MOSCOW — On Tuesday morning a convoy of about 300 trucks left the town of Naro-Fominsk in the region of Moscow and headed toward Ukraine. The caravan was carrying humanitarian aid, Russian authorities said. But Ukraine firmly decided that no Russian vehicles should be allowed on its soil and that any illegal crossing of the border would be interpreted as an act of aggression. In Moscow there was even a nickname given to the convoy: Trojan Horse, according to the radio station Echo of Moscow. Callers agreed there must be some trick hidden in it.
Experts in Moscow debated why President Vladimir Putin decided to send humanitarian medicine or hygiene items to the Donbass region of eastern Urkaine when the rebels there—who have been losing town after town to advancing Ukrainian military forces—expected him to help them with weapons and soldiers.
The director of the Moscow-based Center of Political Technologies, Igor Bunin, told The Daily Beast that two types of advisers influence Putin’s decisions these days: “Some suggest that through humanitarian aid the Kremlin could start peace talks with Kiev, others insist that the victory of Novorossia is very close and that he should push for a chance to bring in a real military convoy.”
When Putin talked on the phone with world leaders he heard that both Ukrainian officials and the West would view a real military convoy as a real Russian invasion, triggering at a minimum more severe sanctions. But, still, he seemed to be keeping that option open, and the world on edge.
Videos of Russian forces building up on the border with Ukraine featured endless rows of military armored vehicles; some had loudspeakers installed on them. “They must prepare the loudspeakers for addressing us people in Donbass with pro-Russian speeches; the drill would be predictable: They are good and Kiev is bad,” said Vasilisa Uspenskaya, a Kiev schoolteacher.
In cities like Kiev, Nikolayev, and Odessa people have been preparing for the worst, for the beginning of a bigger war and endless fighting against the Russian army during the cold winter. “Those in Putin’s tanks coming to invade Kiev and put a Russian flag here should remember that we are going to meet them, please,” said pensioner Andrei Vasilyevich holding up an ax in his hand. “Bud’ laska!”
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that it would be “absurd” to suspect that Russian convoy driving to eastern Ukraine had anything else but a pure humanitarian mission. But not everybody was convinced: 76.2 per cent of Echo of Moscow radio listeners said they believed that Russian trucks were “a masked military operation.” Along with Ukrainian authorities, Russian radio listeners also expressed concerns about escalation of the conflict.
This time, it seems, Kiev and Moscow managed to reach a friendly agreement: By Tuesday afternoon the Ukrainian presidential administration had confirmed that the cargo brought by Russian trucks would be reloaded onto vehicles rented by the Red Cross in the transit zone on the Ukrainian border and that the procedure would take place under the control of Ukrainian officials.
But the whole process is full of potential dangers. Any interference with the convoys could be a pretext for much more aggressive Russian intervention, and that seems to be what some of Putin’s supporters expect.
A pro-Kremlin analyst, Sergei Markov, doubts that Russian humanitarian aid will be delivered to the destination if Ukrainian officials control its transport. Markov still calls Ukrainian officials “the junta,” enemies. “The only way Kiev can win in Donetsk and Luhansk is by pushing the two regions into a complete humanitarian catastrophe; they would either steal the aid we send to civilians or shoot at the Red Cross trucks but not to allow Russia to look good and to help people of eastern Ukraine,” Markov told The Daily Beast.