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 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.
Tomasz Siemoniak, Poland’s defense minister, is also contemplating a proposal to establish a Territorial Defense Force, taking the cream of the members of the paramilitary associations and other volunteers to create something akin to the National Guard in the United States.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz changed the law on who can be called up for service in case of “military maneuvers.”
Previously, the armed forces could summon only current and former reservists, those with actual military training.
Now, if necessary, they can call on almost any person in the country.
In neighboring Lithuania, President Dalia Grybauskaite said her government intended to reinstate military conscription because of the “current geopolitical environment.”
In January, the government issued a 98-page booklet (“How to Act in Extreme Situations or Instances of War”) that offered advice on what citizens should do if foreign soldiers appeared on their doorstep, and how they might offer passive resistance to an occupying power.
“If you are a civilian and you make that clear, it is unlikely someone will rush to kill you,” the booklet advised, urging people not to panic.
Even hearing shots fired outside your home “is not the end of the world,” it said.
“People come up and ask me: ‘Should we leave? Should we flee?’ ” said Karlis Bukovskis, deputy director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs in Riga.
“This is a new development. This is the first time that has happened to me.”
Worries are increasing in Poland, but they have not yet reached the level of mass fear, said Tomasz Szlendak, a sociologist at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun who has studied the effects the Ukraine crisis is having in Poland.
At a recent party of fellow academics, he said, one retired military officer announced that he would organize a local militia if the Russians invaded.
Another professor declared that he would put his wife and daughter on a plane out of Poland with a bag of money and then sign up with one of the paramilitary groups.
“These kind of comments are, of course, meant as jokes,” Mr. Szlendak said.
“But they are based on real fear. They are humorless, sad jokes.”
The situation has not quite gotten to the point that people are stockpiling food and ammunition in the basement, said Mr. Zaborowski of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, but anxiety is definitely rising.
Pawel Kowal, a former member of Poland’s Parliament and a foreign policy expert, said the country was getting parallel messages from its leaders, being told that a newly aggressive Russia poses a genuine threat while also being reassured that membership in NATO and the European Union will provide sufficient protection.
“The sense is that the border between NATO and Russia is like a new Iron Curtain,” Mr. Kowal said.
“But at least this time, Poland is on the right side of it.”
The growing enrollment in the paramilitary groups is just one manifestation of the changed climate.
The number of groups, General Pacek said, is clearly rising.
Not all of the increase is due to Ukraine — patriotism and uniformed service are becoming more fashionable among younger Poles, and the military does offer a stable career — but Putin’s shadow has certainly accelerated the trend, he said.
A gathering a few days earlier in the city of Szczecin had 500 new cadets taking the oath.
General Pacek estimated there were 120 such groups at the moment, with about 80,000 members, but he acknowledged that this was just a guess, as the groups are not required to report their existence or membership rolls.
The Defense Ministry has been trying to entice the groups to join an alliance with the government, offering equipment, uniforms, training and even money in exchange for a clearer idea of who they are — and a chance to assemble a new generation of energized recruits.
“There is no question of them doing any fighting,” General Pacek said.
“They are to offer assistance to the military. But of course, they have to be prepared to defend.”
In St. Joseph’s Square, the 30 new members of the Shooting Association waited for the command before taking four purposeful steps forward and raising their right hands.
“I hereby pledge to put the good of the Polish Republic above all else,” they repeated.
“I will always be ready to defend its independence until my last breath.”
After the ceremony, Grzegorz Sapinski, the mayor of Kalisz, watched the cadets march down the cobblestone streets back to the school.
“One cannot help but notice the change in attitudes among young people following what is happening in Ukraine,” Mr. Sapinski said.
“The conflict is not in some obscure place. It is happening four hours’ drive away.”
The members of one squad from the Shooters Association were splayed on their bellies on the edge of the school’s soccer field, pushing themselves ahead one knee thrust at a time.
Each held a prop AK-47, and Capt. Lukasz Kolcz, the chapter’s commander, barked at them to keep low and move forward.
The youngest of the cadets, Grzegorz Zurek, 11, was having trouble keeping up, but he was stubbornly determined.
As they arrived on the far side of the field, the cadets turned to cheer Grzegorz along.
“I think it is highly probable that Putin will do something against Poland,” Grzegorz later said.
“I know from history that Russia has always been a totalitarian state. Now it is trying to regain the territory it lost at the end of the Cold War.”
He rested his rubber-coated gun on the soft, perfect grass.
“Should it invade Poland,” he said, “I would not hesitate a second to fight against them.”
Source: The New York Times