Poland on the Black Sea

“Poland from sea to sea” (Polska od morza do morza). This slogan is most often associated with the 16th century and the period of the greatest power of the Polish Republic. And although the question of actual Polish rule over the Black Sea coast is quite complicated and not obvious, this direction has long occupied an important place in the history of our country.

Jan Kochanowski in his work entitled “Satyr or Wild Husband” (Satyr albo Dziki mąż) wrote:

Tymci Polska urosła, a granice swoje

Rozciągnęła szeroko między morza dwoje.

“This is how Poland grew, and its borders / Stretched wide between two seas.”

(Source: pxhere.com)

When we look at the historical maps, we see that no part of the Black Sea has ever belonged de jure to the Polish kingdom. Instead, the northern coast was under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for some time. However, this was already a period in which the power of the kings of Poland reached far beyond the borders of their kingdom. When in 1386, pursuant to the provisions of the Union of Krewo, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Władysław Jagiełło married the Polish king Jadwiga Andegaweńska, he became the ruler of both Poland and Lithuania. Contrary to what is commonly believed today, this was not a typical personal union. The agreement modeled the new division of powers on the union of bishoprics and benefices known from canon law. On the basis of this structure, Władysław Jagiełło, already as the king of Poland and not the Grand Duke of Lithuania, ruled in both countries. In practice, this made the Lithuanian lands a dependent territory of the Crown, and for this reason it was Władysław Jagiełło who was to take possession of both countries.


In 1397, the borders of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania increased by the so-called the Ochakiv Field (Yedisan), i.e. the area between the mouths of the Dnieper and the Dniester. At that time, the Principality of Moldavia was also a fiefdom of the Polish kingdom, with ports in Kilia and Bilhorod (Białogród), which, together with the Lithuanian port in Ochakiv, were important trade centers of the Jagiellonian dynasty. Goods were exported through the Black Sea ports and merchants from other countries were accepted, from which the goods then went to Polish and Lithuanian cities and – of course – to manors.


An opportunity to expand the influence of the Crown in the Black Sea basin appeared in 1462, when a legation from the Crimean city of Kaffa (now Feodosia) arrived to King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, asking for protection of the city. The city was founded as a colony of the Italian city of Genoa and at that time had over 70,000 inhabitants. For comparison, the population of Krakow did not exceed 20,000. Kaffa was also a mighty fortress with defensive walls more than five kilometres long. It had 34 defense towers, 24 barbicans and five gates leading to the city. Despite this impressive defense system, the inhabitants feared that after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, it was their city that could become the next victim of the Turkish Empire. These fears became a reality in 1475, when an army of 40,000 people, supported by 300 ships, stood outside the city. Unfortunately, the support of the Polish army turned out to be insufficient, and the loss of the city heralded the twilight of the presence of Polish rulers on the shores of the Black Sea, completed in 1484 by the joint Turkish-Tatar forces of key remaining ports: Bilhorod (Białogród), Kilia and Ochakiv.


Recognising the advantages of access to the Black Sea, successive rulers made attempts to regain the aforementioned castles. The first expedition took place in 1492 – during the reign of King Jan Olbracht. Another ruler who dreamed of returning to the Black Sea was Jan III Sobieski, who travelled there three times (in 1685, 1686 and 1691). Unfortunately, all these attempts were unsuccessful.


It may be ironic that this goal was, in a sense, achieved by King Stanisław August Poniatowski at the least expected moment. When the first partition took place in 1772, the Kingdom of Poland was deprived of a direct connection with Gdańsk, and high duties were imposed on Polish merchants wishing to use the Baltic ports. So they started looking for alternative trade routes, and since the Polish Republic was then a Russian protectorate, the Black Sea turned out to be the natural direction. Efforts were made in 1782, when Tsarina Catherine II agreed to allow Polish goods to enter Russia duty-free. Polish merchants were also allowed to use the recently opened port in Kherson, where the Polish Trade Company (Kompania Handlowa Polska) had its headquarters. Ships belonging to the company departed from this port, among others to Marseille, Alexandria and Barcelona. The Russian-Turkish war and the war in defense of the Constitution of May 3, which ended with another partition, brought an end to commercial activities.

The last episode of the journey through history is the period of the Second Polish Republic. At the end of World War I, the Crimean People’s Republic was established on the Crimean peninsula. Until 1918, it was an area under the protection of Germany, but the end of the Great War forced the Germans to withdraw from the occupied territories. The Tatars, who headed the Crimean republic, feared that the Russians would soon claim the peninsula. For this reason, in January 1919, they sent a request to the Allies to grant the Crimean Peninsula to reborn Poland as its mandate in the peace treaty. Unfortunately, also in this case, things turned out unfavourably and before the parties started the talks, Russian troops entered the peninsula.


