A convoy of some 280 trucks carrying food, medicine and water left the suburbs of Moscow early Tuesday morning for the northeast of Ukraine. While Russia promoted the effort as a humanitarian operation, Western countries urged it not to use the delivery of aid as a pretext for an invasion.
According to Ukraine, Russia has massed some 45,000 troops on its border. NATO warned on Monday there was a “high probability” the country might intervene militarily in its former satellite state now that the separatists it has backed are on the defensive.
“We must be extremely careful because this could be a cover for the Russians to install themselves near Luhansk and Donetsk and put us before a done deed,” France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Info Radio on Monday. The two cities are among the few still controlled by the rebels.
His Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, was also skeptical, telling reporters, “Any intervention by Russia into Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian crisis would be seen for the transparent artifice that it is and Australia would condemn (it) in the strongest possible terms.”
Australia lost 27 nationals when a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over the east of Ukraine last month. Separatists who seek annexation by Russia apparently mistook the airliner for an Ukrainian military transport aircraft although Russia rejects this interpretation of events. President Vladimir Putin has cast the blame solely on Ukraine, saying it “bears responsibility” for the plane crash that claimed the lives of nearly three hundred passengers and crew.
Russia also denies Western accusations that it backs the Ukrainian uprising but Russian artillery and tanks have found their way into country while Russian citizens are leading the revolt.
Suspicious of Russia’s intentions, President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine would only allow Russian aid into his country as part of an international relief mission under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
According to a Putin spokesman, “It has all been agreed with Ukraine.” But Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, cited a Red Cross representative saying the organization had not even received a list of the contents of the convoy.
The deputy head of Poroshenko’s presidential administration, Valeriy Chaly, told reporters in Kiev that Ukraine would not allow the convoy to cross into its territory. “Everything will be under the control of the Ukrainian side. We are taking responsibility for the delivery of the humanitarian supplies,” he said.
Sending military support under the guise of a humanitarian intervention would not be without precedent for Russia. In 1993, it sent a convoy of trucks supposedly carrying aid into the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The vehicles actually carried weapons for Abkhaz separatists. Russia would later recognize Abkhazia as an independent state.
The 1993 operation, like the present one, was carried out by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations — which was then led by Sergei Shoigu, the current defense minister.