MOSCOW – With a theatrical flourish, Russia on Tuesday dispatched hundreds of trucks covered in white tarps and sprinkled with holy water on a mission to deliver aid to a desperate rebel-held zone in eastern Ukraine.
The televised sight of the miles-long convoy sparked a show of indignation from the government in Kiev, which insisted any aid must be delivered by the international Red Cross. Ukraine and the West have openly expressed its concern that Moscow intends to use the cover of a humanitarian operation to embark on a military incursion in support of pro-Russian separatists.
Amid those anxieties, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday was set to travel to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed in March, where he was to preside over a meeting involving the entire Russian Cabinet and most members of the lower house of parliament.
Putin so far has resisted calls from both pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and nationalists at home to send Russian troops to back the mutiny, a move that would be certain to trigger devastating Western sanctions. But dispatching the convoy sent a powerful visual symbol helping the Kremlin counter criticism from the nationalists who accuse Putin of betrayal.
The convoy provoked controversy as soon as it started moving early Tuesday from the outskirts of Moscow on its long voyage toward the Ukrainian border.
Officials with both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Ukraine’s government said they had no information about what the trucks were carrying or where they were headed.
A Ukrainian security spokesman said the convoy of white-canvased vehicles was being managed by the Russian army and could not as a result be allowed into the country. Moscow has rejected the claim, saying that the convoy is organized by the Emergencies Ministry, a non-military agency dealing with humanitarian relief tasks.
The government in Kiev said the Russian trucks could unload their contents at the border and transfer the aid to vehicles leased by the ICRC.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said talks are under way for Russia to deliver the aid to the Ukrainian border where it would be transferred to the custody of the ICRC.
She said the U.S. has received confirmation from Ukraine that it is ready to facilitate the arrival of the aid and arrange for its delivery to Luhansk as long as certain conditions were met. Such conditions included that the aid passes appropriate customs clearances, that the ICRC takes custody and responsibility for the delivery in Ukraine, that the Russian-backed separatists allow safe access for the delivery and that the shipments are received at a border crossing point controlled by the Ukrainian government in the Kharkiv region. At least 60 miles of the long border between the two neighbors is currently in rebel hands.
The U.S. supports the Ukrainian proposal, Harf said.
Russian authorities said the trucks were loaded with nearly 2,000 metric tons of cargo from baby food to portable generators. Television images showed a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkling holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross, before they departed.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia has bowed to Ukrainian demands that the convoy should enter its territory through a checkpoint designated by Kiev, that Ukrainian number plates be put on trucks there and that Ukrainian representatives should be put on board the trucks alongside Red Cross staff.
However, he said that the idea to unload the trucks on the border and put the cargo on chartered vehicles had come under discussion, but had been rejected for cost reasons.
Valeriy Chaly, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said a suitable transfer point could be between Russia’s Belgorod region and Kharkiv, which has been spared the major unrest seen farther south. Chaly said that any attempt to take humanitarian goods into Ukraine without proper authorization would be viewed as an attack
Ukraine has stressed that the effort to alleviate hardship in the conflict-wracked Luhansk region should be seen as an international undertaking. Officials in Kiev have said Russia’s involvement in the humanitarian mission is required to ensure cooperation from separatist rebel forces, who have consistently expressed their allegiance to Moscow.
French President Francois Hollande discussed the aid delivery Tuesday with Putin, saying “he emphasized the strong fears evoked by a unilateral Russian mission in Ukrainian territory.” Hollande told Putin that any mission must be multilateral and have the agreement of the ICRC and Ukraine, according to a statement in Paris.
NATO was following the situation closely, spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
“Without the formal, express consent and authorization of the Ukrainian government, any humanitarian intervention would be unacceptable and illegal,” she said.
The Western alliance also expressed concern about the possibility of a Russian military operation.
“What we see is thousands of combat-ready troops from Russia being close to the Ukrainian border,” NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. “There could be a risk of further intervention.”
The fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government has scarred Luhansk, the region’s rebel-held capital, which had a pre-war population of 420,000. On Tuesday, authorities said the city’s 250,000 remaining residents have had no electricity or water supplies for 10 days.
“Luhansk is under a de facto blockade: The city continues to be destroyed, and the delivery of foodstuffs, medicine and fuel has been interrupted,” the city council said.
As Luhansk remains cut off, the situation looks to also be worsening in the main rebel city of Donetsk, where train links were no longer running Tuesday.
Residents seeking to leave Donetsk were forced to drive to a station in a rebel-held town to the north, Yasynuvata, which had also come under rocket attack in the day. Eyewitnesses said at least three people were killed when a local market and two apartment blocks were shelled.