Polish paramilitary groups grow in popularity

As the crisis between Ukraine and Russia rages on, civilian military groups are getting more popular in neighbouring Poland. This is no coincidence, experts argue, as Poles have a long history of guerrilla fighting, when threats are looming.

By Rikke Mathiassen and Maria Danmark

Siedlce, Poland – During the last year, more and more Poles have turned to camouflage clothes and fake guns. They sign up for basic military training in their local paramilitary group.

The phenomenon is not new in Poland. During the Nazi Germans’ occupation, Poland had one of the biggest paramilitary movements in Europe but then the groups became smaller, almost not existent, when the communist rule made it illegal.

However, since 1989 the groups started to pop up again and especially during the recent months, they have gained a lot more attention both from the public and politicians.

In the last year the groups are said to have experienced a significant spike in membership, but how many new members exactly have signed up is difficult to say, as these groups are not required to register anywhere. They are so-called ‘underground movements’ which could give some association to the biggest paramilitary group, the Home Army, during WWII.

 Spike in membership

Even though it is difficult to say how many members there are, Gustav Gressel, a visiting fellow at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, is certain that Polish paramilitary groups have grown in strength.

“After Crimea of course, those clubs gained a lot of new volunteers. Some of my hunting friends consider joining. The mood in Poland given Russia’s behavior is not that optimistic,” he says.

Pawel Makowiec, vice president of Obrona Noradowa (ON), recognizes the trend. ON is a pro-national defense think tank, which also supports some of the groups with for example specialised trainers. Makowiec explains that the years from 2000 to 2008 were a crisis period for defence associations in Poland; however, the war in Georgia was a turning point for Polish citizens perception of defence politics.

“Russian aggression and political and military instability in Eastern Europe was a simple signal for [Polish] citizens’ activity in the next years. The Crimean crisis and war in Ukraine only accelerated this course,” he says and adds:

“Many [the volunteers] don’t want to be professional soldiers, they will remain civilians: managers, specialists, doctors, teachers etc., but they care about the security of the country. That’s why they want to be soldiers of territorial troops, like US National Guard, Miliz AT etc. and defend their loved ones from aggressors, if needed.”

 “If you want peace, prepare for war”

20-year-old Kuba Ciężkowski is a platoon leader in a Polish paramilitary group.
20-year-old law student Kuba Ciężkowski is a platoon leader in a Polish paramilitary group.

20-year-old Kuba Ciężkowski is one of the civilians who joined Jednostka Strzelecka 1009 Mińsk Mazowiecki, one of the organisations. He signed up in July 2011 and has trained ever since. However, now he only trains every other two weeks, as he studies to become a lawyer in Warsaw.

“The paramilitary stuff has always interested me. I had no political reasons to join, because back then nobody ever expected a war in Ukraine, because Ukraine was said to be a Western country. I was just interested in it that was all,” he says.

During his training, Kuba Ciężkowski advanced to team leader and is now in charge of a team of 25 to 30 people. Nevertheless, he has no intention of joining the professional army in the event of a war. “I don’t want to join military, because we [his paramilitary group] are prepared for a guerrilla war, not a regular war where two armies fight and shoot at everybody. We have no chance in that,” he says.

Still, he wanted the basic military skills in order to be ready, if a crisis does occur. “As the Romans said: “if you want peace, prepare for war”. And as long as there are humans in the world, things will happen. It is impossible to avoid war, especially in the middle of Europe where there has been war every 50 years,” he says.

Diverging numbers on “weekend soldiers”

According to calculations from International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the number of paramilitary personnel in Poland was 22,050 in 2013, but only in the last two years the number increased to 74,300. According to General Boguslaw Pacek, an advisor to the Polish defence minister, there are about 120 different groups. Pacek has a estimation on 20 of these which is about 10,000 members.

