Poland sees surge in volunteers for military training as Russian threat looms

Poland sees surge in volunteers for military training as Russian threat looms

The Polish army has launched an initiative to bring in the country's youth and train them rigorously to protect their homeland against potential aggression from Russia.

Holidays with the Army is a 28-day boot camp that offers basic training to people over 18, many of whom are recent high school graduates. According to officials, participants will be paid 6,000 zlotys (€1,400).

The military introduced the scheme in search of recruits as Poland expanded its 198,000-member army in the face of Russian aggression in neighbouring Ukraine — which has raised fears Vladimir Putin may have plans for other countries that once lay in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Officials say there has been great interest in the programme, which is taking place at 70 locations across Poland.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has aroused an impulse among Poles to defend the nation, said Major Michal Tomczyk, a spokesperson at the Defence Ministry.

"We haven't had such a threat since World War II," Tomczyk said. He said the ministry had planned for 10,000 volunteers for the programme, and have more than 11,000.

At the end of the training, the volunteers will take a soldier's oath in which they swear "to serve loyally the Republic of Poland ... even at the cost of losing my life or blood."

Those who choose a military life can join a branch of the professional armed services or the Territorial Defence Forces or be on standby as reservists, said Colonel Pawel Galazka, commander of the 18th Lomza Logistics Regiment, a unit training the volunteers.

"The army wants to train as many citizens as possible," Galazka said. "Everyone knows about the threat that comes from the east."

Stray missiles and hybrid warfare

Russia's initial seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014 sent jitters through the region, but its full-scale invasion has spurred a major security realignment from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, forcing nations and individuals alike to consider the prospect of one day taking up arms.

Sweden and Finland broke with their neutrality to join NATO, and other countries are considering introducing compulsory conscription. Denmark says it plans to expand its conscription to include women.

In Poland, which is a member of both NATO and the European Union, the threat feels close. Some stray Russian missiles have even landed in Polish territory.

Volunteers in Poland's army practice tactics during basic training in Nowogrod, 20 June 2024
Volunteers in Poland's army practice tactics during basic training in Nowogrod, 20 June 2024 - AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

At the border with Belarus, an ally of Russia, migrants arrive in large numbers every day; a group recently attacked Polish officials, killing one soldier. Warsaw says the migration pressure has been created by Russia and Belarus as a tactic of hybrid warfare against the West.

"The Russians and the Belarusians have engineered an assault on our border," Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said at a recent international conference in Berlin devoted to Ukraine's recovery.

Russian officials have repeatedly threatened Poland. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and ally of President Vladimir Putin, has called Poland a "dangerous enemy" that risks losing its statehood.

Along Poland's northern border is the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, where Poland believes Moscow stores about 100 tactical nuclear warheads.

Poles must think about what could happen and be prepared, said 34-year-old Magdalena Klos, one of the volunteers in the new training.

She had long dreamed of becoming a soldier but was waiting for her children to be old enough. They are now 9 and 11, and she feels the time is finally right.

"I am proud that I am wearing the uniform," she said. "I am not only a mother and a wife but also a soldier."