Russian missile strike near NATO’s Poland stirs anxiety

FILE - A Polish border guard carries a child as he helps people fleeing Ukraine to cross at the Ukrainian-Polish border crossing in Korczowa, Poland, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Olivier Douliery/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Russian missile attack that killed at least 35 people in western Ukraine, some 15 miles from NATO member Poland, has stirred anxiety and spurred Poles to rush to passport offices and stockpile essentials amid fears the war could cut off supplies, or even spill over into Poland.

A long line of applicants, unseen for decades, formed Monday outside Warsaw’s main passport office on Krucza Street. Canned food, bottled water, flashlights and batteries filled shoppers’ baskets. People in the street talked of the latest news and their worries for the future.

In the street, outside the passport office, Justyna Winnicka, 44, was filling out the passport form for her 16-year-old daughter, Michalina.

“We want to have a passport because the last one expired and we want to be able to go on vacation, but also want to be able to travel abroad in case something happens here in Poland,” Winnicka told The Associated Press.

Asked if she was afraid because of the fighting just across Poland’s border, she said “Everybody is a little bit afraid today.”

“We all believe that the fact that we are in NATO will protect us in some way, but each of us also remembers the history of World War II and the (failed) alliances of those times,” Winnicka said.

“Things can turn out in different ways. In Poland people are a bit afraid,” she said.

On Sunday, Anna Kwiatkowska, 42, a mother of two, said a friend working for a foreign firm had advised the family to have their passports ready and some dollars, too.

“So I will apply for passports to be done for my children,” said Kwiatkowska, whose children, aged 10 and 8, have not traveled abroad yet.

All this despite the fact that NATO, to which former Eastern bloc nation Poland has belonged since 1999, is strengthening its military presence in eastern Poland, close to the Ukraine border, and stresses that the alliance is fulfilling its task of ensuring Poland’s safety.

But Russia’s strike Sunday on a Ukrainian military training center in Yavoriv, less than 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the border with Poland, shook the confidence of Poles living near the border and created anxiety among others all to aware of Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s past control of Poland’s territory.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the attack, close to a refugee route to Poland, was also intended to “provoke panic among civilians” fleeing the “horrors of the war.”

Poland has taken in more than 1.8 million refugees from Ukraine — nearly all women and children — since Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine and then unleashed attacks on hospitals, schools and residential areas.

Morawiecki said that the Yavoriv attack and those on civilians are aimed at “destroying this humanitarian effort … of help being offered to innocent people, women, children.”

Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Marcin Przydacz, said he does not believe that Russia, which he asserted “visibly is not coping in Ukraine” would try an attack on a NATO country.

Nevertheless, he stressed “one should be cautious and we are being cautious.”

People in the capital, Warsaw, in central Poland, were all too cognizant of the potential threat to Eastern bloc nations that, like Poland, were once under the control of the Soviet Union, for more than four decades after World War II.

“We have lived in safety so far; I had thought the pandemic was the worst I would experience, but now there is war just across our border,” said 61-year-old retiree Emilia Gancarz.

“I don’t want to experience war, it’s the worst thing in the world,” she said, adding that she is stocking up on candles, dried food, nuts and canned goods, just in case.

She said some of her friends are buying small solar panels, in case of power cuts.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski urged calm.

“We all watch President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy. If he doesn’t panic, we don’t panic. Come on. There is no panic,” Trzaskowski told a news conference.

“Of course people ask questions – what if a rocket goes astray? We also ask what if there is a chemical attack. But there is no panic. We feel safe. We have those very important assurances from President (Joe) Biden and the secretary general of NATO and other friends from NATO countries … who visit us daily,” Trzaskowski said.

Meanwhile, some Poles are doing what they can to try to influence public opinion in Russia and its ally Belarus. With Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flags, they block the road to the Polish border crossing with Belarus, stopping trucks with Russian or Belarusian registration plates. They tell the drivers about the targeting of civilians by Russian forces in Ukraine, but the drivers either say they know nothing about it, or are just minding their own business, according to Poland’s private TNV24.

The Yavoriv attack early Sunday and the barking of the dogs woke up residents of the small Polish village of Wielkie Oczy, just over a mile (two kilometers) from Ukraine. From their balconies they could see the glow of explosions and the billowing smoke.

They later flocked to a Mass at the local Roman Catholic church, to share what they saw and seek the comfort of neighbors.

The whole family was “in shock. We were afraid,” said 56-year-old Lucyna Lesicka.

The Rev. Jozef Florek, the priest at the Immaculate Conception Church, expressed their anxiety. “If it’s bells not explosions that are waking us up, then we are safe. I am not a prophet, but we had bombs falling not far from us today that woke us up.”