Ukraineʼs economy has already lost almost €400 million due to protests on the Polish border. And worst of all, the military cargoes are also stuck. We answer the main questions about the blockade and its consequences

Yuliana Skibitska, Oleksandr Miasyshchev
Dmytro Rayevskyi
Ukraineʼs economy has already lost almost €400 million due to protests on the Polish border. And worst of all, the military cargoes are also stuck. We answer the main questions about the blockade and its consequences

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On November 6, 2023, several dozen people who call themselves Polish truckers blocked the checkpoints on the Ukrainian-Polish border. The strikers do not let trucks out of Poland, and because of this, thousands of trucks are stuck at the border. The main demand of the protesters is to abolish the "transport visa-free" system, under which Ukrainian carriers enter the EU without special permits. Farmers who protested at the border in the spring of this year also joined the blockade: they are again opposing the grain transit through Poland. The organizers of the protest are connected to the "Confederation" — the only Polish party that opposes aid to Ukraine. Most likely, the crisis will have to be solved by the new Polish government, which will be formed no earlier than mid-December 2023. During the blockade, the economy of Ukraine lost at least €400 million, Polish entrepreneurs also suffer from it. But the worst thing is that the blockade lowers defense capability of Ukraine, because part of the military cargo is also stuck at the border. Babel spoke to volunteers and charities helping the military about how the blockade has affected them.

What are the protesters demanding and who is behind it?

Chronology of the blockade

  1. The protest organizer, Tomasz Borkowski, reports that the Polish carriers have officially registered the protest with Polish local authorities. It will last until January 3.

  2. Around 2 pm Kyiv time, Polish carriers began to block the movement of trucks at the checkpoints "Krakivets — Korchova", "Yagodyn — Dorogusk" and "Rava-Ruska — Hrebenne". The border is blocked from Polish side. The demands of the protesters are to cancel the transport “visa-free regime”, to create separate lanes and queues for trucks with EU number plates and for empty ones.

  3. The Ukrainian side reports that it has not received official demands from the Polish carriers.

  4. The Ministry of Reconstruction of Ukraine reports that it will meet with the Polish side to unblock the border. The Ministry of Infrastructure of Poland, representatives of voivodships (Polish regions), the Directorate of Mobility of the European Commission, the Embassy of Ukraine in Poland and carriers are invited to the meeting. A 54-year-old Ukrainian truck driver dies in a parking lot near the "Dorogusk-Yagodyn" checkpoint on the territory of Poland.

  5. After a meeting between representatives of Poland and Ukraine, Polish carriers refuse to end the blockade.

  6. Slovak carriers block the Vyshnye Nimetske checkpoint on the border with Ukraine for an hour to express solidarity with the Polesʼ demands.

  7. Slovakian carriers are again blocking the Vyshnye Nimetske checkpoint, this time indefinitely.

  8. She Polish strikers report that they are continuing the blockade of the Yagodyn-Dorohusk checkpoint until February 1, 2024.

  9. Another Ukrainian driver dies at the checkpoint "Korchova — Krakow". The Embassy of Ukraine in Poland sends a note to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a demand to unblock the movement of trucks at the border. The Slovakian government opposes the blockade and promises to help resolve the situation at the Vyshnye Nimetske checkpoint.

  10. The Ukrainian-Slovak border is being unblocked, the checkpoint is operating as usual.

  11. the Polish government demands that Ukraine fulfill the demands of the protesters.

The key demand of the protesters is to return permits for Ukrainian carriers to enter the European Union. After the start of a full-scale war, the European Union canceled them first for a year, and then until June 2024. According to the protesters, this creates unfair competition on the part of Ukrainian carriers, because they can offer European shippers a significantly lower price per kilometer than their Polish and European colleagues in general.

The second requirement is to cancel mandatory registration in the "eCherha" Ukrainian electronic system. This project was launched in the fall of 2022. Truck drivers register in the system, and then receive a notification that they can drive to the checkpoint.

The Poles demand that EU-registered trucks returning from Ukraine empty be allowed through without registration. Polandʼs Minister of Infrastructure Andrzej Adamczyk appealed to the Ukrainian authorities with a proposal to fulfill this demand. He claims that carriers without cargo stand at the border and lose money because of it.

"This system allows unequal treatment of Ukrainian and Polish carriers," says Adamczyk.

The organizer of the protest is the Polish Committee for the Protection of Carriers and Employers in the Transport Sector. It was created in September 2023, it includes several owners of Polish companies. The public face there is Rafał Mekler. He is the owner of the logistics firm Rafał Mekler TRANSPORT and the head of the Lublin branch of the Confederation party.

