Despite Decades of Tension, Romanians Are Embracing Ukrainian Refugees

Daniel Condurache, upon hearing the news that Russian tanks had invaded Ukraine, jumped into his car and drove one hour to Siret’s Romanian border crossing. He was determined to provide any assistance he could for refugees. “When I first got here it was the middle of the night and there were just three of us and some Orthodox priests helping to translate Ukrainian,” says Condurache, a real estate agent from Botoșani, Romania. “Putin is a criminal and these people don’t deserve this.”

Condurache was the one who arrived at Siret first, although hundreds of his fellow countrymen followed him. Today, the road to Siret is paved with ordinary Romanians who offer food, water, and basic necessities like diapers and soap for the Ukrainian refugee. Condurache and other lawyers offer advice free of charge on asylum procedures. Condurache also offers transportation and shelter. “Now everybody’s uniting,” he says. “Romanian people are trying to help all over the country.”
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Continue reading: Eastern Europe Offers Help to Ukrainian Refugees

It’s an outpouring of compassion that’s all the more extraordinary given historically testy relations between these neighbors. The USSR annexed Bessarabia, a region of Romania, from Romania after World War II. However, this area is still part of Ukraine today. That ethnic Romanians in Ukraine aren’t schooled in their native language is a source of constant concern. There’s also a dispute about ecological damage from Ukraine’s Bystroye Canal, which affects both sides of the border, as well as contested Snake Island in the resource-rich Black Sea, where the territorial limits of the surrounding continental shelf were only delineated by the International Court of Justice in 2009. The drama surrounding Snake Island, which was the site of an ugly and violent standoff between Russian troops and Ukrainian soldiers, is now over.

At the moment, though, all this has been forgotten in the face of Russia’s belligerence. “I never even thought of crossing the border to Ukraine or Moldova before, because in my head these places are Russian,” says Condurache. “But now I see these people arriving: this is not Russia.”

Refugees that fled the conflict from neighboring Ukraine, await for transportation at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania, on Feb. 27, 2022.
Alexandru Dobre—APThe Romanian-Ukrainian border in Siret is where refugees fled conflict with Ukraine. They are expected to be transported on February 27, 2022.

Putin’s tactics of divide and rule are well-documented. Torrents of Kremlin-backed fake news helped foment Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. in order to elect a controversial reality TV star president of the U.S. In two draft treaties that the Russian government published in December, Putin outlined how he sought to restore Moscow’s control over Ukraine and former Soviet territories; destroy the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) as an effective alliance; and reduce former Warsaw Pact or USSR countries that are now E.U. The Kremlin is the only authority to grant vassal status to members.

In Romania, the outrageousness of these demands combined with Putin’s savagery in Ukraine has served to galvanize solidarity. “There has been a huge mobilization in support of Ukrainian refugees and Ukraine in general,” says Oana Popescu-Zamfir, director of the Bucharest-based Global Focus think tank.

Continue reading: Exodus Grows as Nearly 370,000 People Flee Russia’s Ukraine Invasion. Many More May Soon Follow

This is reflected across Europe as tens of thousands have gathered to protest Russia’s actions and pressure their own governments into sterner action. The E.U. took the extraordinary decision to ban Russian aircraft from its airspace on Sunday. On Sunday, the E.U. took the unusual decision to expel Russian planes from its airspace. Russian banks were removed from the SWIFT money transfer system. Germany, however, has increased its NATO contribution by 2%. Due to sanctions, the ruble’s value has fallen by 40% to the dollar. The Kremlin increased interest rates to 9.5 to 20% to counter the pressure. And at border crossings around Ukraine’s periphery, ordinary Slovakians, Hungarians, Moldavians and Poles have come out to welcome the influx.

It’s particularly significant since Ukraine’s western neighbors, such as Hungary and Slovakia, have consistently ranked among the least accepting in the world for migrants, and of them only Moldova voted for the U.N. migration pact in 2018. That said, while opening his borders to refugees, Hungarian’s strongman President Viktor Orbán has saidHe would not permit lethal weapons to flow through his territory to the Ukrainian resistance.

Alerts from Russian Aggression Not Heard

Yet in Eastern Europe, there’s also a sense of irritation that Western European nations, especially Germany, France and Italy, which rely on Russian energy, dragged their heels on Putin’s aggression despite so many warning signs—not least hid 2008 incursion into Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“There’s a widespread perception—not just in Romania but across Central Eastern Europe—that Western Europe did not take our warnings about Russian aggression seriously enough,” says Popescu-Zamfir. Too late, perhaps, but the threat of Putin’s Russia is no longer a matter of debate. NATO activated the Response Force on Friday. This includes land, air and sea special operations. They can be deployed quickly to support the alliance. “I have never heard so many people say that it’s such a blessing for Romania to be a NATO member,” adds Popescu-Zamfir.

Continue reading: ‘We Will Defend Ourselves.’ Photographs of Ukraine Under Attack

The depth of support for the Ukrainian resistance is why many observers believe Putin agreed to have talks with a Ukrainian delegation at the border with Belarus, “without preconditions.” Yet many of the over 500,000 people who had fled Ukraine by Monday, according to the U.N., doubt whether a negotiated settlement is feasible and are planning to help their homeland with funds. Maria Menieva (24), a singer from Lyiv in western Ukraine, was among them. She crossed into Siret Sunday with Gary, her boyfriend and cocker spaniel. “We’re heading to Denmark to earn money to give to the Ukrainian army,” she says. “I have two brothers fighting and I’m so scared for them.”

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Andreea Alexandru—APA worker of SMURD (Mobile Emergency Service for Resuscitation and Extrication) hands food bags to refugees who fled conflict in Ukraine on February 27, 2022 at the Romanian/Ukrainian border.

Europe is full of people who are more than happy to lend a hand with money. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president announced that Ukrainian forces would be setting up an international legion unit to support volunteers. In response, U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said she supports Britons wanting to join up, telling the BBC that it was a battle “for democracy” and “not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.” Sure enough, at the Siret border crossing, TIME observed two thick-set men with British accents and paramilitary dress conspiratorially discussing how best to cross over into Ukraine. TIME couldn’t confirm whether their intention was to join Russia’s fight.

Voicu Muresanu, 26, a videographer from Romanian university city of Cluj, came to Siret to document the refugee exodus but has been so appalled by the suffering that he’s seriously thinking about picking up a gun. “Lots of my friends are researching how to join the Ukrainian army,” he says. “I don’t want to go there, I’m scared shitless, but I feel that if 5 million people did then this war would be over in two days.”

Others believe that it’s down to the West to teach Putin a lesson. “Europe and America should do more,” says Condurache. “[President Joe]Biden is an admirable man, but I believe he should send troops. Putin is crazy, he is like Hitler, and will want more countries,” Condurache adds, gesturing to the lines of bedraggled women and children trundling past. “No normal person could bomb these guys like that.”


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