For the past week, Russia has insisted that its convoy of hundreds of trucks contained nothing but humanitarian aid for the people trapped by the civil war in Donetsk and Luhansk. At the same time, though, they had refused to engage the aid through the Red Cross, as Ukraine demanded as a condition of allowing the convoy to enter the country. Late yesterday, Russia relented and allowed the government of Ukraine to inspect the vehicles in advance on Russian territory near the border:
Russia let Ukrainian officials inspect an aid convoy on Friday and agreed to let the Red Cross distribute the aid around the rebel-held city of Luhansk, easing tensions and dispelling Ukrainian fears that the aid operation is a ruse to get military help to separatist rebels.
In violation of an earlier tentative agreement, Russia had sent the convoy of roughly 200 trucks to a border crossing under the control of pro-Russia separatists, raising the prospect that it could enter Ukraine without being inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross. Ukraine vowed to use all means necessary to block the convoy in such a scenario, leading to fears of escalation in the conflict.
Adding to the tensions, a dozen Russian armored personnel carriers appeared early Friday near where the trucks were parked for the night, 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the border.
But the two sides reached agreement Friday morning, and 41 Ukrainian border guards and 18 customs officials began inspecting the Russian aid at the border crossing, defense officials in Kiev said in a statement. Sergei Astakhov, an assistant to the deputy head of Ukraine’s border guard service, said Red Cross representatives would observe the inspections.
Both sides also said that the aid deliveries themselves would be carried out exclusively by the Red Cross.
But was that just a sleight of hand, a trick of misdirection? Reporters on the ground confirmed that they saw Russian armored personnel carriers — not with the convoy but actually crossing the border, CNN reported this morning. Ukraine points out that they have been complaining about that for months, but this is the first independent confirmation:
U.S. and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russia of supplying weapons to the rebels and building up troops along the border.
A number of Russian armored personnel carriers were seen crossing into eastern Ukraine overnight, Leonid Matyukin, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Counter-Terrorist Operations (CTO) told CNN on Friday.
The vehicles didn’t constitute a Russian invasion of Ukraine, but their sighting supports what the Ukrainian government has been saying has been happening for months.
Technically it would be an invasion, but Kyiv’s point is that the invasion began months ago. They have claimed all along that the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is as authentic as the uprising in Crimea was, which was a wholly-owned operation by the Russian Federation. Some of the fighters come from Ukraine itself; there is little doubt that the Kyiv government is unpopular in the eastern provinces, but not to the point of rebellion for most Ukrainians, which is why the rebellion has failed. Most suspect that the leadership and much of the rank and file of the rebellion come from Russia, though, and the big surface-to-air missile system that shot down Malaysia Air 17 last month was definitely a Russian import.
The West and Kyiv worried that Russia would use the convoy as cover for a military incursion; this just looks like another way to use it as cover, by misdirection rather than camouflage. The convoy has another potential use as a way for Vladimir Putin to claim the necessity of protection if it enters a war zone. That’s why Ukraine wanted the convoy to come through an established government checkpoint, or at least to enter under Red Cross control. So far neither of those conditions have been granted, and it’s likely we won’t have heard the last of this convoy after they drop their cargo in Luhansk and Donetsk.