Even during the grain crisis, Mekler actively supported farmers. Now he claims that Polish carriers are losing money because of the "transport visa exemption". Mekler was indignant that because of the sanctions, the carriers lost the market in Russia and partially in Kazakhstan and Belarus. The politician has his own interest in this — his company transported goods specifically to Belarus and Russia. Although Mekler condemned the full-scale invasion and called to help Ukrainian women and children.

Confederation is a coalition of far-right political parties in Poland. It includes the National Movement — the party from which Mekler ran for parliament in 2019, but did not pass. Until 2022, the National Movement advocated Polandʼs exit from the EU and the establishment of relations with Russia. But after February 24, the party condemned the invasion and declared that "Russia poses an existential threat to Polish interests."

In 2015, the former leader of the Confederation Janusz Korwin-Mikke visited the occupied Crimea. After the full-scale invasion, he criticized the sanctions against Russia, denied the mass murders in Bucha. The new leader of the Confederation, Krzysztof Bosak, who led the National Movement, has no pro-Russian sympathies. However, the Confederation opposes Ukraine in many issues. In September of this year, Bosak "invoiced Ukraine" for 100 billion zlotys for the aid provided by Poland.

Among the organizers of the protest is the group "Deceited Village", which is close to the Confederation. It was also the initiator of protests this spring, when farmers blocked the border, demanding a ban on the export of Ukrainian grain. Now it is demanding subsidies for the purchase of corn and maintaining the agricultural tax at the level of 2023.

Rafal Mekler during the blockade on the Ukrainian-Polish border.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

What is happening on the Ukrainian-Polish border now?

Carriers block the border at four key checkpoints: "Yagodyn — Dorohusk", "Krakivets — Korchova", "Rava-Ruska — Hrebenne" and "Shehyni — Medyka". On November 26, Oleksandr Masovets, who lives in Poland, along with other volunteers, went to the checkpoint "Yagodyn — Dorohusk" to help drivers stuck in a queue on the road to Ukraine. He told Babel that the queue of cars starts from Helm, the city closest to the checkpoint. There are approximately 15-17 kilometers of cars.

"Drivers said that Yagodyn is the most problematic checkpoint. In the entire distance to Helm there is nothing — neither gas stations, nor shops — itʼs just a road. A kilometer away from the checkpoint itself is a miniature roadblock. There are several trucks without trailers, several people and a police car," says Masovets.

At the checkpoint itself, together with the police, there are up to ten blockers, traffic is blocked only for trucks. Buses, cars and vans with Polish license plates are allowed through. A car of the Polish border service drives along the queue, distributing hot tea and managing the queue — approaching drivers with foreign license plates to inform them how they can pass. Trucks with humanitarian aid also pass, but still very slowly — one or two cars per hour.

Levko Prokipchuk, the former head of Lviv customs, says that in calm times, approximately 1,350 trucks per day passed through these checkpoints. Now it is 9-10 times less. On November 24, Ukrainian and Polish border guards reported that almost 3,700 trucks were standing in queues at four checkpoints.

A Ukrainian driver at the Korchova checkpoint, November 19, 2023.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

The economy has already suffered losses of at least €400 million due to the blockade. The problem is that, unlike the previous protest, when the Poles did not allow goods from Ukraine, now they did not allow to enter Ukraine. These are not only consumer products, but also raw materials for enterprises. And November and December are the most active and important months for the economy.

"We need to finish the financial year before Christmas and send deliveries, because then the New Year-Christmas lull begins, when warehouses close, companies go on vacation. And this is at least until the second half of January," explains Prokipchuk.

The Polish-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce claims that Polish entrepreneurs are also suffering losses from the blockade. They say that the members of the chamber have already lost at least 100 million zlotys, and the cost of car freight has increased by 300%.

How does the blockade affect Ukraineʼs defense capabilities?

Critically. Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy and Deputy Minister of Infrastructure Serhiy Derkach were the first to say that the Poles do not allow important cargoes for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to pass through. Polish high-ranking officials donʼt recognize this — they say that humanitarian and military goods and fuel are escorted to the border by the police.

"Mayor [Andrii Sadovy] is lying that we are blocking humanitarian aid. This is nonsense. Itʼs a provocation on their part, and if they continue to lie so brazenly, we will intensify the protest and will not let the trucks through at all," Roman Kondrow, the organizer of the protest from the "Deceited Village" initiative, threatened.

But if humanitarian goods and fuel are indeed allowed through, albeit with long delays, this doesnʼt apply to military supplies, which are handled by volunteers. Ivan Poberezhnyak, head of the procurement and logistics department of Come Back Alive, one of the biggest military support foundations in Ukraine, told Babel that since the beginning of the blockade, all goods imported by the foundation itself or imported for it by Ukrainian suppliers have been waiting at the border. The fund has not yet received any of the deliveries that were supposed to arrive in November.

