal attire, and an honor guard with fixed bayonets.

“I would like to thank the Polish president, the government and all Poles for the road we have walked together,” Zelenskyy said. “We greatly appreciate your support. Never in history has there been such warm and close relations between Poland and Ukraine.”

In a ceremony at the presidential palace, Duda awarded the Ukrainian president with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s oldest and highest decoration. Praising Zelenskyy and the “heroism of Ukrainian soldiers,” the Polish leader said: “We have no doubts that your stance today largely saves Europe from the deluge of Russian imperialism.”

The visit comes at a sensitive time, with Ukraine gearing up for an expected spring offensive, the Polish government under pressure from farmers angry about a flood of Ukrainian products, and growing, though still minority, public support for a far-right political party that had been highly critical of Zelenskyy.

That party, Confederation, has toned down its previously strident anti-Ukrainian message, which often echoed Kremlin talking points, but it still channels political currents at odds with the view of Poland’s mainstream parties that Ukraine and its people, more than 1.5 million of whom are now sheltering in Poland, deserve robust and unwavering support.

Some farmers, complaining that Ukrainian grain and other products have driven down prices, threatened to hold protests during Zelenskyy’s visit to press demands that Poland curb imports of produce from Ukraine. Poland takes in millions of tons of Ukrainian grain each month for delivery to other European countries, but farmers say that much of this has stayed in Poland and threatens their livelihood.

Poland’s agriculture minister, facing intense criticism from farmers, resigned Wednesday shortly after Zelenskyy’s arrival in Warsaw.

Marcin Przydacz, the head of Duda’s international policy office, told journalists that he and Zelenskyy would discuss “how to maintain the support of the West and the European and Euro-Atlantic unity that we have been able to achieve since the beginning of the war.” That unity, he said, needed to be reinforced, “because Russian propaganda naturally tries to break up our cooperation.”

The Polish government has shown no sign of wavering in its own support, rallying other European countries to step up their military aid, including modern German-made battle tanks and Soviet-designed warplanes. Poland recently delivered on a pledge to send MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine, the first country to supply such aircraft to Zelenskyy’s military.

Zelenskyy, eager to prevent any waning of public support in Poland, is expected to use an address to the Polish people later Wednesday to thank them for their help and repeat his oft-stated argument that Ukraine is fighting Russia not just for its own survival, but for the security of Europe as a whole.

Ukraine has been particularly grateful to Poland for the support given to refugees, whose arrival last year across their shared border met with an extraordinary outpouring of generosity. He will also meet with Ukrainians now living in Poland. About 10 million people have crossed into Poland from Ukraine over the past 13 months, although many moved on to other countries or returned to Ukraine.

Poland — which shares a 330-mile frontier with Ukraine and also borders the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, a close Russian ally — is not only a critical ally for Ukraine, but also the linchpin of NATO’s eastern flank.

Shortly before Zelenskyy’s arrival, the United States ambassador in Warsaw, Mark Brzezinski, joined the Polish defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, at the site of a huge new warehousing complex for U.S. tanks and other military hardware in Powidz, west of Warsaw. Brzezinski described it as “the largest single infrastructure project funded by NATO in 30 years.”

Instead of curtailing NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern and Central Europe, one of the main goals set by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the Kremlin’s military onslaught on Ukraine has “brought Poland and the United States closer together for a common cause,” the ambassador said. The U.S. Army last month opened its first permanent garrison in Poland.

“Today we are continuing to expand on a lasting U.S. military footprint in Poland,” Brzezinski said.

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