Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing war with Russia and started arriving into neighboring countries, mainly Moldova and Romania, while an estimated 100,000 have fled their homes and are uprooted in the country after the invasion, the UN refugee agency said Thursday.
The countries on the European Union’s eastern flank, once part of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact and now members of NATO, are bracing for many more Ukrainians, setting up reception points and sending troops towards the borders to provide assistance. Among them, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania all share land borders with Ukraine.
‘If Russia continues down this path, it could, according to our estimates, create a new refugee crisis – one of the largest facing the world today – with as many as five million more people displaced by Russia’s war of choice and putting pressure on Ukraine’s neighbors,’ US Ambassador to the United Nation Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned Wednesday.
Russia has launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine by land, air and sea, the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two, fueling fears of a massive flood of refugees fleeing Ukraine, a nation of 44 million people.
At least 68 people were killed and 169 were wounded on Thursday, Ukraine’s health minister said, while the interior ministry said 13 border guards died when a Russian vessel shelled Ukraine’s Zmiinyi Island, south of the Black Sea port of Odessa.
Groups of people fled into Hungary via the Beregsurany and Tiszabecs crossings, some coming from as far as Kyiv, an eyewitness said. Some arrived by car but many pedestrians were also hauling suitcases across.
‘No one wants to get conscripted, no one wants to die,’ said Tamas Bodnar at the border with Hungary. ‘It’s clear that those who can, they flee.’
The highway heading west out of Kyiv, home to 3 million people, was choked with traffic across five lanes as residents sought to escape, fearful of bombs while stuck in their cars.
At the usually quiet border crossing at Medyka in southern Poland, dozens arrived from Ukraine on foot on Thursday morning, carrying luggage. A line of cars waiting for passage grew longer during the course of the day.
A Polish woman, Olena Bogucka, 39, said she had been waiting for four hours while her Ukrainian husband and child were stuck on the other side.
‘You can’t get through,’ she said. ‘I can’t reach them on the phone…I don’t how to get my child out… I don’t know what to do.’
The first train with Ukrainian refugees arrives in Przemysl on Thursday . Hungary also said its embassy in Kyiv remained open. The Czech Republic closed its Kyiv embassy but its consulate in the western city of Lviv remained open.
A man waits for the arrival of the train in in eastern Ukraine city of Lisichansk on Thursday as resident fled their homes and headed to West following Russia’s invasion
A mother carries her child after arriving on first train with Ukrainian refugees to Przemysl, Poland on Thursday
Ukrainian refugees rest at a train station hall that was turned into an accommodation center in Przemysl, Poland, on Thursday
Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing war with Russia and started arriving into neighboring countries, mainly Moldova and Romania. Above, families line up to board a Kyiv bound train at a station in Severodonetsk, the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday
People waiting for a Kyiv-bound train walk to a platform in Kramatorsk, the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine
The highway heading west out of Kyiv, home to 3 million people, was choked with traffic across five lanes as residents sought to escape, fearful of bombs while stuck in their cars
People wait in a traffic jam as they leave the city of Kharkiv, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine
To facilitate border crossings, Poland lifted quarantine rules on Thursday for people arriving from outside the EU without a lab-certified negative COVID-19 test.
Poland is home to the region’s largest Ukrainian community, numbering around 1 million, and is the easiest EU country to reach from Kyiv. The country’s government called for the ‘fiercest possible sanctions’ against Russia.
Elsewhere in the region, Czech President Milos Zeman, long sympathetic to Moscow, called Russian President Vladimir Putin a ‘madman.’ Prague stopped issuing visas to Russians and ordered the closure of two Russian consulates.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has also forged good ties with Putin, condemned Moscow’s actions, too. He said Hungary would prepare humanitarian aid for Ukraine and was ready to receive refugees.
Several hundred people also left Ukraine from a sliver of its territory sandwiched between Moldova and the Black Sea, crossing into Romania by ferry over the Danube river, local authorities said.
Slovak customs officials said passenger cars were having to wait up to 12 hours at the busiest of Slovakia’s three road crossings with Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians work in Slovakia and Hungary, which has a large ethnic minority of around 140,000 living just inside Ukraine’s border.
Poland was preparing a medical train to transport wounded Ukrainians and drew up a list of 1,230 hospitals that could admit the injured, the health ministry said. The Polish army raised the level of preparedness of some units.
‘We will do everything to ensure that every person who enters the territory of Poland has access to healthcare, including hospitalisation,’ the ministry said.
Poland set up reception points for refugees near border crossings. Slovakia also said it was ready to help refugees.
‘Please let’s have compassion and understanding for them,’ Prime Minister Eduard Heger said.
Slovakia will send up to 1,500 troops to its border with Ukraine and additional crossings will be set up, said Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad. Hungary has also said it will send troops to its border to help process refugees.
The governor of Slovakia’s eastern Kosice region, Rostislav Trnka, said around 2,000 beds and some 60 gyms had been prepared to help house refugees.
The Czech Republic, which does not border Ukraine but is home to 260,000 Ukrainians, also said it was ready to help refugees. Czech Railways offered rail cars with 6,000 seats and beds to help evacuate people if necessary.
Romania is ready to grant humanitarian aid if needed, President Klaus Iohannis said on Thursday, while Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said his country was preparing to evacuate by land more than 4,000 ethnic Bulgarians from Ukraine and was ready to host other Ukrainian refugees.
A Polish government spokesman said Polish diplomatic missions in Ukraine would remain open ‘as long as possible’ but the foreign ministry urged all Polish citizens to leave Ukraine.
