MEDYKA, Poland (AP) — As tensions soar in Ukraine’s east and Western leaders issue dire warnings that a wider war could be coming, calm persists along Ukraine’s western border with European Union nation Poland.
A sports center painted with the Olympic rings in a small Polish community directly on the border stands ready to house Ukrainian refugees. For now, the center in Medyka is empty. At the nearby border crossing, there is no sign of Ukrainians fleeing.
Many Ukrainians do just the opposite: cross the border back into Ukraine after working or shopping in Poland, some defiantly vowing to defend their country in case of a larger Russian invasion.
“Russia expected everyone to panic and flee to Europe, to just buy buckwheat and pasta, food, but we all bought machine guns and weapons and cartridges," Volodymyr Halyk, 29, said. "No one is afraid, no one will abandon their homes, no one will flee.”
Halyk and a friend, Volodymyr Yermakov, described themselves as veterans of the war against Russia-backed separatists that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Yermakov, 34, said he was prepared to take up arms again should Russian President Vladimir Putin launch an invasion.
“Putin is an aggressor and does not allow anyone to live a normal life," he said. "They want to take our territory, and that’s the truth.”
Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine, but Western officials have said that with an estimated 150,000 troops and equipment surrounding the country on three sides, an attack could happen at any time.
People in Poland, which was controlled by Moscow during the Cold War, are following the news of Russia's military buildup with concern. The Polish government last year became embroiled in a migration dispute with another eastern neighbor, Russian ally Belarus.
Poland and the European Union accused Belarus of assisting people from the Middle East to cross the border into Poland. The Polish government called the migration part of an effort of hybrid war aimed at destabilizing central Europe and the EU more widely.
Mariusz Gumienny, the town council chairman in Medyka, said the thousands of additional U.S. troops who arrived in the area are helping to maintain a sense of security.
“It calms the mood,” he said.
The U.S. deployed nearly 5,000 more troops to Poland in recent weeks. They come in addition to 4,000 rotational troops the U.S. began sending after Russian actions against Ukraine in 2014. The job of the American soldiers is to reassure NATO ally Poland and to be in place to help evacuate U.S. citizens or Ukrainians should that be necessary.
Local residents stand ready to help Ukrainians if the tensions with Russia escalate into a broader conflict, according to Gumienny. But he says people also worry that a large number of arrivals could overwhelm the town or that a prolonged war in Ukraine might cause wider instability.
“There is no panic. You can’t see inhabitants trying to protect themselves in any way. But one thing is still in my mind: what will happen if a wave of refugees from Ukraine starts? This is what (townspeople) fear most," Gumienny told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Poland is one of the easternmost members of NATO and the EU. Many Poles think membership in those organizations offers a good deal of protection from Russia as Putin seeks to reassert Russia’s authority in a region that he believes should return to Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Warsaw has long sought to support democratic reforms and greater integration with the West in Ukraine, in an effort to ensure having a buffer zone between Poland and Russia.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said this week that a “free and sovereign Ukraine” was a matter of national interest for Poland. In addition to readying a plan to help any Ukrainians who might flee, Poland is also sending defensive weapons to the country that borders its central- and southeast.
At an international security conference in Munich, Germany, Morawiecki said Saturday that Poland plans to send more weapons to Ukraine. He said he thinks that Western countries have long ignored Russia's attempts to restore its sway in the region but are finally becoming aware of the risk to all of Europe.
Halyk, one of the Ukrainians who is vowing to defend his homeland, had his own warning for Europe before he drove home on Saturday.
“Remember, when the last Ukrainian soldier dies, it will be your turn," he said. "That is why we must unite, because we have a common goal, you can even say a common enemy, who will always want more, who is bloodthirsty, who will not allow anyone to live in peace.”