Podborsko, Poland – Scattered around the woods in Poland like archaeological ruins, decades-old crumbling concrete bunkers store Soviet nuclear warheads. Today, they store nothing but memories – so painful for Poland, joyous for the Kremlin – of the worn-out empire that President Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild, starting with his war in Ukraine.
“Nobody here trusted the Russians before, and we certainly don’t trust them now,” said Mieczyslaw Zuk, a former Polish soldier who oversees the top-secret nuclear site. The bunkers were abandoned by the Soviet military in 1990 as Moscow’s hegemony over eastern and central Europe collapsed in what President Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
Now Eastern European countries fear a catastrophe of their own, as Putin seeks to turn back the clock and restore Russia’s lost sphere of influence, perilously close to their borders. Even leaders in the region who have long backed Putin are sounding the alarm.
Warnings about Moscow’s intentions, which until last Thursday’s invasion of Ukraine were often dismissed as “Russophobia” by those without experience living near Russia, are now widely accepted as warnings.
A Russian attack on Poland or other former members of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact remains highly unlikely, but Mr Putin has “made the unthinkable possible”, warned Gabrielos Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, Poland’s neighbor in North. .
“We live in a new reality. If Putin is not stopped, he will go further. His country, which borders both Russia and its ally Belarus, has declared a state of emergency,” Landsbergis said in an interview.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has given his own warning of what could be worse in the future. “We should have no illusions: this may be just the beginning,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “Tomorrow Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Poland, could be next in line.”
Tomas Elvis, the former president of Estonia, said the fear that Putin would be able to do anything, even with nuclear weapons, is just “common sense”.
Mr. Ilves aAnnounce this week on Twitter He was “apologizing” for all the “condescending Western European bullshit” who complained that “we Estonians are paranoid about Russian behaviour”.
In a phone interview, Mr. Elvis said he had not received an apology yet, but was happy to see Russia’s “chills and useful idiots getting their punishment”.
He added that Western Europeans, who once mocked his bleak view of Russia, “suddenly become Eastern Europeans” in their fearsome attitudes. “Last week marks the end of a 30-year mistake that we can all come together and sing kumbaya.”
Memories of Soviet domination of what is now NATO’s eastern flank – imposed after the Red Army liberated the region from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II – vary from country to country depending on history, geography and complex internal political struggles.
For Poland, a country that Russia has repeatedly invaded over the centuries, they are subject to humiliation and oppression. The Baltic states, which Stalin toppled as independent states in 1940 and dragged at gunpoint into the Soviet Union, feel the same way.
Others have fond memories, especially Bulgaria, where pro-Russian sentiment has long run deep, at least until last week, and Serbia, which for centuries considered Russia its protector.
However, Mr. Putin’s war to subjugate Ukraine, united the region in a panic, even Serbia expressed its displeasure. On Monday, Bulgaria’s prime minister fired his defense minister, who sparked outrage by suggesting that the conflict in Ukraine should not be called a war, but rather a “special military operation,” the Kremlin’s euphemism for its invasion.
Only Milorad Dodik, the pro-Kremlin warrior leader in Bosnia’s ethnic Serb enclave, Republika Srpska, showed any sympathy for Mr. Putin’s war, noting that Russia’s reasons for invading were “understood”.
Anger at Russian aggression, even in countries historically sympathetic to Moscow, has taken out years of work by diplomats and KGB operatives to grow allies like the Ataka, a radical nationalist political party in Bulgaria so close to Russia that it once campaigned. Moscow.
even in The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbanwho usually takes pleasure in challenging his fellow European leaders and I stood with Mr. Putin Last month in the Kremlin, he now endorsed a raft of European bloc sanctions against Russia. It still hinders arms transfers to Ukraine across Hungary’s borders, but it has curbed his once-flowing enthusiasm for Mr. Putin.
So did Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic who was a former friend of the Kremlin. “I admit I was wrong,” Mr. Zeman said this week.
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In Poland, which has traditionally been one of the most anti-Russian countries in the region, the ruling populist party, Law and Justice, went almost overnight from siding with Moscow in its hostility to LGBT rights and defense of traditional values to becoming one of Mr. Putin’s strongest critics, offering its territory to deliver weapons to Ukraine and received more than 450,000 Ukrainians who fled the war.
Gas stations and ATMs in southeastern Poland along the border with Ukraine have been blockaded in recent days by people worried they might need to get out quickly. That possibility hit the house Monday night when rockets hit a Ukrainian village a few miles from the border, shaking windows in neighboring homes on the Polish side.
Just two weeks before Russian troops poured into Ukraine, Poland’s prime minister, Mr. Morawiecki, joined Mr. Urban and Marine Le Pen, the far-right French presidential candidate who has often spoken on behalf of Russia, in meeting in Madrid He focused on attacking the European Union and its liberal stances on immigration.
But in recent days, Mr. Morawiecki has abandoned his hostility to the European bloc to focus instead on opposing the Kremlin. He lobbied for tough sanctions against Russia, and traveled to Berlin in person to “disturb Germany’s conscience” and push it toward a dramatic shift in its policy toward Russia. On a recent visit to Warsaw, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III of Poland described her as “one of our most powerful allies.”
On Friday, Poland hosted a summit meeting with nine regional leaders to rally opposition to the Russian invasion and discuss ways to help Ukraine. “We have awakened to a whole new reality,” the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, told the crowd, lamenting that the Russian invasion had necessitated the interruption of the “quiet sleep of wealthy Europeans.”
Poland, a Slavic country like Ukraine, has long been seen as a stray family member by Christian-minded Russian nationalists, whose views Putin directed last week in his justification for the war. The Russian foreign minister recently mocked Poland and other new members of NATO as “orphaned lands” due to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union.
To demonstrate that Poland has no desire to join what Moscow imagines as its happy, obedient but sadly sad family, the mayor of Warsaw announced on Tuesday that refugees from Ukraine would be housed in apartment complexes built during the Cold War to house Soviet diplomats and departed. It has since been abandoned due to legal disputes over ownership.
Few would expect Russia to try to return the Poles to a Slavic “family” dominated by Moscow by force, as it is now trying to do with the Ukrainians. Doing so would “mean Putin has gone completely insane,” said Tomasz Smora, director of research at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, a research group in Warsaw.
But regardless of Mr Putin’s psychological state, his attack on Ukraine has left the hard-line countries on NATO’s eastern flank not only convinced they made the right decision to join the US-led military coalition, but also felt justified in their decades-old deep wariness of the war. Russia.
At the former Soviet warhead bunker in Podborsko, northwest Poland, Zuk said he never expected the Russians to try to reclaim their lost Soviet-era military positions. But he still wondered why, just before withdrawing from Podopsko with its nuclear weapons, the Soviet Army put in place a maintenance schedule for the cranes used to lift warheads and other equipment at the facility that stretches years into the future.
“It seems they didn’t think they were going to leave forever,” said Zuk, standing in a cavernous underground hall that was crammed with warheads, inaccessible to far from Soviet officers. He added that Russia, in its attitude toward Poland, has always behaved “like a master toward a servant,” a relationship it is now trying to impose on Ukraine. “I’m afraid Putin might want to take over Poland and the Baltic states as well,” he said.
Boriana Dzambazova in Sofia, Thomas Dapkus in Vilnius and Anatole Magdziarz in Warsaw contributed to the report.