Russia made good Friday on weeks-long threats to send a massive convoy into eastern Ukraine to deliver supplies, pushing the 280-truck column across the border without the consent of Ukrainian authorities in Kiev or with its agreed Red Cross escorts.
The provocative move drew instant condemnation from the European Union, NATO and the U.S., and Ukraine’s national security chief called it a “direct invasion” in violation of international law.
All 280 vehicles of the convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid to civilians in the embattled eastern Ukraine cities of Luhansk and Donetsk had passed through the border by afternoon, Russian media reported.
The convoy crossed into Ukraine through a border post that has been under the control of pro-Russia gunmen since April, in contradiction of the Ukrainian government’s condition that the Russian vehicles enter through a government-held checkpoint and that Ukrainian customs agents first inspect their cargo.
A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross that had been waiting to escort the aid to the separatists’ last strongholds said in a statement via Twitter that it was not accompanying the convoy because “we’ve not received sufficient security guarantees from the fighting parties.”
The Red Cross said its personnel in Luhansk had reported heavy shelling overnight.
“We deplore Russia’s decision to enter the humanitarian consignment into Ukrainian territory with ICRC’s escort or the consent of the Ukrainian authorities,” said Sebastien Brbant, deputy spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Russia’s unilateral decision “a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” and “a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin called German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the convoy moved through the border crossing at Izvaryno, a Ukrainian town near Luhansk that has been under the control of pro-Russia separatists since April.
“Putin stressed that considering Kiev’s blatant attempts to hinder the delivery of Russian humanitarian aid to Ukrainian regions caught in humanitarian crisis the Russian leadership has decided to move the truck convoy [across the border],” the Kremin press service said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a defiant statement as trucks began moving into Ukrainian territory after spending a week waiting for inspection and clearance on the Russian side of the frontier.
“All excuses to delay sending aid have been exhausted,” the statement said. “The Russian side has taken the decision to act.”
The ministry said Ukraine had stalled the delivery of the aid with “endless, artificial” obstructions that had become “intolerable.” Russia had made “unprecedented efforts” to fulfill all the necessary formalities to allow the trucks to cross the border into Ukrainian territory, the Russian statement said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed that more than 100 Russian trucks had crossed the border. Only 35 of the vehicles had been examined by Ukrainian border authorities and Red Cross escorts, he noted.
“Neither the Ukrainian side nor the International Committee of the Red Cross knows the content of the trucks. This arouses special concern,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, reflecting the government’s suspicion that Moscow might use the purported aid convoy to smuggle in weapons and supplies to the separatists, whose battle against rule from Kiev has been flagging.
“We call this a direct invasion for the first time under the cynical cover of the Red Cross,” Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, told reporters in Kiev.
He said, however, that Ukraine would refrain from attacking the Russian intruders to prevent a wider escalation of the conflict that has already taken more than 2,000 lives since April.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John F. Kirby said the U.S. government had warned Russia against provocative moves.
“We’ve made our position very, very clear that they should not be doing this under the guise of a humanitarian convoy, to use that as an excuse to cross the border in an unorganized way,” Kirby said.
Ukrainian troops have recaptured large swaths of separatist-held territory during fierce fighting in the last month. Kiev has accused Russia of providing military and logistical support to the separatists, charges Russia denies.