On a snowy road next to Poland, Ukrainian lorry driver Vitaliy Zemyenko pondered the long journey ahead. It would take him nine hours to get through the Medyka border crossing. Over on the other side he would drop off a consignment of vodka. The problem was getting back.
“At the moment it’s taking a minimum of eight days to re-enter Ukraine,” he said. “That’s the best case scenario. Worst case is two weeks. This is a terrible situation”. The Poles, he added, wanted to stop Ukrainian drivers from operating in the European Union. “They don’t want us,” he said.
Over the past two months, Polish lorry drivers have blocked three border crossings with Ukraine. On 26 November, they expanded their protest by including Medyka, a key transportation hub. Slovakia has followed suit, with local lorry drivers staging their own blockade since Friday near the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod.
The Polish drivers want the EU to restore a transport permit scheme that limited the number of Ukrainian drivers able to operate in Poland to 200,000 entries a year, saying the lifting of restrictions in the months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has hit their earnings.
Ukrainian lorry driver Vitaliy Zemyenko. Photograph: Luke Harding/The Guardian
Zemyenko said he was not undercutting anybody and was merely fulfilling a contract with a long-term Polish client. Ukrainian drivers insist they are not to blame for the situation and feel a sense of betrayal from a neighbour that previously supported Ukraine’s fight against Moscow, both with solidarity and practical help.
As the row drags on, the queues get longer. According to Ukrainian drivers, the line from the Medyka crossing now stretches about 70kms (43 miles), all the way to the south-eastern Polish city of Rzeszów. Two thousand five hundred lorries overall are moving as little as half a kilometre every nine hours.
Lorries stand in a queue at the Polish-Ukrainian border in Hrebenne, south-eastern Poland. Photograph: Wojtek Jargiło/EPA
“The Polish police watch but do nothing,” Valeriy, a Ukrainian driver, said bitterly while killing time in a border service station. “The facilities for drivers are bad. We think this is deliberate. We’ve organised our own system so people can take rest. If the queue starts to move one driver calls us.”
Valeriy claimed the Kremlin and its spy agencies were secretly paying the Polish drivers to block the crossings. “It’s obvious. Russia benefits from this chaos,” he said. The allegation has got traction because a far-right Polish party that backs the protests, Confederation, has several explicitly anti-Ukrainian MPs.
Polish unions, however, say this is a genuine working-class protest. They say that their logistical companies, the biggest in Europe, cannot compete with cheaper Ukrainian drivers who do not have to follow EU law. “We demand the reinstatement of the pre-2022 system of transport permits,” Rafal Mekler, the Polish protest organiser said.
The outgoing government led by the Law and Justice (Pis) party has avoided confronting the Polish lorry drivers who form an important part of the Polish economy. The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, on Monday said it would “very strongly and unequivocally demand the restoration of transport permits” for Ukrainian drivers.
It is unclear if Donald Tusk, who is likely to be Poland’s next prime minister as leader of the coalition that won October’s parliamentary election, will pursue a different approach.
On Sunday, Kyiv announced the opening of a new border checkpoint between Uhryniv and Dołhobyczów for empty lorries returning home. Ukraine vice prime minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said this followed “lengthy negotiations” with Warsaw. “The ultimate goal […] is to unblock the border,” he posted on X.
We are opening the Uhryniv – Dolhobychuv border checkpoint with 🇵🇱 to move empty trucks from 🇺🇦. As a result of lengthy negotiations, we reached this decision together with @MI_GOV_PL. The ultimate goal of the work is to unblock the border, which has been blocked for a month on… pic.twitter.com/m66S6zk2tT
— Oleksandr Kubrakov (@OlKubrakov) December 3, 2023
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has sought to play down the damaging dispute with Poland, which comes after previous disagreements over Ukrainian grain exports. “I think we need to give our neighbours a bit of time. It will get better,” he said last month. Asked if Zelenskiy could do more, Zemyenko responded: “He’s not God, is he?”
Last year, tens of thousands of refugees queued up at the western border with Poland as Russian armoured columns swept towards Kyiv and Kharkiv. Ever since, the Medyka crossing has been a major hub for military and humanitarian supplies. The blockade does not affect private cars or deliveries for Ukraine’s armed forces, which are escorted through a customs complex.
An aerial photo shows lorries at the Polish-Ukrainian border in Hrebenne. Photograph: Wojtek Jargiło/EPA
The Polish protesters have pledged not to block essential aid vehicles to Ukraine, as well as those carrying fuel. In practice, some of these lorries are stranded, drivers say. They add that the Polish protesters have parked their own lorries in the road, turning them into a slalom-like barrier. Local Polish farmers have joined their picket by bringing tractors.
Andrii Demchenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s state border service, said the new additional border crossing opened on Monday. It was previously restricted to cars and buses. So far, 30 lorries weighing 7.5 tonnes or more had managed to enter Poland from Ukraine. “This will allow us to decrease the lines,” he said, adding that further agreements with Warsaw were coming soon.
In the meantime, drivers waiting at Medyka parked up against a winter landscape of snow and pine trees. A new Ukrainian electronic queuing system meant lorry drivers were given an allocated slot, and could spend time at home before setting off, rather than sleeping in their cabs on the roadside, Zemyenko said.
He added: “I come from the town of Marhanets in Zaporizhzhia province. The Russians are close by and shell us every day. Our life is tough. I used to do two trips to Poland a month and earn €800 (£686). Now I do one trip every six weeks. I’m lucky if I make €600. While we are stuck in the queue we have to pay for food ourselves.”
He added: “There’s not much we drivers can do. This is our fate. This is a problem between states. Ultimately they have to sort it out.”