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Russian Aid Convoy Set to Enter Ukraine

Although deal may be close, suspicions linger about real aim of purported relief effort.

An agreement to allow Russia to deliver humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine seems near after Kiev dropped its objections to the fleet of trucks entering its territory.

Tensions over the convoy have been rising since 280 Russian military trucks – repainted from khaki to white – left Moscow on August 12.

The Russian authorities declared that the convoy was loaded with aid including 400 tonnes of cereals, 100 tonnes of sugar, 62 tonnes of baby food and 54 tonnes of medicine as well as 12,000 sleeping bags and other essentials.

While acknowledging the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the country’s east, which has seen heavy fighting between government troops and separatists, Kiev suspects the aid convoy might be a Trojan horse.

Some Ukrainian analysts believe the aid is intended to resupply pro-Russia rebels, whose hold over a stretch of the border with Russia through which weapons, foodstuffs and volunteers reached them weakened by mid-August,

Others suggest that the trucks may be an attempt to provoke Ukrainian forces into an attack.

Journalists and representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were deployed to meet the convoy. Reporters on the ground noted that some of the vehicles were half-empty.

Kiev’s suggestion that the goods should be reloaded onto Ukrainian trucks was rejected by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, which only increased suspicions aired by Ukrainian media that the aid was intended for combatants rather than civilians.

Russian state media featured stories on how Ukrainian forces were planning to attack the convoy, including a story from Life News reporting that the Aidar militia had orders to blow the trucks up.

Meanwhile, on August 14, Western journalists reported seeing a convoy of military vehicles crossing the Ukrainian border. According to The Guardian, there was a “column of 23 armoured personnel carriers, supported by fuel trucks and other logistics vehicles with official Russian military plates”.

Ukraine later claimed it had destroyed part of this column, while Russia denied any involvement.

With Russian actions on the border with Ukraine under close scrutiny, Alexander Zakharchenko, the new prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, said his forces had received about 150 armoured vehicles including 30 tanks, as well as “1,200 fighters trained for four months on the territory of the Russian Federation”.

According to Olexiy Haran, politics professor at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy, “On the one hand, Putin is continuously provoking Ukrainians into an armed response. But the incursion of Russian military equipment into Ukraine does not mean an escalation of the conflict, because it has already been going on for a long time. The only difference is that it was recorded by Western journalists for the first time.

“On the other hand, Putin is manoeuvring, because a direct military intervention would be extremely dangerous for him. He wants to pull back, but in a way so that everyone thinks that he actually won.”

The humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine has clearly deteriorated, with casualties rising in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and shortages of basic goods reported.

Yevhen Semekhin, a resident of the town of Makiyvka in the Donestk region, said the local train station had been hit by shelling and all services suspended.

“No bank is working in the town and it’s impossible to get money from a cash machine anywhere,” he added.

Semekhin noted that there was still support for the pro-Russia insurgents in the town, with funds collected for them in a box in a local Orthodox church.

Other locals, however, are suspicious of Russian offers of aid despite the harsh conditions around Donetsk and Luhansk.

Olena, who lives in Pervomaysk, a town where heavy fighting is taking place, said people were going hungry and asking for bread on credit.

“We know that the Russian convoy is supplying the separatists with military equipment,” she claimed. “My mother says, ‘We will starve but we won’t take any aid from Russia. They shoot at us, wage war on us – then they give aid?’”

In the city of Donetsk, the former head of local state TV, Alexandrina Kruglenko, said, “The outskirts of our city are being bombarded with [multiple-launch] Grad rockets. Our district was shelled for days, and it was very scary. Yesterday, people were killed by shelling in the city centre. It is very easy to become a random victim, so I don’t usually leave my house.”

Kruglenko said similar scenarios were being played out in the towns of Horlivka, Torez, Snezhnoye and Shakhtarsk.

As for the Russian mission to send aid to the area, she said, “I don’t believe a word about the ‘humanitarian convoy’. Even the term sounds like an oxymoron. I’m totally against this convoy. When I learned that it’s bringing us sugar and salt, which we’ve got enough of, my faith in it fell further.”

She went on, “I have friends in Russia who have collected humanitarian aid for us. They believe they’re helping us. But I am sure the Russians would help us more by stopping the supply of fighters and weapons. When Russia brings new weapons and ammunition across the border, we feel it immediately, because they are immediately fired at us.”

Haran said the continued fighting in the east meant Ukraine needed urgent support from the international community.

“We greatly appreciate the position of the UK, which is encouraging European Union countries to take a more radical stance on Russia. The sanctions they have imposed on Moscow are insufficient,” he said.

“Ukrainians need weapons for protection. We are defending the Western countries, so why won’t they provide us with weapons? We aren’t under sanctions. It reminds me of the policy of non-interference in the Spanish [civil war] of the 1930s. We all remember what consequences that had.”

Oleg Shynkarenko is a Ukrainian journalist based in Kiev.