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How Russia's Ukraine invasion impacted southeastern Europe

Cristian Stefanescu in Bucharest | Christopher Nehring in Sofia | Keno Verseck in Berlin | Florian Schmitz in Thessaloniki
February 23, 2023

Russia's invasion of Ukraine had a major impact on all countries in the region. DW takes a closer look at how Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Romania have been affected by the ongoing war.

A demonstrator holds up a cardboard placard with the image of missiles raining down on a Ukrainian mother and child, Sofia, Bulgaria, April 7, 2022
People in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, demonstrated against the war in UkraineImage: Alexandar Detev/DW

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has had a direct impact on its immediate neighbors, turning them overnight into host countries or transit countries for refugees. Three million Ukrainians fled to Romania alone, with 100,000 settling there.

But Bulgaria and Greece, which are both further afield, have also been affected by Russia's aggression. They have also taken in refugees or — in the case of Bulgaria — supplied Ukraine with armaments.

Only Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and only reluctantly supports the EU's sanctions against Russia, is steering a very different course.

Our correspondents take a closer look at how these four countries have been affected by the events of the past year.

Romania: Fear of a Russian attack

Not since World War II were people in Romania as scared as they were in the early hours of February 24, 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Many asked themselves what they would do if Russia attacked Romania.

A train crosses the Romanian–Ukrainian border on a recently reopened railway link between the two countries
A railway line linking Romania and Ukraine that was shut down 15 years ago was modernized and reopened in the months after Russia's invasion of UkraineImage: Ukrzaliznycya / Ukrainische Eisenbahnen

"The military and the intelligence services responded quickly and well," Romanian military expert Claudiu Degeratu told DW. Since then, the country's defense budget has been increased and a program of military modernization launched. Degeratu says that immediate investment in the domestic arms industry is now necessary. NATO has also ramped up its presence in Romania.

Romanian economy affected by the war

Because Romania is not heavily reliant on Russian gas and because it had few financial dealings with Russia, it is not as exposed as other EU member states, business journalist Stelian Muscalu told DW.

According to Muscalu, Romania's macroeconomic indicators have remained largely unchanged. In contrast, people are more afraid, which has lowered hopes of an economic upswing after the COVID-19 pandemic. "The rapid rise in inflation because of energy prices and poor economic management has reduced people's incomes and living standards," said Muscalu.

Workers assist the loading of corn onto a ship in the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, May 3, 2022
The Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta became an export hub for neighboring Ukraine after Russia's invasion cut off its sea routesImage: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

During the grain crisis caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Romania assumed a key role by facilitating the export of Ukrainian grain via its Black Sea port of Constanta. In contrast, ships carrying Ukrainian grain often remain docked in the port of Istanbul for up to 50 days because Russia has the right to check their cargo. 

Bulgaria: Quietly supporting Ukraine with ammunition

Officially, the Bulgarian government has not to date sent either ammunition or weapons directly to Ukraine. On the face of it, this is not surprising given Bulgaria's traditionally pro-Russian stance. But nothing is as it seems: In reality, NATO member Bulgaria is one of the most important suppliers of armaments to Ukraine.

The government of pro-Western reformer Kiril Petkov, which was in office for only eight months, supplied Ukraine with both ammunition and diesel from April to August 2022. It is estimated that about 30% of the ammunition and up to 40% of the fuel needed for the Ukrainian army's tanks and vehicles came from Bulgaria.

Bulgarian reliance on Russian energy

This is even more remarkable considering that Bulgaria, which relies heavily on energy supplies from Russia, was one of the first countries to have its gas supplies cut by Russia last April. Giving away diesel at a time like this was a bold move.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) shakes hands with Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, Kyiv, April 28, 2022
The government of pro-Western reformer Kiril Petkov (left), which was in office for only eight months, supplied Ukraine with both ammunition and diesel from April to August 2022Image: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

It was equally bold to risk angering those in the country that sympathize with Russia. Then as now, one of Petkov's former coalition partners, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and President Rumen Radev were deeply opposed to military aid for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

To preserve the coalition peace and out of consideration for pro-Russian sentiment in the country, the government never spoke openly about supplying Ukraine. While these supplies increased Petkov's standing at international level, they remain controversial in Bulgaria.

