WARSAW, Poland – NATO aircraft scream across eastern European skies and American armoured vehicles rumble near the border with Russia on a mission to reassure citizens that they’re safe from Russian aggression.
But these days, ordinary people aren’t taking any chances.
In Poland, doctors, shopkeepers, lawmakers and others are heeding a call to receive military training in case of an invasion. Neighboring Lithuania is restoring the draft and teaching citizens what to do in case of war. Nearby Latvia has plans to give university students military training next year.
The drive to teach ordinary people how to use weapons and take cover under fire reflects soaring anxiety among people in a region where memories of Moscow’s domination – which ended only in the 1990s – remain raw. People worry that their security and hard-won independence are threatened as saber-rattling intensifies between the West and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have died.
In Poland, the oldest generation remembers the Soviet Army’s invasion in 1939, at the start of World War II. Younger people remain traumatized by the repression of the communist regime that lasted more than four decades.
It’s a danger felt across the EU newcomer states that border Russia.
“There’s a real feeling of threat in our society,” Latvian defence ministry spokeswoman Aija Jakubovska told The Associated Press. Military training for students is a “way we can increase our own defence capabilities.”
Most people are still looking to NATO’s military umbrella as their main guarantor of security. Zygmunt Wos waved goodbye to a detachment of U.S. armoured vehicles leaving the eastern Polish city of Bialystok with apprehension: “These troops should be staying with us,” he said, “not going back to Germany.”
Poland has been at the forefront of warnings about the dangers of the Ukraine conflict. Just 17 hours by car from the battle zone, Poland has stepped up efforts to upgrade its weapons arsenal, including a possible purchase of U.S.-made Tomahawk missiles. It will host a total of some 10,000 NATO and other allied troops for exercises this year. Its professional army is 100,000-strong, and 20,000 reservists are slated for test-range training.
It’s the grassroots mobilization, however, that best demonstrates the fears: The government has reached out to some 120 paramilitary groups with tens of thousands of members, who are conducting their own drills, in an effort to streamline them with the army exercises.
In an unprecedented appeal, Parliament Speaker Radek Sikorski urged lawmakers to train at a test range in May, while Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak called on men and women aged between 18 and 50, and with no military experience, to sign up for test-range exercise. So far, over 2,000 people have responded.
“The times are dangerous and we must do all we can to raise Poland’s ability to defend its territory,” President Bronislaw Komorowski said during a recent visit to a military unit.
The Poles believe they have grounds for feeling particularly vulnerable because they have been invaded by Russia repeatedly since the 18th century. Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to have singled out Poland, a staunch U.S. ally, as a prime enemy in the struggle over Ukraine, accusing it of training “Ukrainian nationalists” and instigating unrest.
Recently Moscow said it will place state-of-the-art Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave, bordering Poland and Lithuania, for a major exercise.
Last week, over 550 young Polish reservists were summoned on one hour’s notice to a military base for a mobilization drill. In their 20s and 30s, in jeans and sneakers, the men and women arrived at a base in Tarnowskie Gory, in southern Poland for days of shooting practice. One of them, 35-year-old former soldier Krystian Studnia, said the call was “absolutely natural.”
“Everyone should be willing and ready to fight to defend his country,” he said.
In Warsaw, Mateusz Warszczak, 23, glowed with excitement as he signed up at a recruitment centre. “I want to be ready to defend my family, my relatives, from danger,” he said.
Even older Poles feel obliged to take responsibility for their own safety.
In September, Wojciech Klukowski, a 58-year-old medical doctor, and his friends organized a civic militia group of about 50 men and women of various ages, and called it the National Guard. They practiced skirmishes and shooting, with the aim of becoming citizen-soldiers in their hometown of Szczecin, on the Baltic Sea coast.
“We do not feel fully safe,” Klukowski said. “Many people … want to be trained to defend their homes, their work places, their families.”
Rayyan Sabet-Parry in Riga, Latvia and Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report.