Stopping at the edge of a vast field of barley on his farm in Prundu, 30 miles outside Romania’s capital city of Bucharest, Catalin Corbea pinched off a spiky flowered head from a stalk, rolled it between his hands, and then popped a seed in his mouth and bit down.
“Another 10 days to two weeks,” he said, explaining how much time was needed before the crop was ready for harvest.
Mr. Corbea, a farmer for nearly three decades, has rarely been through a season like this one. The Russians’ bloody creep into Ukraine, a breadbasket for the world, has caused an upheaval in global grain markets. Coastal blockades have trapped millions of tons of wheat and corn inside Ukraine. With famine stalking Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, a frenetic scramble for new suppliers and alternate shipping routes is underway.
barge that had sunk in World War II.
Rain was not as plentiful in Prundu as Mr. Corbea would have liked it to be, but the timing was opportune when it did come. He bent down and picked up a fistful of dark, moist soil and caressed it. “This is perfect land,” he said.
67.5 million tons of cargo, more than a third of it grain. Now, with Odesa’s port closed off, some Ukrainian exports are making their way through Constanta’s complex.
Railway cars, stamped “Cereale” on their sides, spilled Ukrainian corn onto underground conveyor belts, sending up billowing dust clouds last week at the terminal operated by the American food giant Cargill. At a quay operated by COFCO, the largest food and agricultural processor in China, grain was being loaded onto a cargo ship from one of the enormous silos that lined its docks. At COFCO’s entry gate, trucks that displayed Ukraine’s distinctive blue-and-yellow-striped flag on their license plates waited for their cargoes of grain to be inspected before unloading.
During a visit to Kyiv last week, Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, said that since the beginning of the invasion more than a million tons of Ukrainian grain had passed through Constanta to locations around the world.
But logistical problems prevent more grain from making the journey. Ukraine’s rail gauges are wider than those elsewhere in Europe. Shipments have to be transferred at the border to Romanian trains, or each railway car has to be lifted off a Ukrainian undercarriage and wheels to one that can be used on Romanian tracks.
Truck traffic in Ukraine has been slowed by backups at border crossings — sometimes lasting days — along with gas shortages and damaged roadways. Russia has targeted export routes, according to Britain’s defense ministry.
Romania has its own transit issues. High-speed rail is rare, and the country lacks an extensive highway system. Constanta and the surrounding infrastructure, too, suffer from decades of underinvestment.
Over the past couple of months, the Romanian government has plowed money into clearing hundreds of rusted wagons from rail lines and refurbishing tracks that were abandoned when the Communist regime fell in 1989.
Still, trucks entering and exiting the port from the highway must share a single-lane roadway. An attendant mans the gate, which has to be lifted for each vehicle.
When the bulk of the Romanian harvest begins to arrive at the terminals in the next couple of weeks, the congestion will get significantly worse. Each day, 3,000 to 5,000 trucks will arrive, causing backups for miles on the highway that leads into Constanta, said Cristian Taranu, general manager at the terminals run by the Romanian port operator Umex.
Mr. Mircea’s farm is less than a 30-minute drive from Constanta. But “during the busiest periods, my trucks are waiting two, three days” just to enter the port’s complex so they can unload, he said through a translator.
That is one reason he is less sanguine than Mr. Corbea is about Romania’s ability to take advantage of farming and export opportunities.
“Port Constanta is not prepared for such an opportunity,” Mr. Mircea said. “They don’t have the infrastructure.”
Speaking to the press after his meetings with European leaders on Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the support they showed for Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union but said more immediate military aid would be needed to stand against Russia.
“The very course of European history has proved the correctness of the E.U.’s positive response to Ukraine’s aspirations,” he said. It will, he said, “strengthen freedom in Europe and become one of the key European decisions of the first third of the 21st century.”
At the same time, he appealed again for more heavy weapons, especially for the battlefields in eastern Ukraine.
“We expect new supplies, especially heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery and missile defense systems,” he said. “Each batch of supplies saves people’s lives. And every day of delays or postponed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians.”
Talks, he said, will not end the war. “We touched on the theme of diplomatic efforts of various countries to achieve peace,” he said. “Everybody sees the only obstacle to all these efforts is the unreadiness of the Russian Federation for real actions, for real negotiations.”
In his nightly address, Mr. Zelensky said that the meeting was a “big step,” and thanked the leaders of Italy, Romania, France and Germany for their defense aid. Mr. Zelensky also said that Romania, which shares a border with Ukraine, would assist Ukraine in the transit of its goods, including exporting grain.
Before the visit, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky said far more weaponry would be needed to turn the tide in battles in the east. Ukraine will need 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks and 300 rocket artillery systems, the aide said.
During NATO minister meetings on Wednesday, the United States promised more than $1 billion in new military aid for Ukraine, including many long-range artillery and missile systems. So far, the United States has provided 108 towed howitzers, 200 armored personnel carriers, 800 Stinger antiaircraft missiles and 2,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles.
