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Putin’s war to bring Ukraine to heel unites Eastern Europe in alarm

  PODBORSKO, Poland — Scattered around the forest in Poland like archaeological ruins, the crumbling concrete bunkers for decades stored Soviet nuclear warheads. Today, they store only memories — deeply painful for Poland, joyous for the Kremlin — of the vanished empire that President Vladimir V. Putin wants to rebuild, starting with his war in Ukraine. “Nobody here trusted the Russians before and we certainly don’t trust them now,” said Mieczyslaw Zuk, a former Polish soldier who oversees the once top-secret nuclear site. The bunkers were abandoned by the Soviet military in 1990 as Moscow’s hegemony over East and Central Europe unraveled in what President Putin has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Now Eastern European countries fear a catastrophe of their own could be in the making, as Mr. Putin seeks to turn back the clock and reclaim Russia’s lost sphere of influence, perilously close to their frontiers. Even leaders in the region who have long supported Mr. Putin are sounding the alarm. Warnings about Moscow’s intentions, often dismissed until last Thursday’s invasion of Ukraine as “Russophobia” by those without experience of living in proximity to Russia, are now widely accepted as prescient. And while there has been debate about whether efforts to expand NATO into the former Soviet bloc were a provocation to Mr. Putin, his assault on Ukraine has left countries that joined the American-led military alliance convinced they made the right decision.A Russian attack on Poland or other former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact that now belong to NATO is still highly unlikely but Mr. Putin has “made the unthinkable possible,” warned Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, Poland’s neighbor to the north. “We live in a new reality. If Putin is not stopped he will go further,” Mr. Landsbergis said in an interview. His country, bordering both Russia and its ally Belarus, has declared a state of emergency. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland gave his own warning of perhaps worse to come. “We should be under no illusions: this could be just the beginning,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “Tomorrow Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Poland, could be next in line.”Fear that Mr. Putin is capable of just about anything, even using nuclear weapons, is just “common sense,” said Toomas Ilves, a former president of Estonia.Mr. Ilves announced this week on Twitter that he was “accepting apologies” for all the “patronizing nonsense from Western Europeans” who complained that “we Estonians were paranoid about Russian behavior.” In a telephone interview, Mr. Ilves said he had not received any apologies yet but was gratified to see Russia’s “shills and useful idiots getting their comeuppance.” Western Europeans who once scoffed at his dark view of Russia, he added, “have suddenly become East Europeans” in their fearful attitudes. “This past week marks the end of a 30-year-long error that we can all come together and sing kumbaya.” Memories of Soviet hegemony over what is now NATO’s eastern flank — imposed after the Red Army liberated the region from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II — vary from country to country depending on history, geography and convoluted domestic political struggles. For Poland, a nation repeatedly invaded by Russia over the centuries, they are of humiliation and oppression. Baltic states, extinguished as independent nations by Stalin in 1940 and dragooned at gunpoint into the Soviet Union, feel much the same way. Others have fonder recollections, particularly Bulgaria, where pro-Russian sentiment has long run deep, at least until last week, and Serbia, which has for centuries seen Russia as its protector.So, too, has Milos Zeman, the previously Kremlin-friendly president of the Czech Republic. “I admit I was wrong,” Mr. Zeman said this week
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