Paramilitary volunteer groups surge in popularity in Eastern Europe

Thousands of ordinary civilians, including doctors, carpenters and teachers, are flocking to join volunteer paramilitary groups in several European countries, with some doubling in size since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Newsweek has discovered.

In Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden and Poland, volunteer defence leagues, many of whom train with real weapons and would be called upon to support the army in the event of a conflict, are seeing record numbers of ordinary civilians joining up.

Finland's military sent out letters to all 900,000 of its former conscripts at the beginning of this month, informing them of what their roles would be in a "crisis situation". Earlier this year, the Polish parliamentary speaker announced that parliamentarians will be offered the opportunity to train at an army firing range and that though the cut off age for the Polish military is 50, there would be exceptions for "healthy and youthful-looking" MPs.

So concerned are Russia's neighbours that last week military chiefs from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are to deliver a formal request to Nato, appealing for the alliance to base thousands of troops in the Baltic states, a further sign of the ongoing tension between Russia and West. Lieutenant-General Riho Terras, commander-in-chief of the Estonian defence forces, told the Times newspaper that "every Baltic state would have a battalion - say, one battalion in Poland and one in each of the Baltic states."

Since the beginning of the violence in Ukraine, the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union (LRU), the country's main paramilitary organisation, first set up in 1919, has grown from 6,000 members to 8,000 members.

The group uses real combat weapons and consists of 10 regiments who are spread across the country and who train every weekend, usually at military bases.

"The correlation between Russian aggression and LRU popularity is clear," says Valdas Kilpys, a rifleman and journalist for the LRU's journal. "We live here and we don't want anybody to decide how we should live. We are proud of what we have achieved in the last 25 years. No one can take it away from us," he says.

Across the border in Poland, it is estimated that the country's volunteer paramilitary groups boast 10,000 members. Earlier this year, the defence minister Tomasz Siemoniak announced that 2,500 volunteers would form the backbone of volunteer units to be mobilized in the event of a war, and be paid a wage, marking the first time Poland has given these volunteer paramilitary groups official recognition.

It is a similar story in Estonia. According to Silva Kiili, a research fellow at Tallinn's International Centre for Defence and Security, the size of the Estonian Defence League has doubled in comparison to pre-Ukraine crisis levels. In 2014 alone, more than 1,000 new volunteers joined, and the total figure now stands at over 24,000, out of a total population of 1.2m.

"People were joining before the crisis. But the Russian aggression has urged people to re-evaluate their priorities and many who were considering, but postponed, have now made up their minds and joined," she says.

The organisation uses real weapons and Defence League members are "ready and willing to fight in a conflict to defend their country", according to Kiili. "As the Defence League members have their battle gear and weapons at home they can be rapidly activated and may act as first responders to any kind of challenges including foreign aggression," she continues.

The average age of new members is 30, the majority of whom are newly married, with children and who have higher education, says Kiili.

According to Colonel Ilmar Damm, chief of staff of the Estonian Defence League many of those who join do so because they have "new values they want to protect",

"EDL is the backbone for preserving sovereignty and independence in Estonia," he continues. "People are asking more questions about how they can contribute."

The Swedish Home Guard, part of the Swedish Armed Forces, is also growing in popularity and now boasts more than 21,200 members, from all professions, including doctors, teachers, carpenters and bus drivers, according to Anette Sällström of the Swedish Armed Forces.

In 2013, the Swedish Home Guard received 1,500 expressions of interest in joining and during 2014, that figure doubled. According to Sällström, this is partly due to the crisis in Ukraine, but also the lure of modern and accurate equipment and the crisis in Syria, which could be other factors in encouraging new members.