Calm reigns on Polish-Ukrainian border despite growing fears | world news

By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press

MEDYKA, Poland (AP) — As tensions mount in eastern Ukraine and Western leaders issue dire warnings that a wider war could be on the way, calm lingers along Ukraine’s western border. Ukraine with Poland, a country of the European Union.

A sports center painted with the Olympic rings in a small Polish community right on the border is ready to welcome Ukrainian refugees. For now, the center of Medyka is empty. At the nearby border post, there are no signs of Ukrainians fleeing.

Many Ukrainians are doing the exact opposite: crossing the Ukrainian border after working or shopping in Poland, with some defiantly swearing to defend their country in the event of a larger Russian invasion.

“Russia expected everyone to panic and flee to Europe, just to buy buckwheat and pasta, food, but we all bought machine guns, weapons and cartridges,” he said. Volodymyr Halyk, 29 years old. “No one is afraid, no one will abandon their homes, no one will flee.

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Halyk and a friend, Volodymyr Yermakov, described themselves as veterans of the war against Russian-backed separatists that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Yermakov, 34, said he was ready to take up arms again if Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion.

“Putin is an aggressor and does not allow anyone to lead a normal life,” he said. “They want to take our territory, and that’s the truth.”

Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine, but Western officials have said with around 150,000 troops and equipment surrounding the country on three sides, an attack could come at any time.

The Poles, who were controlled by Moscow during the Cold War, are watching news of Russia’s military buildup with concern. Last year, the Polish government found itself embroiled in a migration dispute with another eastern neighbour, Russia’s ally, Belarus.

Poland and the European Union have accused Belarus of helping people from the Middle East cross the border into Poland. The Polish government has called the migration part of a Hybrid War effort aimed at destabilizing central Europe and the wider EU.

Mariusz Gumienny, the chairman of the Medyka city council, said the thousands of additional US troops who have arrived in the area are helping to maintain a sense of security.

“It calms the mood,” he says.

The United States has deployed nearly 5,000 additional troops to Poland in recent weeks. They are in addition to the 4,000 rotational troops the United States began sending after Russian actions against Ukraine in 2014. The job of American soldiers is to reassure NATO ally Poland that and to be in place to help evacuate American or Ukrainian citizens if necessary.

Local residents are ready to help Ukrainians if tensions with Russia escalate into a wider conflict, according to Gumienny. But he says people are also concerned that large numbers of arrivals could overwhelm the city or that a protracted war in Ukraine could cause greater instability.

“There is no panic. You cannot see the locals trying to protect themselves in any way. But one thing sticks in my mind: what if a wave of refugees from Ukraine is going off? That’s what (locals) fear the most,” Gumienny told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Poland is one of the most eastern members of NATO and the EU. Many Poles believe membership in these organizations provides good protection against Russia as Putin seeks to reassert Russian authority in a region he believes should return to Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Warsaw has long sought to support democratic reforms and greater integration with the West in Ukraine, with the aim of securing a buffer zone between Poland and Russia.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said this week that a “free and sovereign Ukraine” was a matter of national interest for Poland. In addition to preparing a plan to help Ukrainians who may flee, Poland is also sending defensive weapons to the country bordering its center and southeast.

At an international security conference in Munich, Germany, Morawiecki said on Saturday that Poland planned to send more weapons to Ukraine. He said he believes Western countries have long ignored Russia’s attempts to reestablish its grip in the region, but are finally waking up to the risk to all of Europe.

Halyk, one of the Ukrainians who has pledged to defend his homeland, had his own warning for Europe before returning home on Saturday.

“Remember, when the last Ukrainian soldier dies, it will be your turn,” he said. “That’s why we have to unite, because we have a common goal, you can even say a common enemy, who will always want more, who is bloodthirsty, who will not allow anyone to live in peace.

Follow AP’s coverage of Russia-Ukraine tensions at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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