The war caused some European countries to strengthen military and civil defense

Recruits in the Polish Territorial Defense Forces undergo weapons training south of Gdansk.  (Kasia Streck/Panos Photos for The Washington Post)
Recruits in the Polish Territorial Defense Forces undergo weapons training south of Gdansk. (Kasia Streck/Panos Photos for The Washington Post)
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WARSAW — Days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, Eric Klosowski made an unusual request to senior staff at the Polish utility company he headed. A war rages across the border. It was time, he reasoned, for his team to expand their corporate training. Everyone should learn to shoot a gun.

“Russia may still take more military steps and may pose asymmetric threats, such as terrorist attacks,” said Klosovsky, 46, who is now planning weapons training for hundreds of enlisted personnel in after-work sessions this fall. “Everyone should be prepared.”

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of Russian aggression, reigniting the threat of nuclear war and unleashing global food and energy crises that have sent prices soaring worldwide. But for neighboring countries long familiar with the Russian threat, the war provoked 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 uphold mutual defense treaties if the Kremlin — still facing a much tougher fight than it expected in Ukraine — threatens others in the coming years . But the countries living in Russia’s shadow are still unwilling to leave their fate to chance. They are seeking to rapidly build domestic military power while witnessing a renaissance in civilian preparedness that recalls the darkest days of the Cold War.

Poland, a Warsaw Pact nation under the boot of the Soviet Union for more than four decades, is today Moscow’s harshest critic in Europe. To confront a belligerent Russia, officials here have vowed to double the size of their armed forces to 300,000 troops, even as some politicians seek to loosen strict gun laws to put more weapons into civilian hands.

Some 94 percent of Poles see Russia as a “main threat,” up from 65 percent in 2018, according to a new A Pew Research study. And 14 years after the abolition of conscription, a majority of Poles support the return of some form of military service.

As they rise to be counted, the country with Europe’s lowest rate of gun ownership is seeing a surge in enrollment in its territorial defense forces, similar to America’s National Guard, as well as a sharp 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 instruction to civilians and has seen a dramatic surge in interest since the war in Ukraine began.

“People have long believed that they are completely safe, that nothing will happen and the army is not needed,” Wojcik said, standing in the hot summer sun at a training center 87 miles from Warsaw where 40 civilians took paid military courses to the government. “It’s not like that anymore.”

Ukraine’s success in deploying armed civilians to augment regular forces appears to have inspired Poland and other neighboring nations to see a winning model in the “civilian soldier.” Here, the call to arms extends beyond the traditional military, into boardrooms and even into Polish schools. As early as September, 13-year-olds must begin limited weapons training.

“This is clearly the effect of the war,” Education Minister Przemyślów Czarnek said in an interview. “Ten years ago, if a sitting minister had suggested that primary school students have such classes, he would have been laughed at. But what did we witness? [in Ukraine]and the manner in which this war was waged with such cruelties showed us that the danger was real.”

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

The invasion prompted a similar rethinking in Sweden and Finland, which broke decades of taboos and applied for NATO membership this year; both have seen a huge surge in recruits signing up for the volunteer defense forces. Lithuania – a Baltic nation and former Soviet state – is also a witness a surge in sales of personal weapons, including handguns and semi-automatics.

Interest in both personal combat training and private gun ownership has skyrocketed in the Czech Republic, site of the Prague Spring, which was violently suppressed by the Soviet Union in 1968. There, the number of volunteers enlisting in the Army’s active reserve , is so high that officials say they cannot process all the applications. Czech gun dealers and shooting ranges have also been besieged by citizens looking to buy guns and learn or improve their shooting skills.

“People don’t believe that the state will be able to protect them,” said Martin Fisser, owner of a shooting school in Prague, where frantic demand filled places for new students by September. “Our army is small.”

Perhaps nowhere is the answer more startling than in Poland.

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

Observers here say this is largely a product of the communist era, when Poland’s Soviet masters frowned on private gun ownership to the point of discouraging even hunting. For better or worse, Russia’s attacks in Ukraine are giving impetus to efforts to change and liberalize these laws.

“At the moment, we are the most unarmed society in Europe,” said Yaroslav Sachajko, a national MP from The Kukiz’15 party co-authored legislation that would make it easier for Poles to obtain guns, a process that now requires psychological evaluations, written tests and extensive police checks.

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

At a shooting range in an old car factory on the outskirts of Warsaw, Artur Kwiecinski, a 47-year-old pharmaceutical executive, spoke amid the roar of live fire. One of 400 new members of a local gun club since February, he described his motivation as “obvious”.

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

Civil defense classes, common in Polish schools during the communist era, have largely disappeared in recent decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and then Poland’s accession to NATO and the European Union, seemingly making the idea of ​​war obsolete.

As the threat returns to life, Poland is trying to reintroduce weapons training in schools – including theoretical training in the eighth grade and tactical, hands-on training in the ninth grade. The instruction will combine virtual reality technology and live 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 stand up with arms in hand to defend their homeland,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in June. while the opening of a high school shooting range in the southern city of Mishkov. There is no going back under Russia’s feet.

The conflation of guns and schools may shock some Americans given the spate of horrific mass shootings in the United States. But the measure met mostly muted opposition here, with the loudest criticisms being that it was a waste of time or a ploy by the ruling party to pander to 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 member of the Warsaw City Council’s education committee. so happy about it. We need more psychologists, more therapists in school. Not guns.”

The shift in threat was most disconcerting for younger Poles, who largely grew up in an era of peace interrupted by Russia’s aggression in Georgia in 2008 and its forced annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. Both pale in comparison. with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which shattered many Poles’ illusion of safer times.

Justyna Mushinska, a 17-year-old high school student, was among those who spent an entire day last month at the training center northwest of Warsaw – practicing how to build a shelter, put on a gas mask, fire 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 from a first-aid lesson on the battlefield. “I wanted to learn basic skills.”

Poland seeks to increase its defense power through its Territorial Defense Forces. Cut from the Law and Justice party in 2017, its ranks of professional and part-time volunteers have been derided as the government’s “personal army”. Since the spring, there has been a sevenfold increase in staffing.

Last Sunday, in the woods a few hours outside Warsaw, a wave of recruits underwent basic weapons training as their instructors barked orders.

“They want to protect themselves, their families and their homeland,” said Lt. Pavel Pinkovski, 40, company commander and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The situation in Ukraine has shown that it really is better to be prepared.

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

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