But European weapons transfers have lagged, comparatively. Mr. Macron on Thursday promised an additional six self-propelled Caesar howitzers, in addition to 12 already supplied. Germany has provided 14 armored personnel carriers and 2,500 antiaircraft missiles, including Stingers.
A sense of disappointment was palpable among Ukrainian commentators and even some officials in Mr. Zelensky’s government on Thursday over perceived attempts in Europe to push Ukraine toward negotiations with Russia at this stage.
Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to the interior minister, posted on social media that “Macron, Scholz and Draghi are bringing us candidacy for the E.U. and a request to return to the negotiating process with Putin.”
The European Commission is expected to unveil its official recommendation on Ukraine’s application to become a member of the European Union on Friday and, officials say, it is likely to recommend that the nation be granted candidate status.
Still, though overshadowed now by war, the expected acceptance of Ukraine’s application to join the bloc was widely celebrated as a breakthrough for Ukraine, even though the process of joining the bloc is arduous and can take as long as a decade.
To join, a country must also make its political system, judiciary and economy compatible with the bloc by adopting the E.U.’s system of common law, as well as more than 80,000 pages of rules and regulations.
Nevertheless, the desire to link Ukraine more closely to Europe was the issue that animated street protesters who toppled a pro-Russian president eight years ago.
And the prospect of eventually joining would help rally Ukrainians today by signaling a postwar future within the European Union and an end to perceptions of Ukraine as a security buffer zone with Russia, Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Parliament, said in an interview.
“It’s a psychological weapon to demonstrate that Ukraine has a future,” he said.
Ukraine EU candidacy signals major shift in European geopolitics
‘Europe can create a new history of freedom’ Zelenskiy says
Battle for Sievierodonetsk grinds on
Ukraine claims strike on Russian tugboat
BRUSSELS/KYIV, Ukraine, June 17 (Reuters) – The European Union gave its blessing on Friday for Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova to become candidates to join, in the most dramatic geopolitical shift to result from Russia’s invasion.
Ukraine applied to join the EU just four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Four days later, so did Moldova and Georgia – smaller ex-Soviet states also contending with separatist regions occupied by Russian troops.
“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” the EU’s executive Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels. She made the announcement wearing Ukrainian colours, a yellow blazer over a blue shirt.
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President Voloymyr Zelenskiy thanked von der Leyen and EU member states on Twitter for a decision he called “the first step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our victory closer”.
Moldova’s President Maia Sandu hailed a “strong signal of support for Moldova & our citizens!” and said she counted on the support of EU member states.
“We’re committed to working hard,” she said on Twitter.
While recommending candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission held off for Georgia, which it said must meet more conditions first.
Von der Leyen said Georgia has a strong application but had to come together politically. A senior diplomat close to the process cited setbacks in reforms there.
Leaders of EU countries are expected to endorse the decision at a summit next week. The leaders of the three biggest – Germany, France and Italy – had signalled their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv, along with the president of Romania.
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Germany’s Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Ukraine and Moldova will still face a lengthy process to achieve the standards required for membership, and there are other candidates in the waiting room. Nor is membership guaranteed – talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, officially a candidate since 1999.
But launching the candidacy process, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just months ago, amounts to a shift on par with the decision in the 1990s to welcome the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe.
“Precisely because of the bravery of the Ukrainians, Europe can create a new history of freedom, and finally remove the grey zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends a news conference, with European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, after a meeting of the College of European Commissioners addressing its opinion on Ukraine’s EU candidate status, in Brussels, Belgium June 17, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman
If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU’s largest country by area and its fifth most populous. All three hopefuls are far poorer than any existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the poorest, Bulgaria.
All have recent histories of volatile politics, domestic unrest, entrenched organised crime, and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow’s troops.
President Vladimir Putin ordered his “special military operation” officially to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. One of his main objectives was to halt the expansion of Western institutions which he called a threat to Russia.
But the war, which has killed thousands of people, destroyed whole cities and set millions to flight, has had the opposite effect. Finland and Sweden have applied to join the NATO military alliance, and the EU has opened its arms to the east.
Within Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to storm the capital in March, but have since refocused on seizing more territory in the east.
The nearly four-month-old war has entered a punishing attritional phase, with Russian forces relying on their massive advantage in artillery firepower to blast their way into Ukrainian cities.
Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out in Sievierodonetsk, site of the worst fighting of recent weeks, on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. It was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians who are trapped inside a chemical plant, the regional governor said.
In the surrounding Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies, Ukrainian forces are mainly defending the river’s opposite bank.
Near the frontline in the ruins of the small city of Marinka, Ukrainian police made their way into a cellar searching for anyone who wanted help to evacuate. A group of mainly elderly residents huddled on mattresses in candlelight.
“There’s space down here, you could join us,” joked one man as the officers came in. A woman named Nina sighed in the darkness: “There is nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere to go. All the houses have been burnt out. Where can we go?”
