Fear is contagious as Poles ask: 'Are we next?'

In Poland's capital Warsaw, Ukrainian refugees have relayed stories of atrocities and destruction

People hold portraits of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other banners during an anti-war rally in front of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland. AP
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Warsaw lies only 135 kilometres from the Belarus border — or as some residents measure it, seven hours' drive in a Russian tank.

Brimming with Ukrainian refugees telling stories of appalling Russian brutality as air-raid siren tests ring out, fear is clearly contagious in Poland’s capital.

Regardless of the likelihood of Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions stretching beyond Ukraine to Poland, the merest prospect of him turning his attention to the nation of 38 million people or his weapons hitting the country by mistake has led to a state of alarm.

“We think that the next step for Putin will be Poland, that we can expect the Russian army here in one or two years,” Michael Skievlowski, 52, told The National near Warsaw Central Station in the heart of the city.

On the surface, Warsaw functions like any other European city. But the increased security is palpable, with armed personnel in the streets speaking into bullhorns and speeding police convoys given a respectful berth by motorists.

The thought of Russian tanks rolling down the street — as they continue to do across towns and cities in neighbouring Ukraine — does not appear fantastical.

“We have been very scared,” said Alicja Szcerbak, pushing her 1-year-old baby daughter in a pram. “Frankly speaking, I wake up every day thinking, what will happen next? There is a war and it is very worrying for us.”

That anxiety has been enhanced not only by reports from the war but by the harrowed faces of Ukrainian refugees pouring into Poland, with tales of the latest Russian atrocities.

From among the 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have arrived so far, Ms Szcerbak, 32, a medical student, has given temporary shelter to four in her 45-square-metre, one-bedroom flat that she shares with her husband and child.

“It was very traumatic. They had witnessed some bad things, so it was very difficult for us all. It makes it feel that the war is very close. It's really emotional because I come home and I really cry because of the situation some people are in, because they don't have a place to stay. We really want to help them but our flat is too small.”

The war has also led to skyrocketing prices: in the past two weeks, a packet of butter has almost doubled in price to 11 zloty ($2.58) and the monthly rental for a two-bedroom flat has soared from 2,500 zloty to more than 4,000 zloty ($936). And with the worldwide shortage of oil, higher fuel costs are adding to the problems.

Military analysts suggest that Russian setbacks in Ukraine, with the loss of an estimated 15,000 soldiers and hundreds of tanks, mean that an attack on Poland is unlikely.

But the war’s proximity and reported Russian atrocities has had a significant psychological impact on Warsaw.

When discussing the threat from Moscow, its citizens point worriedly to the sky in genuine concern over a potential missile strike.

“I was speaking with some Ukrainian people and they told me their country could fight until the end of May and then Putin will come to Poland in June,” said event organiser Robert Rychliski, 42. “I think it’s 50-50 that Poland will be in the war as well.”

Mr Rychliski fears Russia could still unleash its deadliest threat.

“Me, my friends, my mother, we all think a nuclear attack on Poland is very possible. We are very scared.”

But he hopes the US' “special rockets” will deal with them.

The deployment of anti-ballistic US Patriot missile batteries and Britain’s Sky Sabre air defence as well as more troops and military hardware has provided some comfort. But for Poland, which suffered appalling loses from both German and Russian invasions during the Second World War, this is not enough to deter Mr Putin.

“It's not enough for such an army like Russia — it’s a piece cake for them to bring 200,000 soldiers here,” said Mr Skievlowski, a pharmaceutical executive.

“The war will come to Poland and the Russians will only stop in the eastern half of our country because all the Nato bases are in the west. We need more weapons, more of everything to stop them.”

As the cold Warsaw night closed in, Ms Szcerbak held her daughter, the concern for their future clearly on her mind.

“It's really hard to say this in English because I don't know the words, but we are angry and we are sad,” she said. “We find it so difficult to understand, to believe that this is happening in Europe. I just don't know how to explain it.”

Updated: April 13, 2022, 7:48 AM