A LARGE Russian aid convoy rolled toward the Ukrainian border yesterday – but it was heading toward a crossing controlled by pro-Russian rebels instead of a government post, as Ukraine had demanded.
Ukraine’s government threatened to block the convoy if the cargo could not be inspected and announced it was organising its own aid shipment to the war-torn separatist region of Luhansk.
The Russian convoy of more than 200 vehicles had been parked at a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh since late Tuesday amid disagreement over how and where the aid could be delivered to eastern Ukraine, where government troops are battling armed separatists.
But yesterday, the trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow and accompanied by military vehicles, drove down a winding highway through sunflower fields and hills then turned west toward the rebel-held border crossing of Izvaryne.
But the trucks soon pulled off about 17 miles from the border and parked in a large field where dozens of beige tents had been set up. Drivers in matching delivery outfits got out and relaxed, making it unclear whether the convoy would cross into Ukraine later in the day or spend the night on Russian soil.
The route suggested Russia was intent on not abiding by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross. Moscow has insisted it co-ordinated the dispatch of the goods, which it said range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, said Ukraine would be forced to act if the Russians refused to allow a Red Cross inspection of its cargo. “In this case, movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available,” he said.
Although the Izvaryne border crossing remained in rebel hands, areas south of Luhansk have been bitterly fought over and the location of forces is in constant flux.
ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said talks between the organisation, Ukraine and Russia were continuing but she could not confirm where the Russian convoy was headed.
“The plans keep changing, the discussions are going ahead and we will not confirm for sure until we know an agreement has been reached,” Ms Isyuk said in Geneva. Russia’s foreign ministry said the convoy had 262 vehicles, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, addressed hundreds of deputies yesterday in the Black Sea resort of Yalta in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March. He did not speak specifically about the convoy.
In a relatively subdued address, Mr Putin said Russia’s goal was “to stop bloodshed in Ukraine as soon as possible”. Moscow should improve life in Ukraine “without building a wall from the West,” he said, but asserted that Russia would “not allow anyone to treat us with arrogance”.
Leaders in Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of providing arms and expertise to the pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, who have been battling government forces since April. Moscow has denied those charges, but the breakdown in communication over the aid has stoked fears of direct Russian intervention.