21st Mar 2023

Ukraine exodus grows as West mulls oil embargo

  • US secretary of state Antony Blinken (second from right) arriving in Rzeszów, Poland, on Saturday (Photo: state.gov)
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Some 129,000 people fled the war into Poland on Saturday (5 March) the Polish interior ministry said Sunday, compared to 106,000 people the day before. The total number of refugees in Poland now stands at 922,000 and rising.

People have also escaped to Romania, Slovakia, and Moldova. The UN estimated on Saturday that some 1.5 million have already come to Europe, while warning that as many as 4 million people could come in figures that would dwarf the EU's 2015 refugee crisis, when about 1 million people fled to Europe mostly from Syria.

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It was "the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2," the UN high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi tweeted on Sunday.

Those arriving in Poland were being taken to makeshift shelters in schools and gymnasiums, given food, housed for a day or two, then put on free trains or busses to go deeper into Poland or elsewhere in Europe.

Those arriving were cold, hungry, and frightened, Chris Melzer, a UNHCR spokesman based in Rzeszów, some 60km from the Ukrainian border, told EUobserver on Sunday.

Some experts have said Russia was hoping the refugee exodus would create political problems in Europe, even though Russia's anti-EU and anti-migrant propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik have now been taken off the air by European leaders.

Russia was trying to "leverage that humanitarian disaster to attack them [Ukraine's neighbours] without actually going to war with the EU and Nato," Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at British think-tank Chatham House, said last Wednesday.

But if that was the case, there were no signs of hostility toward the Ukrainians in Poland at this point, the UNHCR's Melzer said.

Refugees were being cared for by local groups of volunteers, including doctors, firemen, nuns, and boy scouts as they came across the border, he said. "You see ordinary Poles standing at the border with signs like 'I can host a family for two weeks' or 'I can drive you to Warsaw'," Melzer said.

Waiting times for those trying to cross into Poland had been reduced from three days to around 10 hours and non-Ukrainians fleeing the fighting were also being let in. "The Poles are letting anybody in — even if you don't have a passport," Melzer said.

There were no signs of refugees arriving in huge numbers at the main train station in Warsaw this weekend. But the effects of the war were being felt in the Polish capital, where almost all available rental accommodation has already been filled up.

German media also were reporting this weekend that some 10,000 Ukrainian refugees a day have now begun arriving in Berlin.

The exodus comes as Russia continues heavy fire in civilian areas of Ukrainian cities in tactics reminiscent of its siege of Grozny in Chechnya in 1999. At the same time, the Kremlin continues issuing threatening warnings against Western intervention.

Russian president Vladimir Putin said Saturday if Western powers tried to impose a no-fly zone it would have "catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world."

He also said economic sanctions were "akin to a declaration of war" while the Russian foreign ministry demanded the West "stop pumping weapons" into Ukraine.

Imposing a no-fly zone would require Nato to strike Russian anti-aircraft defences deep inside Russia and Belarus, in what Nato fears could provoke a nuclear confrontation.

On a visit to the region this weekend, US secretary of state Antony Blinken ducked press questions about how the West could answer the increasingly forceful appeals by Ukraine to implement a no-fly zone.

But Blinken did say further arms deliveries and more sanctions — including an oil embargo on Russia — were on the cards despite Moscow's threats.

The US and Poland also were looking "very, very actively" at delivering new US fighter jets to Poland so that Poland could give its old, Russian-made ones to Ukrainian pilots, Blinken said in Rzeszów on Saturday.

"We are now talking to our European partners and allies to look in a coordinated way at the prospect of banning the import of Russian oil while making sure that there is still an appropriate supply of oil on world markets," Blinken said Sunday while visiting Moldova.

But for one EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, the US would need to get OPEC, the world oil cartel, to increase output or to release oil from its own strategic reserves to make that happen. "Without this, it [a Russia oil ban] would be difficult," he said.

Despite Russian airstrikes reportedly occurring even in western parts of the country, Blinken also briefly crossed into Ukraine to meet foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba there on Saturday.

"I thought it was important when we met – symbolically – to cross the border and to have us stand together in Ukraine," Blinken said.

"The highest demand that we have is in fighting jets, attack aircrafts, and air defence systems," Kuleba said. "Just today we shot down three Russian attack aircraft, which were bombing our cities, with the use of Stingers [US-made anti-aircraft missiles]," he said.


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