World leaders have condemned Russian president Vladimir Putin after a convoy of trucks carrying what Russia calls “humanitarian aid” crossed the border into Ukraine without permission from Kiev or the Red Cross (ICRC).
While the Ukrainian government in Kiev calls the move a “direct invasion,” Russian authorities said they couldn’t tolerate more delays at the border. The convoy is heading to Lugansk, the Russian Foreign Ministry says.
"All excuses to delay sending aid have been exhausted," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. "The Russian side has taken the decision to act."
U.S. officials condemned the move by Russia on Friday. "Russia must remove its vehicles and its personnel from the territory of Ukraine immediately," Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, told reporters. "Failure to do so will result in additional costs and isolation."
Kirby said the move was a violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and the breaking of a recent promise to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by Russia's defense minister, who had "guaranteed" Russia would avoid invading Ukraine, AP reports.
“We see this as part of a pattern,” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said during a press briefing from Edgartown, Massachusetts on Friday afternoon. “This is not something that started today,”
Rhodes said the convoy adds to escalated tensions in the region. Neither Kirby or Rhodes know what the trucks contain.
The 70-truck convoy has been hovering near the border for the past week but has not been granted permission by the Kiev authorities to enter Ukraine. Although Russia claims the trucks carry relief supplies for Ukrainians living in battle zones, such as water, baby food and sleeping bags, journalists who have photographed the trucks and found them to be half-empty.
The convoy entered Ukraine without an escort by officials of the ICRC, the organization both Russia and Ukraine agreed should accompany the trucks. The organization tweeted today that security concerns prevented them from accompanying the convoy. The ICRC said yesterday they were observing the inspection of the trucks by Ukrainian border guards, but today said the manner in which the convoy has moved into Russia has “complicated this aid operation.”
While suspicions were raised that the convoy might be a cover for a Russian invasion or a “modern version of the Trojan horse,” there’s also a chance it was an attempt by Putin to appear sympathetic to Ukrainians that backfired. Russia denies claims it is waging a covert military operation.
“By sending the convoy, Vladimir Putin sought to switch the international attention from the fighting in Eastern Ukraine to the human suffering there, and to present Russia as the one country that cared about the people of Donbass,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Council for Peace’s Moscow Center, writes.
“Putin was also clearly responding to the calls in Russia—parodied by Zhirinovsky—to ‘do something’ in the face of the Kievan forces' continuing assault on the rebel strongholds. That ‘something,’ however, in Putin's view, did not have to be reckless and leading to catastrophic consequences—just as the Russian emperor's fateful moves in 1914,” Trenin writes.
The leader of the western military alliance NATO also weighed in on the convoy issue today, with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calling the move across the border “a blatant breach of Russia's international commitments" and "a further violation of Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia," the Kyiv Post reports.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she is concerned about the convoy’s push into Ukraine and spoke with both Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by phone on Friday, Reuters reports.
"Chancellor Merkel expressed her great concern about the fact that the convoy had crossed the border without the approval of Ukraine, without accompanying by the Red Cross and in part without any previous inspection," Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
More than 2,000 have been killed so far in four months of fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.