People in Post-Soviet Countries Are Worried They’re Putin’s Next Target

People living in countries like Poland and Estonia remember what it was like under Soviet occupation—and they understand Russian imperialism too well.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
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A woman stands outside of Warsaw's central train station, facing the city's Palace of Culture and Sciences. Some people living in post-Soviet countries worry that

Monika Ziob has her bags packed even though she’s not yet going anywhere.

Ziob lives in Świerklaniec, a village in southwestern Poland about 100 kilometres from Kraków. She’s gathered sleeping bags for her kids, warm PJs, and everyone’s documents—passports, proof of COVID-19 vaccination, birth certificates—so that her family can flee on a moment’s notice to Germany, where her older brother and mom live. 

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Ziob is one of many Europeans coming up with contingency plans—just in case Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to move into other Eastern and Central European countries and target them next. 

“Pictures and videos of Russians attacking even mothers with children exacerbates the fears,” Ziob said. Her neighbours also have their documents ready to go.

While Poles are mobilizing to support Ukrainians, some are also scared of the prospect of a Russian invasion in their own country. The two countries share a long history of war, and only about 30 years have passed since Poland regained its independence after decades of Soviet occupation. 

Polish media have already reported longer-than-normal queues travelling down entire blocks at passport offices, and rushed to top up the gas in their vehicles so they can travel anytime. After Russia invaded Ukraine, 78 percent of Poles reported feeling scared of war.

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Meanwhile, all over the continent, Europeans have been panic-buying iodine pills as a precaution against perceived nuclear threats, which feel more real ever since Putin put Russia's nuclear deterrent forces on high alert last week. The supplements are considered by many to protect against radioactive exposure, but health officials caution that in the event of a nuclear war, they’re basically useless.  

"In the past six days, Bulgarian pharmacies have sold as much [iodine] as they sell for a year," Nikolay Kostov, chair of the Pharmacies Union, told Reuters. "Some pharmacies are already out of stock. We have ordered new quantities, but I am afraid they will not last very long."

Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, a political science and international affairs expert with the University of Łódż, told VICE World News that “of course” people are scared.

“Poland has its own historical memory of Russian aggression,” Żurawski vel Grajewski said.

The NATO country has already ramped up defense spending in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Poland has committed 3 percent of its GDP next year to defense, and will later increase spending. There are also commitments to increase the number of Polish soldiers. 

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Other countries in the region share similar histories and concerns.

A 37-year-old Estonian woman told the Guardian that her family has already started discussing where they’ll go if they need to flee. So has the family of an 18-year-old Latvian woman. “We haven’t packed any emergency bags yet, but we’ve made plans about where we will go in Latvia—a place where there is food and water reserves, and is not near any military bases,” she said. 

Unlike Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, and Latvia are all NATO members, which offers heightened protection from allies, including the U.S.  

In Poland, Ziob is staying put for now. 

“You can always unpack, but it’s better to be prepared.”

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