In the south, Ukraine has mounted a counter-offensive, claiming to have made inroads into the biggest swath still held by Russia of the territory it seized in the invasion. There have been few reports from the frontline to confirm the situation in that area.
Ukraine claimed its forces had struck a Russian tugboat bringing soldiers, weapons and ammunition to Russian-occupied Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost.
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Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar in Marinka and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan
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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The United States marshaled 40 allies on Tuesday to furnish Ukraine with long-term military aid in what could become a protracted battle against the Russian invasion, and Germany said it would send dozens of armored antiaircraft vehicles. It was a major policy shift for a country that had wavered over fear of provoking Russia.
The announcement by Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and one of Russia’s most important Western trading partners, was among many signals on Tuesday pointing to further escalation in the war and disappointment for diplomacy.
Germany’s shift on weapons also was seen as a strong affirmation of a toughened message by the Biden administration, which has said it wants to see Russia not only defeated in Ukraine but seriously weakened from the conflict that President Vladimir V. Putin began two months ago.
The increasing flow of Western weapons into Ukraine — including howitzers, armed drones, tanks and ammunition — also amounted to another sign that a war Mr. Putin had expected would divide his Western adversaries had instead drawn them much closer together.
“Putin never imagined that the world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely,” the American defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, said on Tuesday to uniformed and civilian officials at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, where he convened defense officials from 40 allied countries.
“Nobody is fooled” by Mr. Putin’s “phony claims on Donbas,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the eastern region of Ukraine, where Russia recently refocused its assaults. “Russia’s invasion is indefensible and so are Russian atrocities,” he said.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Tuesday that the influx of heavy weapons from Western countries was effectively pushing Ukraine to sabotage peace talks with Moscow, which have shown no concrete signs of progress.
“They will continue that line by filling Ukraine with weapons,” Mr. Lavrov said after meeting in Moscow with the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, who was undertaking his most active effort yet at diplomacy to halt the war. “If that continues, negotiations won’t yield any result.”
On Monday, Mr. Lavrov resurrected the specter of nuclear war, as Mr. Putin has done at least twice before. Mr. Lavrov said that while such a possibility would be “unacceptable” to Russia, the risks had increased because NATO had “engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy.”
“The risks are quite considerable,” he said in an interview with Channel One, Russia’s state-run TV network.
“I don’t want them to be blown out of proportion,” he said. But “the danger is serious, real — it must not be underestimated.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called Mr. Lavrov’s remarks a sign that “Moscow senses defeat in Ukraine.” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, called them “obviously unhelpful, not constructive.”
“A nuclear war cannot be won and it shouldn’t be fought,” he said. “There’s no reason for the current conflict in Ukraine to get to that level at all.”
Mr. Austin said the defense officials who had gathered at Ramstein Air Base — from Australia, Belgium, Britain, Italy, Israel and other countries — had agreed to form what he called the Ukraine Contact Group and to meet monthly to ensure they “strengthen Ukraine’s military for the long haul.”
“We are going to keep moving heaven and earth,” to bolster the Ukrainian military, Mr. Austin said.
Germany’s defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, announced at the meeting that Berlin would send Ukraine up to 50 armed vehicles, called Flakpanzer Gepard, designed to shoot down aircraft but also fire at targets on the ground.
Although no longer used by Germany, they have been acquired by Jordan, Qatar, Romania and Brazil, where they have been deployed to defend soccer stadiums from potential drone attacks during international tournaments, according to the manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
The German government had previously cited a range of reasons to avoid shipping such heavy arms to Ukraine, including that none were readily available, that training Ukrainian soldiers to operate them was time-consuming and that Russia could be provoked into a wider conflict.
But German officials changed course under growing pressure from the conservative opposition in Berlin, and from members of the governing coalition. Germany has also supplied Ukraine with shoulder-launched antitank rockets and surface-to-air defensive missiles, some from old East German stockpiles.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who traveled with Mr. Austin to Ukraine this past weekend, affirmed on Tuesday that the United States would support the Ukrainian military in pushing Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine if that is what President Volodymyr Zelensky aims to do.
“If that is how they define their objectives as a sovereign, democratic, independent country, that’s what we’ll support,” Mr. Blinken said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
After meeting with Mr. Putin in the Kremlin, Mr. Guterres said he had secured an agreement “in principle” to allow the United Nations and the Red Cross to evacuate civilians from a sprawling steel plant besieged by Russia in the southern Ukrainian port of Mariupol, where they have been holed up for days with Ukrainian fighters. But there was no evidence that the meeting had produced any advances in diplomacy to end the war.
Before the meeting, Mr. Putin asserted that Mr. Guterres had been “misled” about the situation in Mariupol, and he insisted that Russia had been operating workable humanitarian corridors out of the city — an assertion denied by Ukrainian officials, who say their attempts to ferry civilians out of the city have collapsed in the face of threats by Russian forces.
Mr. Putin told Mr. Guterres that he hoped continuing peace talks with Ukraine would bring “some positive result,” according to the Kremlin. But Mr. Putin said Russia would not sign a security guarantee agreement with Ukraine without a resolution to the territorial questions in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and in Donbas, where Russia has recognized two separatist regions as independent.