As you can see, history has not been kind to this area, which has significantly limited the development and position of the Black Sea ports. On the other hand, it shows that ensuring stable conditions for development can translate into many benefits – both for Poland and Ukraine. The question then arises: can Polish capital return to the Black Sea after so many centuries?


For obvious reasons, today it is difficult to talk about returning to Crimea. This conflict-torn peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, is today probably beyond all reach of Poland’s ability to influence. However, there are other ports in the region, such as the one in Odessa, which, subject to gradual modernisation, could be incorporated into the Polish economic system, becoming important trade centres and, after the Baltic Sea, another Polish window to the world.


Let us imagine a scenario in which Poland and Ukraine establish cooperation for the lease of a port and/or the construction of an intermodal connection between selected Black Sea ports and the Polish supply system.


Could it pay off? A mere cursory reading of the map shows that such a solution would open the way to a deepening of trade relations of the Polish-Ukrainian tandem with both Georgia and Turkey. Parallel communication by land could also be a branch towards the Moldovan gate, towards Romania and Bulgaria. However, this is not the end, because along with the development of the trail and after crossing the Turkish straits, we could go, among others to Greece, Israel, North Africa and, of course, towards the Suez Canal – one of the most important trade arteries of the globalisation era and the heart of the world system. This scenario could therefore significantly contribute to shortening supply chains, while reducing the dependence of the Polish Republic on ports in Germany, the Netherlands or Italy.


Drawing this picture in our minds, we can easily understand one of the most important aspects of modern geopolitics, crucial for the development of a modern state. We will find out what are the so-called strategic flows and the importance of proper national communication. Railways, ports, highways, airports, the Internet – all this enables the movement of people, goods, information, technology and capital. Modern infrastructure is the essence of statehood and one of the most important tools of economic development in the hands of the state. Thanks to modern infrastructure, people communicate and earn money. Investments follow. Modern and efficient communication translates into competitive advantages, better productivity, lower prices and shorter delivery times, and consequently generates a higher margin in enterprises, an increase in salaries and greater revenues to the state budget. And this effect is present at every level. Not only a single company, but also the region in which it is located, and finally the entire state. In this sense, the communication network must not only bind the country internally, but also go outside, and it must do so on conditions favourable to Poland. In this way, supply chains are created, i.e. a network of cooperating companies ready to produce and deliver a product or service. Rapid development and control of infrastructure translates into a higher degree of capitalisation of projects. This is followed, among others, by innovation and production cycles are created. Everything together creates strategic flows.


When we think about Poland’s return to the Black Sea, we cannot ignore the issue of Turkey, whose participation is crucial to the success of the proposed project. Like our ancestors, today we too will be bound to learn to think beyond the borders of our own country. The history of the Polish Republic clearly shows that there was a time when Constantinople did not occupy such a distant place in the perception of Poles as it does today. The great rivers of the construct of the former Polish Republic, flowing towards the Black Sea, were a proven and effective tool for the development of trade. However, unlike in the 15th and 16th centuries, the circumstances of today can make Turkey a natural ally of Poland and Ukraine. In this sense, the politically ambitious Ankara may be interested not only in extending the route to its own ports, but also in providing support, freedom of movement and even protection for Polish ships.


Seeing a light in the tunnel, we can ask another question – does such a project have a chance to be implemented? Do Poland and Ukraine have enough determination and resources to think in such categories? The Gdańsk Port Authority has developed a concept for a route connecting the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, covering not only Turkish but also Scandinavian ports. A letter of intent in this matter between Poland and Ukraine was signed in December 2020. At what stage is the project today? The port of Gdańsk has been on the growth path for several years. Last year, 48 million tonnes of cargo were handled here. It is estimated that in the coming years this volume will exceed the level of 60 million tonnes. Trade with Ukraine has also intensified. For this reason, the Gdańsk authorities decided to build 80 kilometres of new railway lines and have modernised three transhipment stations, and at the national level, the modernisation of railway connections at the border crossing in Medyka and Dorohusk was completed. It turns out that the only missing link today is the Ukrainian railway system. On the Polish side, the infrastructure is practically ready, as well as the appropriate sea connections in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.


It seems that Poland and Ukraine have seen their chances and what might have seemed a naive dream not so long ago, has started to take on a tangible form. If the government in Kyiv manages to bear the burden of modernisation, we will have a real chance to reconnect the two seas on favourable terms.

Poland on the Black Sea

Autor Jakub Bartosik
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