ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's beginning to feel a bit like the Cold War. The Pentagon has floated a plan to store heavy weapons in key NATO countries along Russia's European border, including Poland, Romania and Hungary. Many former Soviet satellites remain suspicious of Russian intentions, especially after Russia annexed Crimea last year. And as tensions between Russia and the West escalate, citizens in Poland are joining home-grown militias. This month, EU-funded observation towers were completed along Russia's border with the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled to the border area and filed this report.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Just how porous Poland's 180-mile-long border with Russia is can be seen from this windy hill outside sleepy village of Parkoszewo. A wooded area amid the fields is where one country ends and the other begins, but sneaking across remote borders like this one is no longer easy. The reason is a new red and white metal structure on this hill that allows Polish border authorities to peer 12 miles into Russian territory.
AGNIESZKA GOLIAS: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: There are six of these new, unmanned posts along the Russian frontier that look like radio towers rising to as high as 160 feet, says Polish border guard spokeswoman Agnieszka Golias.
GOLIAS: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: Each tower has cameras that allow a single officer at a border guard base to scan a large area, Golias adds. She says the main purpose of the $5 million enhanced surveillance network is to curb smuggling and illegal immigration. But many Polish residents near the border say their government should use the towers to keep tabs on their neighbor in other ways, too.
The mistrust is prevalent, even in the border town of Braniewo, where the two sides have mixed freely for years, thanks to a local no-visa requirement. The main supermarket in town is packed with Russian shoppers who come here despite the devalued ruble. Poles, in turn, drive to Kaliningrad to buy gas and cigarettes, which are much cheaper there. These days, Krystyna Motyka admits feeling a bit uneasy about the arrangement.
KRYSTYNA MOTYKA: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: The Polish retiree, who is 64 and used to run a delivery business to Kaliningrad, says relations with her northern neighbors used to be a lot better. We just don't trust the Russians, and there's a feeling anything could happen, she says. The anti-Russian sentiment was so high in the nearby seafront town of Sopot that signs stating Russians were not welcome were posted in several businesses some months back. That annoyed Polish bartender Bartek Firmowski. In response, he put up a sign welcoming Russians to the beachfront club where he works. Both the pro- and anti-Russian signs have since been removed.
BARTEK FIRMOWSKI: There is Russian society, which is Slavic - same as Polish. And in some way, we should feel like brothers and sisters.
NELSON: But the 28-year-old says given Russian actions in eastern Ukraine, he wants Poland to beef up its military presence near the border.
FIRMOWSKI: If there would be more troops in Poland, I would - I would definitely feel safe here.
NELSON: So would Polish parliament member Arkadiusz Czartoryski.
ARKADIUSZ CZARTORYSKI: (Speaking Polish).
NELSON: He says he's not waiting on NATO to help. Instead, Czartoryski is among 14,000 Poles who've joined local militias. It's a number he says is rapidly growing because of the fears over Russia. The lawmaker says our whole history has proven if there was anyone we could count on, it's ourselves. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
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