The war is prompting some European countries to strengthen their military and civilian defenses

Polish Territorial Defense Force recruits undergo weapons training south of Gdansk.  (Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)
Polish Territorial Defense Force recruits undergo weapons training south of Gdansk. (Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)
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WARSAW — Days after Russian troops stormed into Ukraine in February, Eryk Klossowski made an unusual request to senior executives at the Polish utility company he ran. War was raging on the other side of the border. It was time, he felt, for his team to expand their corporate training. Everyone should learn to shoot a gun.

“Russia can still take more military action and trigger asymmetric threats, like terrorist attacks,” said Klossowski, 46, who now plans weapons training for hundreds of rank-and-file workers in after-work sessions. this autumn. “Everyone has to be prepared.”

The war in Ukraine marked a new era of Russian aggression, reigniting the threat of nuclear war and triggering global food and fuel crises that have driven up prices around the world. But for neighboring countries, long accustomed to the Russian threat, the war provokes something more: a national call to arms.

Across Eastern and Northern Europe, polls show strong support for the NATO alliance and faith in the United States to honor mutual defense treaties if the Kremlin – still facing a much tougher than expected fight in Ukraine – threatens others in years to come. But the countries living in Russia’s shadow still do not want to leave their fortunes to chance. They are striving to rapidly build national military might, while witnessing a renaissance of civilian preparedness that dates back to the darkest days of the Cold War.

Poland, a Warsaw Pact country under the boot of the Soviet Union for more than four decades, is today the harshest critic of Moscow in Europe. To deal with a belligerent Russia, officials here are promising to double the size of their armed forces to 300,000 soldiers, even as some politicians seek to relax strict gun laws to get more guns into their hands. civilians.

Around 94% of Poles see Russia as a “major threat”, up from 65% in 2018, according to a new survey by Pew Research. And 14 years after abolishing conscription, a plurality of Poles are in favor of the return of some form of military conscription.

As they step up to be counted, the country with the lowest gun ownership rate in Europe is seeing a surge in enrollments in its Territorial Defense Force, similar to the US National Guard, as well as ‘a strong interest in combat and survival courses and range training slots.

“Society has come out of its glass bubble,” said Krzysztof Wojcik, the 29-year-old founder of a nonprofit that provides survival and weapons training to civilians and has seen a resurgence of interest spectacular since the start of the war in Ukraine.

“People have long thought that they are completely safe, that nothing will happen and that the army is not needed,” Wojcik said, standing in the hot summer sun at a training center at 87 miles from Warsaw, where 40 civilians were attending paid military-style courses. for by the government. “This is no longer the case.”

Ukraine’s success in deploying armed civilians to reinforce the regular forces appears to have inspired Poland and other neighboring countries to see a winning model in the “civilian soldier”. Here, the call to arms extends beyond the traditional army, into lecture halls and even into Polish schools. As early as September, children as young as 13 are expected to begin limited weapons training.

“It’s clearly the effect of the war,” Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek said in an interview. “Ten years ago, if a minister in office had proposed that primary school pupils have this kind of course, he would have been laughed at. However, what we have witnessed [in Ukraine]and the way this war was fought with such atrocities, showed us that the danger is real.

“These are necessary skills,” he added. “It’s not about militarizing children, it’s about skills that would be useful for safety and security if the conflict escalates.”

The invasion sparked similar thinking in Sweden and Finland, which broke decades-old taboos and applied for NATO membership this year; both have witnessed a huge increase in the number of recruits enlisting in the voluntary defense forces. Lithuania – a Baltic nation and a former Soviet state – is also seeing a surge in sales of personal weapons, including handguns and semi-automatics.

Interest in personal combat training and the possession of private weapons skyrocketed in the Czech Republic, the site of the Prague Spring, which was violently suppressed by the Soviet Union in 1968. There the number of volunteers enrolling in active army reserves is so high that officials say they are unable to process all the applications. Czech arms dealers and shooting ranges were also besieged by citizens eager to buy guns and learn or improve their shooting skills.