Support for Putin falling in Bulgaria

President Radev publicly condemns the Russian invasion but is otherwise opposed to anything that counters Russia's interests. Although a parliamentary majority voted in late 2022 in favor of direct military aid for Ukraine after Petkov's government was ousted, the interim government appointed by President Radev has so far made no real effort to implement the decision.

Women hold a huge Ukrainian flag and anti-Putin placards during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine outside the Embassy of the Russian Federation, Sofia, Bulgaria, February 24, 2022
Although Bulgaria has traditionally been pro-Russian, there were demonstrations against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and support for Putin and his war has declined in recent monthsImage: Georgi Paleykov/NurPhoto/IMAGO

Although direct support for Putin and his war is declining in Bulgaria, polls show that pro-Western parties will not get a majority in the upcoming elections in April 2023.

Hungary: At odds with Europe

Just days before the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Hungary's PM Viktor Orban once again lived up to his reputation as "Putin's extended arm" in the EU. There was not a single word of solidarity with Ukraine in his annual state of the nation address in Budapest on February 18.

Instead, he accused the West of supporting the war and behaving like "sleepwalkers on a roof", drifting towards a new world war. He called for an end to sanctions against Moscow, good economic relations between the entire West and Russia and "peace negotiations between Americans and Russians."

Hungarian PM provokes allies

Once again, Orban was not afraid to court controversy. He compared Germany's decision to supply Ukraine with tanks to Hitler's military campaign against the former Soviet Union, saying "In a few weeks, Leopard tanks will be rolling through Ukrainian territory to the east, to the Russian border. Maybe they'll even have the old maps in them."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow, September 18, 2018
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban (left) has accused the West of behaving like "sleepwalkers on a roof" and drifting towards a new world warImage: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/Getty Images

To date, Hungary's PM has not been able to bring himself to unconditionally condemn Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Instead, his remarks on Ukraine have repeatedly caused a stir. At the end of January, Orban described Ukraine as "no man's land." Kyiv strongly condemned the remarks and summoned the Hungarian ambassador.

While Orban's stance can ostensibly be explained by Hungary's heavy dependence on Russian energy supplies, it is increasing his country's political isolation within Europe. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended an EU summit in Brussels on February 9, he was greeted with a round of applause by the heads of state assembled for the traditional "family photo." The only one who didn't clap was Viktor Orban.

Greece: Refugees find a new home

"I'm just trying to be happy," refugee Nina Plechak-Paskal told DW. When Putin's army took Crimea, and pro-Russian, Moscow-controlled groups occupied her native Donetsk in 2014, she fled to the Ukrainian capital. "I had to start over from zero in Kyiv," she recalls. Then, when Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, she fled again, this time to Thessaloniki.

Ukrainian refugee Nina Plechak-Paskal on the beach, Thessaloniki, Greece, February 15, 2023
Ukrainian refugee Nina Plechak-Paskal speaks Greek, which has made it easier for her to settle into life in GreeceImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Nina is a member of Ukraine's 90,000-strong Greek minority. The fact that she speaks Greek makes things much easier for her in her host country. She was able to keep her job in a logistics company in Ukraine and now works online from Greece. Her 15-year-old daughter attends an international school in Greece during the day and online classes from her Ukrainian school in the evening.

Language is a barrier for refugees

Because Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in both countries, many Ukrainians feel at home in Greece. Nevertheless, that doesn't necessarily make life any easier: "When you live here, it's not a holiday in the sun. Many things are very complicated," says Plechak-Paskal. "Without the language, it's hard to get papers. Most officials only speak Greek."

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows homes and buildings before and after Russia's attack on Mariupol, Ukraine, June 2022
The city of Mariupol in Ukraine (pictured here before and after the Russian attack on the city) was for centuries the heart of Ukraine's Greek community Image: Maxar Technologies/picture alliance/AP

Over 100,000 Ukrainians crossed into Greece since Russia invaded Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian General Consulate in Thessaloniki. They enjoy temporary protected status, which means that they don't have to apply for asylum straight away and get a residence permit much more easily than refugees from other countries.

Nevertheless, the situation for many refugees is not easy, says Vadim Sabuk, consulate general of Ukraine. "Many people who came here have since moved on to other countries where they get more financial assistance." This is why there are now only about 22,000 Ukrainians in Greece.

Adapted from the German by Aingeal Flanagan