In an escalation of the East-West economic conflict from the war, Poland’s state-owned gas company said on Tuesday that Russia’s state gas company had announced the “complete suspension” of natural gas deliveries to Poland through a major pipeline.
Poland, a NATO member and key conduit for Western arms into Ukraine, gets more than 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and cutting off that supply could impair its ability to heat homes and run businesses.
In addition to spreading suffering and death across Ukraine, the invasion has set off the largest exodus of European refugees since World War II.
More than five million people, 90 percent of them women and children, have already left Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, according to the United Nations. A further 7.7 million have been driven from their homes by the conflict, but remain in the country.
On Tuesday, the United Nations projected that the number of refugees could rise to 8.3 million by year’s end, and it asked donors for an additional $1.25 billion to finance soaring humanitarian needs in Ukraine.
In another worrisome sign of possible spillover from the war, explosions rattled Transnistria, a small Moscow-backed breakaway republic in Ukraine’s southwest neighbor, Moldova, for the second consecutive day.
It remained unclear who was behind the explosions. The authorities in Transnistria blamed Ukraine, while Ukraine accused Russia of having orchestrated the blasts.
Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, told reporters that there were “tensions between different forces within the regions, interested in destabilizing the situation.”
At least 12,000 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, just 25 miles from Ukraine’s major port, Odesa. Western officials have expressed concerns that Mr. Putin might create a pretext to order more troops into the territory, just as he did before Russian forces moved into Crimea and Donbas.
John Ismay reported from Ramstein Air Base, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Tblisi, Georgia, Michael Schwirtz from Orikhiv, Ukraine, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Michael Crowley and Edward Wong from Washington, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland.
Ears of wheat are seen in a field near the village of Hrebeni in Kyiv region, Ukraine July 17, 2020. Picture taken July 17, 2020. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo
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KYIV, April 16 (Reuters) – Ukraine’s state-owned railway company has temporarily restricted the transportation of some agricultural goods through border crossings to Poland and Romania, consultancy APK-Inform said on Saturday.
It gave no reason for the restrictions.
Ukraine, a major agricultural producer, used to export most of its goods through seaports but since Russia’s invasion has been forced to export by train via its western border.
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APK-Inform said restrictions on the movement of goods to Poland through Yahodyn have been put in place from April 16 to April 18.
There are also restrictions on the transportation of cereals, oilseeds, grains and other food products through Izov to the Polish towns of Hrubeszew and Slawkov.
From April 16 until further notice, there are restrictions on the export of grain and seeds to Romania through the Dyakovo and Vadul-Siret crossings, the consultancy said.
The railway company was not available for immediate comment.
Ukrainian agriculture minister Mykola Solskyi said this week the main task of the ministry was to find alternative ways to export Ukrainian grain. The country has millions of tonnes of various commodities available for exports.
Solskyi also said 1.25 million tonnes of grain and oilseeds were on commercial vessels blocked in Ukrainian seaports and may soon deteriorate.
Before the war, Ukraine exported up to 6 million tonnes of grain and oilseed a month. In March, exports fell to 200,000 tonnes.
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Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Christina Fincher
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Africans who had been living in Ukraine say they were stuck for days at crossings into neighboring European Union countries, huddling in the cold without food or shelter, held up by Ukrainian authorities who pushed them to the ends of long lines and even beat them, while letting Ukrainians through.
At least 660,000 people have fled Ukraine in the five days following the start of Russia’s invasion, the United Nations refugee agency U.N.H.C.R. said. Most are Ukrainians, but some are students or migrant workers from Africa, Asia and other regions who are also desperate to escape.
Chineye Mbagwu, a 24-year-old doctor from Nigeria who lived in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, said she had spent more than two days stranded at the Poland-Ukraine border crossing in the town of Medyka, as the guards let Ukrainians cross but blocked foreigners.
“The Ukrainian border guards were not letting us through,” she said in a phone interview, her voice trembling. “They were beating people up with sticks” and tearing off their jackets, she added. “They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful.”
The African Union and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria have condemned the treatment of Africans fleeing Ukraine following social media reports about border guards hindering them from leaving. Africans have also reported being barred from boarding trains headed to the border.
“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist” and violate international law, the African Union said.
Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, Anton Heraschenko, denied that his country was obstructing foreigners from leaving.
“Everything is simple,” he said. “We are first to release women and children. Foreign men must wait for women and children to come forward. We will release all foreigners without hindrance,” he added, in a written response to questions. “Same goes for blacks.”
Ms. Mbagwu, the Nigerian doctor, managed to reach Warsaw, but said she crossed the border only by struggling and pushing her way through.
“They would say ‘only women and children can pass through,’” she said. “But they were letting some Ukrainian men through. And whenever a Black lady would try to pass, they said: ‘Our women first,’” Ms. Mbagwu added.
