Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that they would grant entry to a Russian convoy allegedly carrying aid for besieged Ukrainian civilians — once its contents have been inspected by the International Red Cross.
As recently as Tuesday morning, fearing that the convoy could be a Trojan Horse — a pretext for ground invasion or cover for delivery of weapons to pro-Russian separatists on the verge of defeat — Ukrainian officials had said they would not allow the 280 trucks to cross the border.
Ukrainian presidential aide Valery Chaly originally told journalists that the cargo, which is said to include power generators, food, drinking water, medical supplies, and sleeping bags, would need to be reloaded onto other transport vehicles and verified at the border by the Red Cross, a process that could have taken up to a week.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that the idea had been rejected. “They insisted on reloading the cargo from all 287 trucks to the trucks to be provided by the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] but eventually gave it up for obvious reasons as this would have made the humanitarian mission more complicated and costlier,” Lavrov said, according to the state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS.
With Ukrainian forces closing in on pro-Russian rebels in the eastern part of the country — in a fight that has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee and left those who remain without drinking water, power, or supplies — the conflict has come to "a decisive point," Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Danylo Lubkivsky said Tuesday in Kiev.
In turn, Ukrainian and Western forces worry that Russia is using the pretext of humanitarian aid to head off total rebel defeat.
"Let me be clear — you don’t need tanks and artillery to bring food and medicine for civilians," Lubkivsky said, referring to reports that the trucks, which departed Tuesday from a Russian military base, are merely repainted versions of green Russian military vehicles bearing the black number plates of the Russian armed forces.
The U.S., French and Australian governments also "voiced concern that Russia, sole international supporter of rebels in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east, could use the humanitarian deliveries to carry out a covert operation to help fighters who appear to be on the verge of defeat," Reuters reports.
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In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "We must be extremely careful because [the convoy] could be a cover for the Russians to install themselves near Luhansk and Donetsk and put us before a done deed."
Noting that "each success that Ukraine’s forces have achieved has been met with asymmetric escalation," Mark Rachkevych writes for the Kyiv Post, Ukraine's English-language newspaper:
Within this context, the convoy of 280 trucks that are coming from Russia is the latest escalation. If Russia is truly concerned about the humanitarian situation in Donbas, it can swiftly alleviate it by a full-scale cessation of warfare. This includes ending the shelling from inside its territory, stop the supply and flow of weapons and military hardware, as well as mercenaries, paramilitary troops, subversives and intelligence agents. It could call off its proxies inside Ukraine and let Kyiv install law and order and again.
Otherwise, any sort of aid that Russia offers is just another tool in its arsenal of non-linear war designed to undermine Kyiv and force the country back into Kremlin subservience.
For its part, Russia insists the convoy is legitimate, saying all parties — including Ukraine and the International Commmittee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — had been notified and agreed to the arrangement.
But an ICRC representative told the Telegraph on Tuesday that the organization had only learned of the convoy’s departure through news reports, and had no information about its contents.
For the Associated Press, Laura Mills writes: "In any case, tons of Russian aid moving toward Ukraine was surely a visual public relations coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has so far resisted calls from both Ukrainian separatists and nationalists at home to send Russian troops to eastern Ukraine."