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The European Union pledges to admit refugees from Ukraine


As Russia wages an attack on Ukraine this morning, the European Union is pledging that refugees from Ukraine will be allowed in and given a place to stay along with humanitarian aid. Poland is setting up receiving stations on its border. Hungary and Slovakia's governments say they will send troops to help with the arrival of people fleeing Russia's invasion. Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's also a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And he joins us now from the Ukrainian city of Lviv (ph) in the west part of the country, just a couple of hours away from Ukraine's border with Poland. Michael, from where you are, what have you seen and heard today?

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW: Hi. Good to be with you. Well, I would say organized chaos, if we can use that term. I was up very early before dawn, and there - people were still sleeping. They hadn't received word of the Russian invasion. But as soon as the sunrays started to hit, you started hearing air raid sirens going off, never heard that here before, people waking up and being advised actually to shelter in place and turn off their gas connections, things like that. I think there were a lot of people just running out as well to get as much cash as they could from ATM machines, bread, that sort of thing. But a real sense, obviously, of anxiety here. What a lot of people are looking for is while we're anticipating the flow, as you mentioned, the migrant flow from Eastern Ukraine from Kyiv, just quickly, Lviv is regarded as a very safe city relative to the rest of Ukraine, obviously close to the border. So a lot of people are expected to be here within hours to shelter in place as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. I was watching on television the amount of traffic to get out of Kyiv. The cars were just locked. There was no one moving. So I'm wondering if you've seen any flow of traffic where you're at considering how close it is to Poland.

BOCIURKIW: We haven't in the city, but I know a lot of people are making that run, two or three hours or whatever. In fact, around lunchtime today, I was in the center of the city, just a few blocks away from where I'm talking to you. And the Canadians who have been - got decamped here for some weeks, the Canadian Embassy, they all got into their vehicles in a convoy and headed towards Poland. So, you know, I got to say, you know, as an expat here, you know, visiting here, you do feel a little bit less certain now that the diplomats have left. Yeah. So that adds to, of course, to the anxiety.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the EU says that it will welcome refugees, but European nations don't always embrace sweeping EU policies. Michael, will every European country welcome migrants from Ukraine equally?

BOCIURKIW: Great question. Well, so happens, I wrote a book called "Digital Pandemic" about the pandemic, and in it I talk about how, you know, the disunity among nation states, especially within the EU, came to light, came to the surface during the pandemic because a lot of them did not follow the advice of the EU to keep their borders open. So this is a big, big fear of mine and I know of other Ukrainians is that the EU will not act in a unified manner, that Poland, I think, will take as many as they can.

But you know what? There are already about 2 or 3 million Ukrainians in Poland working there. And I'm less certain about some of the other states with populist right-wing leaders. So that remains to be seen. But I think the Ukrainian authorities are pretty much telling Ukrainians, stay in place, don't flee. But there is a bit of an information gap. People are anxious, understandably. And Mr. Zelenskyy is trying to keep an upbeat mood even with these circumstances.

MARTÍNEZ: Even if a European nation were willing and wanting to take on refugees, are they prepared? Are European countries prepared for the possible massive influx?

BOCIURKIW: I don't think so. We've received - we've heard of very little information about instructions. And, you know, I think there is - having covered Europe quite - for quite some time, there's a lot of we can call it migrant fatigue out there of taking in more people. I don't think the, you know, you have elections coming up in certain EU countries. France, for example. You have a coalition government in Germany. And I don't think leaders can that easily summon up the political will to let in millions of refugees. It's going to be a tricky, tricky situation henceforth.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, because, I mean, such large movements of refugees sometimes are regarded as a security threat. So what shape does that risk take in this particular case?

BOCIURKIW: Well, I think the good news there is that Ukrainians are regarded as very good workers, and there's a lot of talent here. I mean, in Lviv, it's basically the Silicon Valley of Ukraine. So, you know, they're viewed as hardworking, talented individuals. Many Ukrainians have multiple degrees. They will be anything, anything but a burden on these economies, which, by the way, happened to require a lot of human labor. I think as well a lot of the Ukrainians who are fleeing would do so temporarily. They would like to come back. Many left their homes, their jobs very abruptly. So this, I think, would just be a temporary stay for most of them.

MARTÍNEZ: A temporary stay, OK. Because I was wondering if Ukrainians did decide to leave their homes to escape the fighting, what would it likely look like for them, at least in the short term?

BOCIURKIW: Well, we are hearing reports of certain cities - sorry. The Russian posture, military posture, being - surrounding certain cities, for example, Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Another kind of observation of a former military - American military chap I spoke to today here says the strategy would probably be to cut off Ukraine from its borders. If that were the case, it would be difficult for folks to leave. And I think that word, where that fear is getting around, so you're having extra panic there. We're in a kind of strange lull right now. It's very quiet, but definitely the firepower is there. It's close by. And again, the posture is very definitely towards a massive show of force.

MARTÍNEZ: Will even stronger sanctions from the West, from the United States and the EU, which we've been told for a week now, would not only hurt Russia but also hurt everyone else, at least in the short term, possibly long term, would that have an impact on what could be a large scale, wide-ranging humanitarian crisis?

BOCIURKIW: In a word, no. I think Putin is not to be deterred. If - anyone who listened to bloodcurdling speech the other day, he's intent on grabbing Ukraine, on redrawing the security map. I think that over the years since 2017, at least Russia has done a really good job in terms of inoculating itself against Western sanctions, creating, for example, a $3 billion slush fund for oligarchs who get sanctioned by the West. They are heavily sanctioned already. They're, as you know, into a tightening embrace with China. So I think that gives them even more kind of a confidence to go ahead and do what they want. We're not in a very good position geopolitically, I think, right now.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing quickly, Michael. You've worked with relief organizations in more than 15 countries. What's the biggest challenge for aid workers in this crisis right off the bat?

BOCIURKIW: Well, to stay safe. They're usually not well-protected, not well-equipped. So they are actually oftentimes the most vulnerable. So their protection is very important. And then having the goods on the ground to pre-position to immediately deliver it to the most vulnerable.

MARTÍNEZ: Michael Bociurkiw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Michael, thanks.

BOCIURKIW: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.