“There was no shelter from the cold. It snowed. There was no food, water, or a place to rest. I was literally hallucinating from sleep deprivation,” she said.
She said her 21-year-old brother, a medical student, had been blocked at the border since Friday, but made it into Poland after four days of trying.
Not all foreigners reported ill treatment by Ukrainian authorities at the border crossings.
A Pakistani student and an Afghan national who crossed from Ukraine into Poland on Saturday said the only problem was very long lines. And a group of Vietnamese workers crossed easily into Moldova on Monday.
Mohammed Saadaoui, a 23-year-old Moroccan pharmacy student who traveled from the Ukrainian city of Odessa to Warsaw, said he did not have any problems.
“But we took a long time to find the good border crossing where there would not be too many people,” he said. “There, we were treated the same way as the Ukrainians.”
The International Organization of Migration estimated that there are more than 470,000 foreign nationals in Ukraine, including a large number of overseas students and migrant workers. At least 6,000 of them have arrived in Moldova and Slovakia alone over the past five days, according to the I.O.M., and many more have crossed into Poland.
Many of the foreigners fleeing Ukraine said they were warmly welcomed in neighboring Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania. But Mr. Buhari, the Nigerian president, said there were reports of Polish officials refusing Nigerians entry.
Piotr Mueller, the spokesman for the Polish prime minister, denied this, saying, “Poland is letting in everyone coming from Ukraine regardless of their nationality.”
Piotr Bystrianin, head of the Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish refugee charity, said that so far, “problems were on the Ukrainian side.”
More than 300,000 people have fled from Ukraine to Poland since the Russian invasion began, according to Poland’s interior ministry. Makeshift accommodation is being set up across the country, and Poles are helping Ukrainians on a massive scale, transporting them through the border, hosting them in their homes, feeding and clothing them.
On Monday, Poland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Krzysztof Szczerski, said his country welcomed all foreign students who were studying in Ukraine, and invited them to continue their studies in Poland.
In the years leading up to the Russian invasion, Poland had taken a hard line on migrants trying to enter the country. The army and border guards have pushed asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa back into Belarus. Last week, aid organizations said a 26-year-old man from Yemen froze to death at that border.
Some of the foreigners arriving in Poland from Ukraine over the past few days were exhausted and freezing, according to local aid organizations on the ground. Some were taken directly to hospitals because of their injuries.
Ahmed Habboubi, a 22-year-old French-Tunisian medical student, said all foreign nationals, including Africans, Israelis, Canadians and Americans, were told to go to one gate at the Medyka crossing from Ukraine to Poland, which would only process four people every couple of hours, while Ukrainians were allowed to pass freely through another gate.
“The Ukrainian army beat me up so much I couldn’t properly walk,” he said in an phone interview. “When I finally managed to enter Poland, the Polish authorities took me straight to the hospital,” he added.
“It was absolute chaos. We were treated like animals. There are still thousands of people stranded there.”
He said that Poland had welcomed him warmly.
Dennis Nana Appiah Nkansah, a Ghanaian medical student, said he saw the same discrimination at the crossing from Ukraine into the Romanian town of Siret — one rule for Ukrainians and another for everyone else. Thousands of foreigners, including Zambians, Namibians, Moroccans, Indians and Pakistanis, were directed to one gate that was mostly closed, while another reserved for Ukrainians was open and people flowed through.
Over about three hours, four or five foreigners were allowed to leave, while there was a “massive influx” of Ukrainians crossing, he said. “It’s not fair,” he said, but “we understood that they have to see to their people first.”
Mr. Nkansah, 31, said he had organized 74 Ghanaian and Nigerian students to pitch in and hire a bus to flee together. They reached the border early Saturday morning, he said, but it took them 24 hours to cross over.
Emmanuel Nwulu, 30, a Nigerian student of electronics at Kharkiv National University, said that when he tried to board a train in Ukraine going west toward the border, Ukrainian officials told him, “Blacks could not board the train.” But Mr. Nwulu and his cousin managed to force their way aboard.
Taha Daraa, a 25-year-old Moroccan student in his fourth year studying dentistry in Dnipro Medical Institute, started his journey out on Saturday around noon and crossed the border into Romania in the early hours of Monday morning after days without sleep.
“We were treated so badly. We took buses to the Romanian border. It was very scary then we had to walk across the border while hearing gunshots,” he said via WhatsApp. “All we did was pray. Our parents prayed as well for our safety. It’s the only protection we had,” he added.
“I witnessed a lot of racism.”
He said he was in a group with two other Moroccans and many other Africans and he asked a Ukrainian border guard to let them through. The guard started firing his gun in the air to scare them and so they stepped back.
“I have never felt so much fear in my life,” Mr. Daraa said. “He asked us to move back. Snow was falling on us. As the crowd got bigger, they gave up and let everyone through.”
He said the Romanians were taking good care of him and other foreigners and providing them with food and other necessities.
“They gave us everything,” he said.
Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine, Ben Novak from Zahony and Beregsurany, Hungary and Aida Alami from Rabat, Morocco.
Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis attends an EU Summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, December 16, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Pool
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BUCHAREST, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Romania is in talks with the United States and France over ways to enhance their troop count in the country and was ready to host an increased NATO military presence, President Klaus Iohannis said on Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Defense said on Monday it put about 8,500 American troops on heightened alert, awaiting orders to deploy to NATO’s eastern flank should Russia invade Ukraine. France has also offered to send more troops if needed. read more
“I have been constantly saying we are ready to host an increased allied presence on our territory,” Iohannis said.
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“Following the announcements made by the United States and France we are in contact with the two allies to establish concrete ways to realise their military presence.”
Iohannis was speaking after a meeting of Romania’s supreme defence council to address security concerns after Russia massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders. He said diplomatic talks were key to de-escalate tensions.
On Wednesday, the defence council assessed the potential impact of a conflict on businesses and the energy and banking sectors, Iohannis said. EU member-state Romania was also preparing for potential refugee inflows from Ukraine, with which it shares a 600 kms border.
NATO has a multinational land force of up to 4,000 troops in Romania, a member since 2004. The United States also has soldiers stationed at separate bases in Romania and in Bulgaria.
“The current crisis proves once more that … consolidating allied presence on the eastern flank including in our country is very important,” he said.
“The measures NATO has taken until now to reinforce its military presence on the eastern flank are an eminently defensive response to the rising security challenges in the region.”
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Reporting by Luiza Ilie;
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Built on the ashes of 10 years of war in Syria, an illegal drug industry run by powerful associates and relatives of President Bashar al-Assad has grown into a multi-billion-dollar operation, eclipsing Syria’s legal exports and turning the country into the world’s newest narcostate.
Its flagship product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Its operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export, and smuggling networks to spirit them to markets abroad.
An investigation by The New York Times found that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and one of Syria’s most powerful men.
Major players also include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and other members of the president’s extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities, according to The Times investigation, which is based on information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former United States officials.
found 84 million pills hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears last year. Malaysian officials discovered more than 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels in March.
hub of hashish production and a stronghold of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that is now part of Lebanon’s government.
While the pharmaceutical Captagon contained the amphetamine fenethylline, the illicit version sold today, often referred to as “captagon” with a lowercase c, usually contains a mix of amphetamines, caffeine and various fillers. Cheap versions retail for less than a dollar a pill in Syria, while higher quality pills can sell for $14 or more apiece in Saudi Arabia.
After the Syrian war broke out, smugglers took advantage of the chaos to sell the drug to fighters on all sides, who took it to bolster their courage in battle. Enterprising Syrians, working with local pharmacists and machinery from disused pharmaceutical factories, began making it.
Syria had the needed components: experts to mix drugs, factories to make products to conceal the pills, access to Mediterranean shipping lanes and established smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
As the war dragged on, the country’s economy fell apart and a growing number of Mr. al-Assad’s associates were targeted with international sanctions. Some of them invested in captagon, and a state-linked cartel developed, bringing together military officers, militia leaders, traders whose businesses had boomed during the war and relatives of Mr. al-Assad.
Mr. Khiti and Mr. Taha. It called Mr. Taha an intermediary for the Fourth Division whose businesses “generate revenue for the regime and its supporters.”
Captagon is still produced in and smuggled through Lebanon. Nouh Zaiter, a Lebanese drug lord who now lives mostly in Syria, links the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the business, according to regional security officials and Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade.
A tall, longhaired Bekaa Valley native, Mr. Zaiter was sentenced in absentia to life in prison with hard labor by a Lebanese military court this year for drug crimes.
Reached by phone, Mr. Zaiter said his business was hashish and denied that he had ever been involved with captagon.
“I have not and will never send such poisons to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else,” he said. “Even my worst enemy, I won’t provide him with captagon.”
sewn into the linings of clothes.
In May, after Saudi authorities discovered more than five million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon, a major blow to local farmers.
According to The Times’ database, the number of pills seized has increased every year since 2017.
The street value of the drugs seized has outstripped the value of Syria’s legal exports, mostly agricultural products, every year since 2019.
Last year, global captagon seizures had a street value of about$2.9 billion, more than triple Syria’s legal exports of $860 million.
Law enforcement agencies have struggled to catch the smugglers, not least because the Syrian authorities offer little if any information about shipments that originated in their country.
The name of shippers listed on manifests are usually fake and searches for the intended recipients often lead to mazes of shell companies.
The Italian seizure of 84 million pills in Salerno last year, the largest captagon bust ever at the time, had come from Latakia. Shipping documents listed the sender as Basil al-Shagri Bin Jamal, but the Italian authorities were unable to find him.
GPS Global Aviation Supplier, a company registered in Lugano, Switzerland, that appears to have no office.
Phone calls, text messages and emails to the company received no response, and the wealth management firm that the company listed as its mailing address, SMC Family Office SA, declined to comment.
Greek investigators have hit similar roadblocks.
