At a military academy on the outskirts of Warsaw, accountant Dorota Pakieła learned to roll over on the ground while keeping her assault rifle pointed at the enemy.
She was also able to throw a hand grenade, put on a gas mask, and use a compass to navigate her way through the rubble of a “bombed city”.
Pakieła was taking part in the Polish army’s new training program to prepare civilians for a possible Russian attack following Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
The one-day program was launched last month and is run by 17 military units across Poland. Pakieła, who has two children, heard about it on social media and applied because “I am afraid of the times we live in and I want to be able to protect my family”.
She is not alone. Some 1,500 people tried to book a place for his session, which was limited to 100 participants aged 18 to 65. As fighting in Ukraine continues and Poles fear it will spread to their home country, army officers said the program, which was due to end later this month, should be extended to meet demand.
Poland has increased its defense spending and has been at the forefront of Western support for Ukraine. Eight months ago, it was among the first nations to send arms to Kyiv, while welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees. Since then, it has served as a transportation and logistics hub for NATO and EU expeditions and has agreed to host a permanent US military base for the first time.
To bolster its arsenal, the Polish government recently ordered billions of euros worth of tanks, planes and helicopters from America and South Korea, and signed a missile development deal last month. with the UK.
Warsaw has pledged to double the size of its armed forces to 300,000 and increase defense spending to the highest ratio among NATO members, without setting a specific deadline. Polish defense spending is expected to exceed 3% of gross domestic product in 2023, up from 2.4% this year.
Poland ended compulsory military service in 2009, much to the relief of those who saw it as an unwanted legacy of the Soviet era. When the government then created a territorial defense force in 2017, it managed to recruit only half of the targeted number of 53,000 volunteers in three years amid media and public concerns over whether it was siphoning off the resources of the professional army.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine abruptly reversed that sentiment to the point that a recent opinion poll found that most people wanted to reintroduce conscription. And although the country has strict gun ownership laws, shooting ranges have recently reported an increase in visitors. Such enthusiasm encouraged some right-wing lawmakers in July to propose a relaxation of gun laws.
Russian aggression had created “a need to redefine the concept of militarization” which had become an “unequivocally negative word”, said sociologist Piotr Kwiatkowski. He expected Polish society’s interest in the military to continue to grow because “defence is now seen as important and necessary”.
While weekend training sessions are for adults only, Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek announced earlier this year that basic defense training should be taught in schools. However, this has been suspended as there are not enough shooting ranges. Meanwhile, recent threats from Moscow to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine prompted the Polish government last month to order a nationwide inspection of shelters that could be used against Russian bombing.
As he prepared to teach his Saturday recruits how to start a fire and build a shelter in the woods surrounding the military academy, Major Cezary Czarnecki said, “I show civilians very basic survival methods, but it can bring great benefits, because an army needs the support of a population prepared for war.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine in February, the major said: “People understand much better how the army protects them, but of course we can still do more: personally, I would bring back military service, but I am not the Prime Minister of Poland. ”
Like other attendees of military courses, architect Jan Jabłoński said he would be keen to undergo further military training.
“I believe in the idea of Republican citizenship and developing a citizen army seems better to me than buying big stuff like tanks,” he said. “If Poland is going to spend [more] on defense, that’s good news as long as the money is well spent and not used by politicians just to create a public spectacle.
Jabłoński was among the trainees who had previously visited a shooting range. But academic Monika Koziar discovered for the first time how to load an assault rifle. She said she still couldn’t imagine using live ammunition to kill someone, “but I’m a patriot and I feel it’s my duty to learn this.”