PODBORSKO, Poland – Scattered across the Polish forest like archaeological ruins, the crumbling concrete bunkers have stored Soviet nuclear warheads for decades. Today, they retain only the memories – deeply painful for Poland, joyful for the Kremlin – of the vanished empire that President Vladimir V. Putin wants to rebuild, starting with his war in Ukraine.
“No one here trusted the Russians before and we certainly don’t trust them now,” said Mieczyslaw Zuk, a former Polish soldier who oversees the once top-secret nuclear site. The bunkers were abandoned by the Soviet military in 1990 when Moscow’s hegemony over central and eastern Europe collapsed in what President Putin described as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century”.
Now Eastern European countries fear disaster is brewing as Mr Putin seeks to turn back the clock and reclaim Russia’s lost sphere of influence dangerously close to their borders . Even regional leaders who have long backed Mr. Putin are sounding the alarm.
Warnings about Moscow’s intentions, often dismissed until last Thursday’s invasion of Ukraine as ‘Russophobia’ by those inexperienced in living near Russia, are now widely accepted as prescient . And while there has been some debate over whether efforts to expand NATO to the former Soviet bloc were a provocation for Mr Putin, his assault on Ukraine has left countries that have joined the US-led military alliance convinced they had made the right decision.
A Russian attack on Poland or other former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact who now belong to NATO is still highly unlikely, but Mr Putin has “made the unthinkable possible”, warned Gabrielius Landsbergis, Minister of Foreign Affairs foreign countries of Lithuania, Poland’s neighbor to the north. .
“We live in a new reality. If Putin is not arrested, he will go further,” Landsbergis said in an interview. His country, bordering both Russia and its ally Belarus, has declared a state of emergency.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gave his own warning of the worst to come. “We should have no illusions: this may just be the start,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “Tomorrow, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Poland, could be next on the list.”
The fear that Mr Putin is capable of just about anything, even using nuclear weapons, is “common sense”, said Toomas Ilves, Estonia’s former president.
Mr. Ilves aannounced this week on Twitter that he “accepted an apology” for all the “condescending nonsense of Western Europeans” who complained that “we Estonians were paranoid about Russian behavior”.
In a telephone interview, Mr Ilves said he had not yet received an apology, but was pleased to see that Russia’s “helpful accomplices and idiots are getting their reward”.
Western Europeans who once scoffed at his gloomy view of Russia, he added, “suddenly became Eastern Europeans” in their fearful attitudes. “Last week marks the end of a 30-year mistake that we can all get together and sing kumbaya.”
Memories of Soviet hegemony over 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 based on history, geography and complicated domestic political struggles.
For Poland, a nation invaded several times by Russia over the centuries, they are synonymous with humiliation and oppression. The Baltic states, wiped out as independent nations by Stalin in 1940 and dragged into the Soviet Union at gunpoint, feel much the same.
Others have better memories, especially Bulgaria, where pro-Russian sentiment has long run deep, at least until last week, and Serbia, which for centuries looked to Russia as its protector.
Mr Putin’s war to bring Ukraine to heel has, however, united the region in alarm, with even Serbia expressing dismay. On Monday, Bulgaria’s prime minister sacked his defense minister, who sparked outrage by suggesting the conflict in Ukraine should not be called a war but a “special military operation”, the Kremlin’s euphemism for his invasion.
Only Milorad Dodik, the belligerent and pro-Kremlin leader of Bosnia’s ethnic Serb enclave, Republika Srpska, has shown sympathy for Mr Putin’s war, saying Russia’s reasons for invading “have been received with understanding”.
Outrage over Russian aggression, even in countries historically sympathetic to Moscow, has derailed years of work by Russian diplomats and intelligence operatives to cultivate allies like Ataka, an ultranationalist political party in Bulgaria that is so close to Russia that he has already launched his electoral campaign in Moscow.
Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who usually defies fellow European leaders and stood alongside Mr Putin last month in the Kremlin, has now endorsed a series of sanctions imposed on Russia by the bloc European. He is still blocking the transport of weapons to Ukraine across the Hungarian border, but has dampened his enthusiasm for Mr Putin.
The same goes for Milos Zeman, the former president of the Czech Republic, friend of the Kremlin. “I admit I was wrong,” Mr Zeman said this week.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
A city is captured. Russian troops took control of Kherson, the first Ukrainian city to be defeated in the war. The overrun of Kherson is important because it allows the Russians to gain more control of the southern coast of Ukraine and to push west towards the city of Odessa.
In Poland, traditionally one of the most anti-Russian countries in the region, the populist ruling Law and Justice party moved almost overnight from aligning itself with Moscow in its hostility to LGBTQ rights and defending traditional values to become one of Mr. Putin’s most vocal critics, offering his territory for the delivery of arms to Ukraine and welcoming more than 450,000 Ukrainians who have fled the war.
Gas stations and ATMs in southeastern Poland, along the border with Ukraine, have been besieged in recent days by people fearing they will have to get out quickly. That possibility became a reality Monday night when missiles slammed into a Ukrainian village a few miles from the border, slamming the windows of nearby houses on the Polish side.
Just two weeks before Russian troops poured into Ukraine, Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki joined Mr Orban and Marine Le Pen, the far-right French presidential candidate who has often spoken out for the Russia, at a meeting in Madrid focused on attacking the European Union and its liberal attitudes towards immigration.
In recent days, however, Mr Morawiecki has abandoned hostility to the European bloc to focus instead on opposing the Kremlin. He lobbied for tough sanctions on Russia, traveling to Berlin to personally “shake Germany’s conscience” and nudge it toward a dramatic reversal in its policy toward Russia. During a recent visit to Warsaw, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III hailed Poland as “one of our staunchest 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 become aware of a completely new reality,” said Polish President Andrzej Duda, lamenting that it took a Russian invasion to interrupt “the peaceful sleep of wealthy Europeans”.
A nation of Slavs like Ukraine, Poland has long been seen as a wayward family member by more messianic Russian nationalists, whose views Mr Putin channeled last week into his justification for war. Russia’s foreign minister recently called Poland and other new NATO members “orphan territories” from 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 divided family, the mayor of Warsaw announced on Tuesday that refugees from Ukraine would be housed in buildings built during the Cold War to housing Soviet diplomats and left since abandoned due to legal disputes over ownership.
Few expect Russia to try to force the Poles back into a Moscow-dominated Slavic “family” as it is now trying to do with the Ukrainians. To do that, said Tomasz Smura, research director at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, a research group in Warsaw, “would mean that Putin has gone completely mad.”
At the former Soviet warhead bunker in Podborsko, northwest Poland, Zuk said he never really expected the Russians to try to retake their lost military outposts from the Soviet era. But he still wondered why, just before withdrawing from Podobsko with its nuclear weapons, the Soviet military established a maintenance program for the cranes used to lift the warheads and other equipment from the facility spanning years. .
“It seems they didn’t think they were gone forever,” Mr Zuk said, standing in a cavernous underground room once stuffed with warheads and long off-limits to all but Soviet officers. In its attitude towards Poland, he added, Russia has always acted “like a master towards a servant”, a relationship it is now trying to impose on Ukraine. “I’m afraid Putin also wants to take over Poland and the Baltic states,” he said.
Boryana Dzhambazova in Sofia, Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius and Anatol Magdziarz in Warsaw contributed reporting.