The situation at the Ukrainian-Polish border the last few weeks is exactly the opposite of what you would expect.
There are almost no lines of people or cars leaving Ukraine. In fact, the last time we crossed the border back into Poland there were only two or three cars there at all. The entire border crossing was basically deserted.
The line of traffic going from Poland into Ukraine, though, stretched on for many, many kilometers, and the wait time to cross was two to three days. People were camped out on the side of the road, and were pushing their non-running cars, in neutral, forward in the line to save gas. Most all of the aid workers passing out food and water are now working on the Polish side of the border, helping people who are waiting to get in to Ukraine.
(As an NGO delivering aid we get to cut right up to the front of the line, driving past the weary rows of people for nearly an hour on the way to get special treatment. I do feel bad about that. Not quite bad enough to spend three days waiting in line.)
There are several reasons for this situation at the border.
Most of the people who were going to flee Ukraine have already fled, and those IDP that are left are mostly sheltering in the safer parts of western Ukraine. Also, some Ukrainians are returning to the country and to cities like Kyiv.
There is also a rush of people bringing vehicles into Ukraine. The Kyiv government just declared an amnesty on its huge import and VAT taxes for vehicles, and people are not missing the opportunity. There are a lot of car-carrier trucks waiting in those long lines.
Bureaucracy is a factor. The border crossings have not really adapted to the new reality, and still process cars and trucks in batches of five, with only one or two batches making it through per hour. I’m told this is an improvement, and given all of the searches and passport control and customs control checks involved this is probably true. They really need a new high volume system though, more like the crossings at the US-Mexico border.
But the main reason is this:
Over half of the vehicles waiting in line are large semi-trucks.
Ukraine is a large country, with a population of over 40 million. It’s longest borders are with Russia and Belarus, and a lot of trade used to pass between them, but now all those borders are closed.
It used to have a bunch of active commercial airports bringing in trade, and now the skies are closed, or, worse, filled up with Russian air power.
It used to have a bunch of ports bringing in trade, especially Mariupol and Odesa, but now the Black sea has been closed by the Russian navy.
So that means that every single thing coming into Ukraine has to come by road or rail from the west. And in practice, the vast majority of it has to come through a handful of border crossings in Poland.
Which means incredibly long lines and really horrible wait times to cross.
Somethings gotta give, right? Maybe not. But I can’t help thinking that the border delays are really hurting the Ukrainian economy and the war effort.