Hungary also said its embassy in Kyiv remained open. The Czech Republic closed its Kyiv embassy but its consulate in the western city of Lviv remained open.
Germany offered humanitarian help to countries bordering Ukraine. German media have cited estimates that between 200,000 and one million people may flee to the EU from Ukraine.
Shabia Mantoo, spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the figures were compiled from reports from national authorities and its staff and partner agencies. ‘It’s a ballpark figure,’ she told Reuters.
Ukrainian forces battled Russian invaders on three sides on Thursday after Moscow unleashed the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two, prompting tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war in a pre-dawn televised address, explosions and gunfire were heard through the day in Ukraine’s capital and elsewhere in the country, with at least 70 people reported killed.
The assault brought a calamitous end to weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war over Russian demands for a redrawing of post-Cold War security arrangements in Europe.
‘This is a premeditated attack,’ US President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House as he unveiled harsh new sanctions, coordinated with allies, against Russian banks, oligarchs and state companies.
‘Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,’ he said.
In his address, Putin said he had ordered ‘a special military operation’ to protect people, including Russian citizens, subjected to ‘genocide’ in Ukraine – an accusation the West calls baseless propaganda.
‘And for this we will strive for the de-militarization and denazification of Ukraine,’ Putin said.
After nightfall, a picture was emerging of fierce fighting across multiple fronts. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy late on Thursday ordered a general mobilization, to be carried out within 90 days, ‘to ensure the defense of the state’.
An adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office said Russian forces had captured the Chernobyl former nuclear power plant, just 60 miles north of Kyiv. The plant is along the shortest route from the Ukrainian capital to Belarus, where Moscow has staged troops.
There was also fighting at Hostomel airport, just outside Kyiv, where Russian paratroopers landed. A Ukrainian official later said the airfield had been recaptured, while a senior US defense official said Russian forces were advancing closer to Kyiv.
Heavy exchanges of fire were also reported in the regions of Sumy and Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south.
A traffic jam in Kyiv, Ukraine on Thursday as residents flee the capital
Thursday began with missiles raining down on targets across Ukraine and reports of troops and armor pouring across the borders from Russia and Belarus to the north and east.
Zelenskiy called on Ukrainians to defend their country and said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight.
‘What we have heard today are not just missile blasts, fighting and the rumble of aircraft. This is the sound of a new Iron Curtain, which has come down and is closing Russia off from the civilized world,’ Zelenskiy said.
Putin, after referring earlier in his speech to Russia’s powerful nuclear arsenal, warned: ‘Whoever tries to hinder us… should know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.’
Asked whether that threat was tantamount to threatening Russian use of nuclear weapons, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was indeed understood as such, adding that Putin should also understand that NATO was a nuclear alliance.
Biden has ruled out sending US troops to defend Ukraine, but Washington has reinforced its NATO allies in the region with extra troops and planes.
After consulting with the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, Biden announced measures to impede Russia’s ability to do business in the world’s major currencies, along with sanctions against banks and state-owned enterprises.
Britain also targeted banks, as well as members of Putin’s inner circle. European Union leaders said measures would include freezing Russian assets in the 27-nation bloc.
China remained out of step, however, rejecting the description of Russia’s actions as an ‘invasion’.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest energy producers, and both it and Ukraine are among the top exporters of grain. War and sanctions will disrupt economies around the world already facing a crisis as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
European stocks dived to nine-month lows, but U.S. stocks ended higher after Biden’s sanctions announcement. Brent oil earlier surged past $100/barrel for the first time since 2014.
Ukrainians board Kyiv-bound train near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine as Russian forces stormed across the border
Putin said he did not plan a military occupation, only to disarm Ukraine and purge it of nationalists, and his endgame remains unclear.
The senior US defense official said Washington believed the invasion was intended to ‘decapitate’ Zelenskiy’s government. But it is hard to see Ukrainians accepting leadership installed by Moscow.
‘I think we must fight all those who invade our country so strongly,’ said one man stuck in traffic trying to leave Kyiv. ‘I would hang every single one of them from bridges.’
A democratic nation of 44 million people, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country by area after Russia itself. It voted for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and has recently stepped up efforts to join NATO and the European Union, aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Putin, who denied for months that he was planning an invasion, has called Ukraine an artificial construct carved from Russia by its enemies – a characterization Ukrainians see as an attempt to erase their more than 1,000-year-old history.
While many Ukrainians, particularly in the east, speak Russian as a native language, virtually all identify themselves as Ukrainian.
There was also some dissent in Russia. Police detained more than 1,600 taking part in anti-war rallies in 53 cities and authorities threatened to block media reports carrying ‘false information’.
In the southeastern port of Mariupol, near a frontline held by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, local authorities said 26 people were wounded in shelling. Civilians packed bags. ‘We are going into hiding,’ a woman said.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, said its forces had downed two Russian helicopters and seven other Russian aircraft and destroyed several Russian trucks, and a platoon from Russia’s 74th Motor Rifles Brigade had surrendered.
Russia’s defense ministry said it had destroyed 83 land-based Ukrainian targets and had achieved all its goals, according to Interfax news agency.
Protests against Russia’s invasion were held in Europe and the United States. At a demonstration in New York’s Time Square, Ivana Lotoshynski, who was born in Ukraine, urged solidarity with Ukrainians.
‘People are losing their lives right now. Ukrainians are fighting against this regime from Russia and it’s really devastating,’ she said. ‘Today I think everybody is Ukrainian.’