“People don’t believe the state would be able to protect them,” said Martin Fiser, owner of a shooting school in Prague where skyrocketing demand filled places for new students until September. “Our army is tiny.”

Perhaps nowhere is the answer more surprising than in Poland.

In a country dominated by far-right politics, tough gun laws were a rare exception to the agenda of the ruling Law and Justice party. On a per capita basis, Poland’s population of 38 million sees relatively few firearms in civilian hands – with 2.51 firearms per 100,000 people, compared to 19.61 in France and 120 per 100,000 in the United States. United States.

Observers here say it’s largely a product of the Communist era, when Polish Soviet masters disapproved of private gun ownership to the point of discouraging even hunting. For better or worse, Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are spurring efforts to change and liberalize these laws.

“Right now we are the least armed society in Europe,” said Jaroslaw Sachajko, a national lawmaker from the Parti Kukiz’15 and co-author of legislation that would make it easier for Poles to obtain firearms – a process that now requires psychological evaluations, written tests and extensive police examinations.

“All our neighbors have more guns per capita. The Czechs. The Germans. Why should they have easier access to guns?” he said. He added: “We can see in Ukraine how weapons and weapons training aided their effort” against the Russians.

On a shooting range of a former car factory on the outskirts of Warsaw, Artur Kwiecinski, a 47-year-old pharmaceutical executive, spoke under the din of live ammunition. One of 400 new members of a local shooting club since February, he described his motivation as “obvious”.

“This is war,” Kwiecinski said. “It made personal safety more important. I have a wife. I have a son. I need to learn this.

Civil defense lessons, common in Polish schools during the communist era, have largely disappeared in recent decades, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and then Poland’s membership of NATO and the European Union seeming to render obsolete the concept of war.

As the threat returns to life, Poland is set to reintroduce weapons training in schools – including theoretical training in eighth grade and practical and tactical training in ninth grade. The instruction will combine virtual reality technology and in-person shooting at ranges.

“If Russia ever thinks of attacking Poland, Russia must know, the Kremlin must know, that in Poland 40 million Poles are ready to rise up, arms in hand, to defend their homeland,” he said. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in June. inaugurating a high school shooting gallery in the southern town of Myszkow. “There is no going back under Russia’s foot.”

Mixing guns and schools might come as a shock to some Americans, given the wave of horrific mass shootings in the United States. But the measure has met with rather muted opposition here, with the strongest criticisms being that it is wasted class time or a ploy by the ruling party to curry favor with its base.

“It’s strange. We had weapons training when I was in school 30 years ago, and we didn’t think it would ever come back,” said Dorota Loboda, a parent activist and committee member. of education from the Warsaw City Council: “We are not so happy about this. We need more psychologists, more therapists at school. Not weapons.”

The change in threat was most shocking to young Poles, who largely grew up in a time of peace punctuated by Russia’s aggression in Georgia in 2008 and its forced annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. Both paled in comparison to the all-out invasion. of Ukraine, which shattered many Poles’ illusion of a safer time.

Justyna Muszynska, a 17-year-old high school student, was among those who spent a full day last month at the training center northwest of Warsaw – practicing building a shelter, putting on a gas mask, shooting with a gun.

“After Russia invaded Ukraine, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing and had no idea how to protect myself and my loved ones,” she said, taking a break after a first aid lesson on the battlefield. “I wanted to learn basic skills.”

Poland is preparing to increase its defense power thanks to its Territorial Defense Force. Created by the Law and Justice party in 2017, its ranks of professional, part-time volunteer soldiers have been derided as the government’s “personal army”. Since the spring, it has seen its recruitments multiplied by seven.

Last Sunday, in the forests a few hours from Warsaw, a wave of new recruits went through basic weapons training as their instructors barked orders.

“They want to defend themselves, their families and their homeland,” said Lieutenant Pawel Pinkowski, 40, a company commander and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The situation in Ukraine has shown that indeed it is better to be prepared.”

Dariusz Kalan in Wloclawek, Poland, and Ladka Bauerova in Prague contributed to this report.

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