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Poland readies its defense as Russia moves east

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is changing how Europe thinks about its defense, particularly in the east. In Poland, the government is boosting military spending. And as NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports, citizens are worried as well.

UNIDENTIFIED POLISH SOLDIER: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: On a rainy weekend near the border with Ukraine, recruits are training for Poland's Territorial Defence Force. Poland's defense ministry says enrollment in the armed forces has surged since neighboring Ukraine was invaded by Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED POLISH SOLDIER: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: But Poland has its own history with Russian aggression, and it's been ramping up national defense for years. Michal Szczerba, a Polish lawmaker who specializes in NATO issues, says Poland has repeatedly warned the alliance about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

MICHAL SZCZERBA: Putin has become irrational leader, so it means that nobody can predict what he is going to plan. We have to be serious about the situation.

KAKISSIS: Putin has compared his war against Ukraine to a war on NATO. Marcin Przydacz, Poland's deputy foreign minister, says his country is doing everything possible to keep NATO united.

MARCIN PRZYDACZ: We as Poland, we've been always very loyal to NATO. Wherever and whenever NATO wanted us to help, we were first to help, as always.

KAKISSIS: Poland has increased military spending to 3% of GDP, one of the highest percentages among NATO member states.

PRZYDACZ: We do have quite significant number of troops, quite well-equipped. We've been active in purchasing also equipment from the U.S. We've signed a contract to buy F-35, hummers (ph), artillery, Abrams tanks.

KAKISSIS: And Poland is also a main gateway for Western weapons to Ukraine. Russia has threatened to target that supply. Along the Poland-Ukraine border, recruits at a training center learn to load and shoot weapons and prepare for chemical attacks. The recruits include a teacher, a beautician, a barista and a 22-year-old engineering student, Gabriela Kott.

GABRIELA KOTT: I think that every person capable of bearing arms should be trained with weapons. Right now, with the situation, with the war, with the Ukraine, we can be next.

KAKISSIS: She grew up hearing stories about how Poland suffered during World War II when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invaded the country.

PIOTR MAJEWSKI: This is a very, very strong memory in Poland still so many years after the Second World War.

KAKISSIS: Piotr Majewski is a historian at the University of Warsaw.

MAJEWSKI: And right now, we face again a war which makes our memories vivid and it brings fears.

KAKISSIS: After World War II ended, Poles blamed the West for abandoning Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union's sphere of influence.

MAJEWSKI: This is the turning point, I guess, right now. And, you know, if NATO's has enough power to protect Poland and other countries, this fear will disappear.

KAKISSIS: President Biden tried to address that fear in Poland last month when he offered this warning to Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Don't even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory. We have a sacred obligation.

KAKISSIS: The U.S. has stationed more than 10,000 troops in Poland. But Przydacz, the deputy foreign minister, wants more troops and a permanent U.S. base in Poland.

PRZYDACZ: This is the place where Russia is and will be trying to test the unity of NATO and test our possible reaction.

KAKISSIS: The tension has prompted a 200% increase in membership at the Husar shooting club in Rzeszow, not far from the Ukrainian border.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KAKISSIS: Computer programmer Jedrezj Swietoniowski is learning to fire a Glock.

JEDREZJ SWIETONIOWSKI: In the past, I have no - any contact with guns, but right now, we know what's the enemy.

KAKISSIS: He sees the enemy in history and says Poland must prepare for the worst. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Rzeszow, Poland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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