• Associated Press

Polish Truck Drivers are Blocking the Border with Ukraine. It’s Hurting on the Battlefield

AP
Ukrainian truck drivers wait to cross from Poland back into Ukraine in Korczowa, Poland, on Thursday Dec. 7, 2023.

KORCZOWA, Poland (AP) — Pickup trucks and tourniquets bound for Ukraine’s battlefield are stuck in a mileslong line at the border with Poland. Components to build drones to fight off Russian forces are facing weeks of delays.

Ukrainian charities and companies supplying the war-torn country’s military warn that problems are growing as Polish truck drivers show no sign of ending a border blockade that has stretched past a month. The Polish protesters argue that their livelihoods are at stake after the European Union relaxed some transport rules and Ukrainian truckers undercut their business.

While drones will make it to the front line, they’re delayed by two to three weeks, said Oleksandr Zadorozhnyi, operational director of the KOLO foundation, which helps the Ukrainian army with battlefield tech, including drones and communications equipment.

“This means that Russian army will have the ability to kill Ukrainian soldiers and terrorize civilians for several weeks longer,” he said.

Truck drivers in Poland have blocked access roads to border crossings since Nov. 6, creating lines that stretch for more than 30 kilometers (19 miles) and last up to three weeks in freezing temperatures. The protesters insist that they’re not stopping military transports or humanitarian aid into Ukraine.

“This is very puzzling to me, even hard to believe because everybody knows — those who order, those who expedite and those who do the transport — that aid for the military passes through without having to wait at all,” said Waldemar Jaszczur, a protest organizer.

The Polish truckers, meanwhile, say their Ukrainian counterparts are offering lower prices to haul everything from fish to luxury goods across the European Union since getting a temporary waiver on the 27-nation bloc’s transport rules after Russia’s invasion in 2022.

Despite Poland and other nearby countries being some of Ukraine’s biggest supporters in the war, resentment has built from truckers and farmers who are losing business to lower-cost Ukrainian goods and services flowing into the world’s biggest trading bloc. It underscores the challenges of integrating Ukraine into the EU if approved.

Now, the commercial clash is spilling over to the battlefield, the Ukrainian charities say.

About 200 pickup trucks needed to transport ammunition and evacuate the wounded from the front line are blocked at the border because “deliveries have practically stopped,” said Ivan Poberzhniak, head of procurement and logistics for Come Back Alive, Ukraine’s largest charitable organization providing the military with equipment.

The pickup trucks are easy targets for Russia, so it’s impossible to deliver enough of them even normally, he said.

When drivers show documents to the Polish truckers saying the vehicles are for Ukraine’s military, “it does not have a significant impact on the protesters,” Poberzhniak said.

“We must understand that during wartime, supply is needed on a daily basis in all directions,” he said.

Come Back Alive says 3,000 tourniquets also are stuck at the border. It’s been able to deliver drones, generators and batteries from what it has in stock, “but that reserve is running out,” Poberzhniak said.

The group is exploring alternative supply routes, he says, but there are few options, and the military’s unfulfilled requests for equipment are building up.

The protesting truckers assert that not all deliveries declared as military aid are really that. They are urging the EU to reinstate the limits on the number of Ukrainian trucks that can enter the bloc.

Jaszczur, an organizer, said Ukrainian truckers have been doing unauthorized transport services across Europe. They are asking “glaringly low prices” — 35% lower than what Polish truckers charge — and are “driving us out of the market,” he said.

The same thing is happening in other countries like Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, he said. Some Slovak truckers staged a protest of their own in recent days at the Ukrainian border.

Jaszczur says many Polish transport companies are going under because of the pressure from Ukrainian competition.

While there is no quick resolution in sight, a change of leadership in Warsaw offers hope.

The new government is expected to be in place in the next week and almost certainly will be led by the pro-EU centrist Donald Tusk. He has criticized the outgoing government’s “inaction,” offering hope to businesses hurt by the blockade but also to the protesters.

“We will look for solutions that should satisfy Polish transporters, but we will not tolerate any events that threaten Polish security. Who inspired or initiated them?” Tusk said Friday, stressing that Ukraine is a strategic point for Poland as it fights Russia’s invasion.

Ukrainian truck driver Ivan Itchenko is one of those eagerly awaiting a resolution. He has been waiting in Poland for days with hundreds of others, trying to stay warm at a highway rest stop until he can bring his load of salmon and herring to Ukrainian supermarkets.

“I clean the truck, clear the snow. Polish customs officers come and ask for documents three times a day,” Itchenko said Thursday.

The 61-year-old hopes his turn to drive through the Korczowa-Krakovets crossing comes Saturday.

“I live in Chernihiv (region), near Russia. Every day there are attacks. Now I am stuck at the Polish border. What do they want?”

With temperatures falling, drivers are experiencing difficult conditions, choosing not to heat their trucks to save fuel and facing limited access to food and bathrooms, Ukrainian media say.

Polish and Ukrainian officials are negotiating with help from the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, but the protest has only expanded.

“We do not see any light in the tunnel, we do not see any authorities, any government or the EU Commission really giving attention to this,” said Dariusz Matulewicz, head of the truckers’ association in Szczecin, a city in western Poland.

Poland’s outgoing government has “nothing against supporting Ukraine” but it “must not allow the aid activity to be done at the expense of Polish firms,” deputy minister for infrastructure, Rafal Weber, said Monday in Brussels.

The EU has pressed Warsaw to find a way to end the blockade but stood by its deal with Kyiv. It’s “beneficial to the European market, to Ukraine and to Moldova,” said Adina Valean, EU transport commissioner who also threatened sanctions against Poland.

Ukrainian officials say the truckers’ protest adds more stress to their economy and only serves Russia’s interests.

Ukrainian exports have dropped by 40% through the four blocked border crossings, and the state budget has lost some 9.3 billion hryvnias ($252,000) due to the shortfall in customs payments, said Danylo Hetmantsev, head of the finance and tax committee in Ukraine’s parliament.

“Undoubtedly, this is a powerful blow to our economy and our exports,” Hetmantsev said Tuesday on state TV.