Poles Steel for Battle, Fearing Russia Will March on Them Next – by Rick Lyman (New York Times – March 14, 2015)


KALISZ, Poland — For evidence of how much President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has jangled nerves and provoked anxiety across Eastern Europe, look no farther than the drill held the other day by the Shooters Association.

The paramilitary group, like more than 100 others in Poland, has experienced a sharp spike in membership since Mr. Putin’s forces began meddling in neighboring Ukraine last year.

Thirty students took an oath to defend Poland at all costs, joining nearly 200 other regional members of the association — young men and women, boys and girls — marching in formation around the perimeter of the dusty high school courtyard here. They crossed Polish Army Boulevard and marched into the center of town, sprawling in four long lines along the edge of St. Joseph’s Square.

Gen. Boguslaw Pacek, an adviser to the Polish defense minister and the government’s chief liaison with these paramilitary groups, marched with them. He has been making the rounds in recent months of such gatherings: student chapters like this one, as well as groups of veterans, even battle re-enactors.

One of those who took the oath in Kalisz was Bartosz Walesiak, 16, who said he had been interested in the military since playing with toy soldiers as a little boy, but had been motivated to join the Shooters Association after Russia moved into Crimea.

“I think that Putin will want more,” he said.

“Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are already getting ready for such a scenario, so Poland must do the same.”

As the crisis drags on, what was unthinkable at the end of the Cold War now seems not quite so unlikely to many Poles: that the great Russian behemoth will not be sated with Ukraine and will reach out once again into the West. The thought is darkening the national mood and rippling across the entire region in ways that reflect a visceral fear of an aggressive and unpredictable Russia.

Pointing out that Russia insists it has no such intentions usually elicits little more than a despairing laugh.

“I think the impact on everyday life is starting to be very bad,” said Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. “Very often now, people approach me — neighbors, hairdressers — asking whether there will be a war. The other day, my mother called and asked me.”

Dinner parties in Warsaw these days frequently drift to the topic. Possibilities that were once shrugged off are now seriously contemplated. Even the jokes are laced with anxiety.

In January, the Polish Ministry of National Defense announced that it would provide military training to any civilian who wished to receive it, with registration beginning March 1. About 1,000 people showed up the first day, said Col. Tomasz Szulejko, spokesman for the Polish Army’s general staff. “This number certainly bodes well for the future,” he said.

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