"And these, for example, are several thousand CAT turnstiles, a large batch of pickup trucks — of the hundred vehicles that we expected to receive by the end of November, half are now at the border. During all this time, only one truck with five cars drove by, and that only because it had European license plates. The situation is the same with drones," says Poberezhnyak.

Yuriy Kubrushko, co-founder of the Leleka Foundation and coordinator of tactical medicine projects, says that due to the blockade of the border, their cargo is also delayed. The foundation cooperates with a carrier that has many customers and free vans. Now some of the cars of this carrier are stuck at the border.

"These machines were supposed to go to Ukraine to unload, and then pick up our medical cargo in Europe," says Kubrushko. "Now we canʼt count on these cars."

Getty Images / «Babel'»

The situation is a little better for volunteers who bring cars from abroad for the front. They donʼt do it with trucks, so the border is open for them. But the blockade affected the attitude towards Ukrainians in general. First of all, from the side of Polish customs officials.

"For example, one border guard told me to let Zelensky buy you cars. We transport cars from Britain, and since it is not in the EU, we do not need to make an export declaration for the car. It is cheaper and faster to do it like this. But the Polish border guards regularly send us to do them, although it isnʼt necessary. Thatʼs why we also get stuck in the queue, just in another one," says volunteer Maryna Vremenova, who recently returned from abroad

How are foundations and volunteers trying to solve the problem?

One of the options is to redirect the trucks to another border. This is what the Kolo foundation did. The operational director of the fund Oleksandr Zadorozhny told Babel that they brought several hundred thermal imagers from Lithuania and Great Britain through Slovakia.

"From the north, it would be easier to organize logistics through Poland," says Zadorozhny. “In order to minimize the risks, we changed the solution. In other words, we have to travel longer and, accordingly, more expensively."

Come Back Alive foundation is planning to redirect its trucks to the Slovak border too. However, Ivan Poberezhnyak says that this is also a risky solution, because the Slovaks can join the Poles and also block the border.

"Our goods are not humanitarian aid, they are imports paid for in foreign currency. Therefore, we have no other option but to wait for the situation to be resolved. We are trying to find suppliers in the domestic market to cover the demands of the teams," adds Poberezhnyak.

Another option is to transport goods not by trucks, but by cars. This is what the Leleka Foundation is trying to do now.

A queue of cars at the border near the Dorohusk checkpoint, November 21, 2023.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

"The carrier representative said that he will not come this week and will try the next one, but only if he can figure out how to transport the cargo in small cars," says Yurii Kubrushko. “And he will also have to calculate how much more expensive the trip will be — this can be 30 or even 50%. Of course, this method is less efficient in terms of time and costs. Besides, if everyone starts doing this, there will soon be a shortage of small cars."

When will the border be unlocked?

There is no optimistic news yet. It is impossible to fulfill the main demand — to return permits for Ukrainian carriers to enter the European Union. Deputy Minister of Community Development, Territories and Infrastructure Serhii Derkach spoke about this even before the blockade. The European Commission also stated that they do not plan to cancel the "transport visa-free regime". Unofficially, they say that they can impose fines on Poland for blocking the border, but so far they are not talking about it publicly, hoping that Ukraine and Poland will find a way out. Poland plans to discuss the situation at the border at the meeting of the EU Council on Transport on December 4, 2023.

In Poland itself, the situation is unlikely to be resolved before mid-December. On November 26, President Andrzej Duda approved the new government of current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. He has two weeks to get a vote of confidence from the Sejm for his government. But after the elections, in which the opposition parties won, the former ruling party now does not have a majority in the parliament. So the right to form the government will go to the new coalition. The main candidate for prime minister is the leader of the Civic Coalition Donald Tusk.

Andrzej Duda and Mateusz Morawiecki.

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Recently, Civic Coalition MP Pavel Koval called on Morawieckiʼs government to end the blockade as soon as possible. But it seems that the current government wants to leave the problem to the next one.

"I heard from one of the PiS [the currently ruling party] politicians that this protest is not a priority for the government. The government will change in some time. And let Tusk worry about it," Gazeta Wyborcza quotes its anonymous source.

During the election campaign, PiS flirted with the anti-Ukrainian electorate in order to attract votes from the Confederation. Both parties now find themselves in opposition and may unite, although the Confederation previously ruled out such a possibility.

In mid-December, the new government will face its first political crisis, which may provoke conflicts within the coalition itself, because some representatives of the Civic Coalition support the blockade. For example, the leader of Agrounia, Michal Kolodzejczak, came to the border and communicated with representatives of the Deceited Village. He declared that he would support the farmers.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.