Gressel argues that there are different ways of counting paramilitary personnel, stressing that a research institute as the IISS also lists high-readiness police force as paramilitary forces in its calculation of the paramilitary personnel.

“The voluntary paramilitary groups are something different. They are loosely organized, private groups that train with military or police force personnel and could form a new guerrilla army. A kind of soldier for the weekend,” he says and adds, that there are different estimations about their strength, ranging from 10,000 to 30,000.

Crucial to national security

The approximately 120 different groups differ in terms of size and structure. Some only have a handful of members. Others have hundreds. However, according to Obrona Narodowa, the overall aim with these groups is the same: to defend Poland.

Even though, Poland has a regular army of about 110,000 personnel, the paramilitary groups are still highly necessary, Makowiec explains.

He claims that the Polish Army is too small for defending the state territory efficiently if outside powers should threaten the Eastern European country with war or occupation.

“Poland needs a modern and proficient territorial army to support the professional army in territorial defense tasks and crisis response such as natural disasters,” he says, adding that the Polish army could only cover in total two percent of Polish territory.

What are they fighting for?

The sudden increase in membership and attention for pro-national defence organisations in Poland occurred around the same time when Russia started to meddle in Ukraine.

However, some of the organisations stress that their training isn’t preparation for an upcoming war against Russia. They have been practicing military tactics for years, they argue.

Kuba Ciężkowski has also noticed more people joining his organisation. “But it doesn’t mean that we didn’t train or do anything before the Ukraine crisis. The crisis just drew attention to us. People [Poles] have sometimes never heard about us, so maybe because of the attention, they saw an opportunity to serve the country,” he explains.

Nevertheless, Gressel argues that the organisations are still “a tool of deterrence from Poland to really show the determination of the society to put up a fight.”

“Even if they [the organisations] are saying that they are not sending a message, naturally Moscow will analyse the development in this way,” he says.

Little help in modern warfare

Last autumn, the Polish Minister of Defence initiated a process of creating closer ties between the professional army and the weekend soldiers. Subsequently, on March 20 and 21, representatives from the pro-defence groups were invited to a conference in Warsaw held by the Polish Ministry of Defence.

The aim of the two-day conference was to look at the activities of the paramilitary organisations and to discuss future directions of their cooperation with the Ministry of Defence. This was the first time the Polish government officially recognised the paramilitary groups.

“Our shared ambition should be to increase the number of active citizens ready to defend the country,” the Polish Minister of Defence, Tomasz Siemoniak, said to the participants.

The minister also announced that there will be established a special office under the ministry which will cooperate with the different paramilitary groups.

However, Jacek Bartosiak, a national security analyst at the Polish think tank National Centre of Strategic Studies, is sceptical, when it comes to how much these paramilitary groups can contribute to the national security at the end of the day.

“They are not sufficiently equipped against modern military and not. We would just put them into danger, especially in modern warfare. It is not like the WWII anymore,” he explains.

Potential recruitment tool

But if the paramilitary groups will be of little use in the event of a conflict, why is the Polish government then spending time on them?

According to Bartosiak, it is obvious that the government see an advantage in cooperating with the paramilitary groups, as they in general enjoy a positive image in the public. “They are like a brothership, a fraternity and there is a kind of a patriotic touch to it.”

However, the groups can also prove to be an important tool for the government, not in terms of the military skills they acquire as volunteers, but in terms of recruitment, Gressel argues.

Gressel explains that it is always an issue for a professional army to recruit new young people as soldiers. “The paramilitary groups could prove to be a tool for recruiting people, because it is quite an exception in Europe. A lot of students join this pre-military education, so this could increase the pool of people willing to join the Polish army,” he says.


Featured image: The local paramilitary group, Stowarzyszenie-Jednostek-Strzeleckiech-Strzelec (SJS Strzelec) could be defined as weekend-soldiers, as the group of 16 to 22 years old only train military tactics in the weekends. Photo: Rikke Mathiassen and Maria Danmark