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Friday 22 November 2019

Poles enrol in volunteer militias to defend against Russia invasion

Inspired by the war in Ukraine, growing numbers of Poles are joining volunteer paramilitary groups Credit: Kacper Pempel
Inspired by the war in Ukraine, growing numbers of Poles are joining volunteer paramilitary groups Credit: Kacper Pempel
Participiants secure a position during a territorial defence training organised by paramilitary group SJS Strzelec Credit: Kacper Pempel

Wiktor Szary and Kacper Pempel

Spurred by the war in Ukraine, thousands of Poles have joined volunteer paramilitary groups to prepare to defend their homeland from what some see as a looming Russian invasion.

The Polish government has kept its distance from the unofficial civilian militias but, with anxieties about Moscow's intentions growing, the professional military is now looking for ways to harness the volunteer groups.

There are an estimated 120 such groups in Poland, with total membership around 10,000. Eight hundred members gathered on Friday in Warsaw at a meeting organised by the Defence Ministry, the first time they have been given official recognition.

Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak told them his ministry would pay the wages of 2,500 people who would form the backbone of local volunteer units to be mobilised in the event of a war.

Damian Trynkiewicz carries his weapon during territorial defence training organised by SJS Strzelec Credit: Kacper Pempel
Damian Trynkiewicz carries his weapon during territorial defence training organised by SJS Strzelec Credit: Kacper Pempel

The Polish president's chief security adviser, General Stanislaw Koziej, told Reuters the new approach had been prompted by the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine, where Russia is accused of fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists.

"Until recently, paramilitary organisations treated defence as a pastime," he said. "Today, as we face a war across our border, they realise that this pastime could contribute to the country's security."

Poland is a member of NATO, but the defence alliance rejected requests from Warsaw to establish a substantial permanent presence on Polish soil. That has shaken Poles' faith in NATO's resolve, officials in Warsaw say.

Instead, Poland is counting on a bilateral defence partnership with the United States, while building up its own defence capability, both conventional and unconventional.

During World War Two, when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany, the Polish government-in-exile commanded an underground partisan "Home Army" that ambushed German troops, staged acts of sabotage and mounted the ill-fated 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

Many defence analysts say a Russian attack on Poland is highly unlikely. Countries such as Moldova, Latvia or Estonia, with substantial Russian-speaking minorities, are much more likely targets, they say.

SJS Strzelec paramilitary group in the forest near Minsk Mazowiecki Credit: Kacper Pempel
SJS Strzelec paramilitary group in the forest near Minsk Mazowiecki Credit: Kacper Pempel

But suspicion of Moscow runs deep in Poland, which was ruled by Czarist Russia for over a century and under Soviet domination for over four decades after World War Two. It borders on Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

Moscow denies it has any plans for an offensive and says it has no direct role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Reuters

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