In June 2019, workers in Piraeus found five tons of captagon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, inside sheets of fiberboard on their way to China.
Seehog, a Chinese logistics firm. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about the shipment and refused to answer questions.
“You are not the police,” she said, and hung up.
There was one more clue in the documents: The sender was Mohammed Amer al-Dakak, with a Syrian phone number. When entered into WhatsApp, the phone number showed a photo of Maher al-Assad, the commander of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, suggesting the number belonged to, at least, one of his fans.
A man who answered that number said that he was not Mr. al-Dakak. He said that he had acquired the phone number recently.
Loukas Danabasis, the head of the narcotics unit of Greece’s financial crime squad, said the smugglers’ tactics made solving such cases “difficult and sometimes impossible.”
Spilling Into Jordan
While officials in Europe struggle to identify smugglers, Jordan, one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, sits on the front lines of a regional drug war.
“Jordan is the gateway to the Gulf,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad al-Sarhan, the commander of an army unit along Jordan’s border with Syria, said during a visit to the area.
Overlooking a deep valley with views of Syria, General al-Sarhan and his men detailed Syrian smugglers’ tricks to bring drugs into Jordan: They launch crossing attempts at multiple spots. They attach drugs to drones and fly them across. They load drugs onto donkeys trained to cross by themselves.
Sometimes the smugglers stop by Syrian army posts before approaching the border.
“There is clear involvement,” General al-Sarhan said.
The drug trade worries Jordanian officials for many reasons.
The quantities are increasing. The number of Captagon pills seized in Jordan this year is nearly double the amount seized in 2020, according to Colonel Alqudah, the head of the narcotics department.
And while Jordan was originally just a pathway to Saudi Arabia, as much as one-fifth of the drugs smuggled in from Syria are now consumed in Jordan, he estimated. The increased supply has lowered the price, making it easy for students to become addicted.
Even more worrying, he said, is the growing quantity of crystal meth entering Jordan from Syria, which poses a greater threat. As of October, Jordan had seized 132 pounds of it this year, up from 44 pounds the year before.
“We are now in a dangerous stage because we can’t go back,” said Dr. Morad al-Ayasrah, a Jordanian psychiatrist who treats drug addicts. “We are going forward and the drugs are increasing.”
Reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis in Athens; Gaia Pianigiani in Rome; Kit Gillet in Bucharest, Romania; Hannah Beech in Bangkok; and employees of The New York Times in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon.
Poland has massed thousands of troops on its border with Belarus to keep out Middle Eastern migrants who have set up camp there, as Western officials accuse Belarus’s leader of intentionally trying to create a new migrant crisis in Europe.
The standoff along the razor-wire fence separating the two countries has intensified a long-simmering confrontation between Belarus, a repressive former Soviet republic, and the European Union, which includes Poland.
Western officials say that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus is allowing asylum seekers from the Middle East into his country by the thousands and then funneling them westward toward Poland and the E.U., and has escalated that strategy this week. They say he is retaliating against sanctions imposed after his disputed 2020 election victory.
The sharp increase in tensions has rattled European officials, with images of desperate migrants evoking the refugee crisis of 2015. The confrontation with Belarus, a close Russian ally, also raises new security concerns.
Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights, have accused Poland of illegally pushing migrants who had crossed the border back into Belarusian territory.
warned the West: “We stopped drugs and migrants for you — now you’ll have to eat them and catch them yourselves.”
Until recently, migrants were scattered the length of the border, but now Belarusian authorities are collecting them at the Kuznica crossing, said Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group in Poland.
On Tuesday, Belarus’s border service released a video showing a tent camp squeezed into a narrow strip of land just a few yards from a line of Polish security forces in white helmets. The video showed a low-flying helicopter, military vehicles and a water cannon truck on the Polish side, and a thicket of tents and smoky bonfires on the Belarusian side.
video posted by the Polish Ministry of Defense on Monday showed a crowd of people trying to break down the razor wire border fence with long sticks.
sent financial aid to Turkey to do so in 2016.
“We see that the Belarusian specialists are working very responsibly,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters.
Polish officials said that in addition to those at the border, more than 10,000 migrants were elsewhere in Belarus, also hoping to get to the E.U. On Monday, Piotr Müller, a Polish government spokesman, said the country’s borders were “under attack in an organized manner.” A top security official, Maciej Wasik, said a “real battle” had taken place against people trying to enter Poland illegally near Kuznica.
The standoff comes at a particularly difficult moment in Poland’s relations with the E.U., and in the country’s domestic politics. The conservative Polish government’s longstanding feud with the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, over the independence of Poland’s judiciary escalated in recent weeks, and the commission has been withholding the payment of the country’s $41 billion share of the E.U. coronavirus fund.
At home, the Polish governing party, Law and Justice, has seized on the image of a nation besieged by migrants to parade its nationalist credentials and brand its critics as unpatriotic at a time of national crisis. Both the opposition and nationalist groups that support the government are scheduled to rally in the center of the capital on Thursday, Poland’s Independence Day.
Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, and Tolek Magdziarz from Warsaw. Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow, Jane Arraf from Suleimaniya, Iraq, and Andrew Higgins from Cluj, Romania.
COPACENI, Romania — As a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic crashed over Eastern Europe last month, devastating unvaccinated populations, an Orthodox Church bishop in southern Romania offered solace to his flock: “Don’t be fooled by what you see on TV — don’t be scared of Covid.”
Most important, Bishop Ambrose of Giurgiu told worshipers in this small Romanian town on Oct. 14, “don’t rush to get vaccinated.”
The bishop is now under criminal investigation by the police for spreading dangerous disinformation, but his anti-vaccine clarion call, echoed by prominent politicians, influential voices on the internet and many others, helps explain why Romania has in recent weeks reported the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19.
On Tuesday, nearly 600 Romanians died, the most during the pandemic. The country’s death rate relative to population is almost seven times as high as the United States’, and almost 17 times as high as Germany’s.
Europe’s second-lowest vaccination rate; around 44 percent of adults have had at least one dose, ahead of only Bulgaria, at 29 percent. Overall, the European Union stands at 81 percent, with several countries above 90 percent. Complicating matters, Romania has been without a government since last month, when a centrist coalition unraveled.
some form of a vaccine requirement. Here’s a closer look.
As she spoke, a 66-year-old Covid patient, Nicu Paul, gasped for breath on a bed nearby. His wife, Maria, also suffering severe pulmonary problems from Covid, lay in the next bed. Mr. Paul said he had worked for 40 years as an ambulance driver and never gotten sick — “God saved me,” he said — so he decided against vaccination because “there are so many rumors about the vaccine that I did not know what to believe.”
Romania began vaccinating its citizens last December and put the program under the military, the country’s most respected institution, according to opinion polls. The second most trusted institution, however, is the Orthodox church, which has sent mixed signals on vaccines, with Patriarch Daniel in Bucharest telling people to make up their own minds and listen to doctors, while many local clerics and some influential bishops denounced vaccines as the Devil’s work.
Colonel Ghorghita said he had been shocked and mystified by the reach of anti-vaccination sentiment. “They really believe that vaccines are not the proper way to stop Covid,” he said, adding that this was despite the fact that “more than 90 percent of deaths are unvaccinated people.” Old people, the most vulnerable demographic, have been the hardest to convince, he said, with only 25 percent of people over 80 vaccinated.
In central Bucharest, huge signs display photographs of gravely ill patients in hospitals as part of a campaign to jolt people back to reality. “They are suffocating. They beg. They regret,” reads a caption.
Dr. Streinu-Cercel said she was uneasy with trying to reach people by scaring them. “We should be talking about science, not fear,” she said, but “fear is the only thing that got the attention of the general population.”
Distrust of just about everyone and everything is so deep, she said, that some of her patients “are gasping for breath but tell me that Covid does not exist.”
“It is very difficult when so many people are denying all reality,” she added.
At a vaccination center at her hospital, only a trickle of people pass through most days, though vaccines are free and increasingly necessary following new rules requiring vaccination certificates to enter many public buildings.
One of those getting vaccinated was Norica Gheorghe, 82. She said she had held off for months on getting a shot but decided to go ahead this past week after seeing reports that nearly 600 had died in one day. “My hair stood on end when I saw this number, and I decided that I should get vaccinated,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Covid disinformation in Romania mostly followed themes that found traction in many other countries, according to Alina Bargaoanu, a Bucharest communications professor who tracks disinformation, with people spreading wild conspiracy theories under fake names on Facebook and other social media.
But as the pandemic dragged on, she added, this largely fake virtual phenomenon morphed into a political movement driven by real people like Diana Sosoaca, an elected member of Romania’s upper house of Parliament. Ms. Sosoaca led a protest in the north of the country that blocked the opening of a vaccination center, denouncing the pandemic as “the biggest lie of the century,” and organized anti-mask rallies in Bucharest. Videos of her antics have attracted millions of views.
Ms. Bargaoanu, the disinformation researcher, said she suspected a Russian hand in spreading alarm over vaccines, but conceded that many of the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy theories originate in the United States, making them particularly hard to debunk because “Romania is a very pro-American country.”
Colonel Ghorghita has taken to social media to rebut the more outlandish falsehoods, and also met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to ask them not to fan the flames of disinformation. “They don’t have a duty to recommend vaccination but they do have a duty not to recommend against it,” he said.
The Orthodox church is particularly important because of its strong influence in rural areas, where vaccination rates are half those in cities like Bucharest, where more than 80 percent of adults have received at least one shot.
In Copaceni, a rural county south of Bucharest, workers at a small clinic offering vaccines said they were appalled by Bishop Ambrose’s anti-vaccine tirades.
“I am fighting to get people vaccinated every day, and then he comes along and tells them not to bother,” said Balota Hajnalka, a doctor running the clinic.
Boryana Dzhambazova contributed reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.