Crisis in Ukraine

08.14.14

Putin’s “Humanitarian” Convoy Nears Ukraine, APCs Cross in Secret

In a war full of imaginative tricks, the convoy of almost 300 trucks headed toward the Ukraine border is part of the Kremlin’s most dangerous illusion yet.

MOSCOW — On Thursday night a caravan of about 270 Russian military trucks, all freshly painted white, parked in a field outside the small town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the Ukrainian border. But long after dark, according to a report by a correspondent for The Guardian who happened on the scene, 23 Russian armored personnel carriers crossed through a gap in the barbed wire fence onto a dirt track in an area no longer guarded by Ukrainian troops.

If so, official Kiev seems to be lost. Originally, the Ukrainian presidential administration promised to organize control of Russian trucks crossing into the country. But Ukrainian civil society protested, saying it was “surreal” to allow any presence of the Russian state’s vehicles on the country’s territory. “At the time when both our president and ministry of foreign affairs call Russia the aggressor and report that fire comes from the Russian side of the border at Ukrainian towns, we receive aid for our towns from that very Russia that shoots at them,” wrote popular social leader and journalist Mustafa Nayeem on his blog. “They either lie to us or consider us to be idiots.”

The question of what might be inside this Russian “humanitarian convoy,” which seemed to be Moscow’s Trojan horse in a war full of tricks and illusions, has been the talk of the town in both the Russian and Ukrainian capitals. It now appears to have been, among other things, a decoy. In spite of Kiev’s protests, the Russian trucks accompanied by military helicopters hovering overhead and escorted by more military vehicles had moved toward those checkpoints controlled only by pro-Russian rebels before pulling to a stop.

Authorities in Kiev and the International Committee of the Red Cross demanded the Kremlin present a detailed inventory of what was inside the glistening convoy. And Aleksander Cherkasov, director of the human rights center “Memorial,” laid out several problematic questions in an interview with The Daily Beast: “We would like to know why the military trucks were loaded not by the ministry of emergency affairs but at the base of Tamanskaya Motor and Rifle Division in Moscow region,” said Cherkasov. “And also, for what reason about 30 military vehicles that accompany the convoy have no plates on them.” This is a problem, since no traffic police can identify any of the trucks if they start to disperse once they enter Ukraine.

“This time the Kremlin is openly supporting separatists in Ukraine by sending in military vehicles,” said Cherkasov. “If the trucks cross the border without official permission from Kiev, it would be considered a pure invasion.”

If so, official Kiev seems to be lost. Originally, the Ukrainian presidential administration promised to organize control of Russian trucks crossing into the country. But Ukrainian civil society protested, saying it was “surreal” to allow any presence of the Russian state’s vehicles on the country’s territory. “At the time when both our president and ministry of foreign affairs call Russia the aggressor and report that fire comes from the Russian side of the border at Ukrainian towns, we receive aid for our towns from that very Russia that shoots at them,” wrote popular social leader and journalist Mustafa Nayeem on his blog. “They either lie to us or consider us to be idiots.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of Russian parliament members gathered in recently annexed Crimea, waiting for what was billed as an important speech by President Vladimir Putin. He was nearly two hours late for the meeting and when he finally arrived, Putin’s talk was full of conciliatory patter. “We must consolidate, but not for wars or conflicts, but for hard work in the name of Russia and for Russia,” he said.

“If the trucks cross the border without official permission from Kiev, it would be considered a pure invasion.”

Ukrainians refused to believe that Russia was just being kind and generous, and found the notion incredible that trucks sent by Russian authorities out of a military base were bringing food and medicine. What if there are soldiers in the trucks? Or explosives? Or hundreds of suspiciously young and fit drivers turn out to be members of the Russian special forces?

By Thursday night it was still unclear whether Russian and Ukrainian diplomats could come to an agreement about which international organization would be controlling the white trucks crossing the border. The Russian magazine The New Times reported that the convoy could remain parked in the field until the end of the week.

Transparency was never the Kremlin’s strongest feature, Cherkasov told The Daily Beast. Even if there are sincere good intentions, everybody expects some sinister sleight of hand, some sort of corruption and deception coming from Moscow.

Earlier on Thursday, reporters chasing the white caravan across Russia’s southern regions were given a chance to inspect a few trucks. They could choose any three they liked. (Pick three cards, any three cards. …) “Looked in two trucks. One full of buckwheat, the other sleeping bags,” The Telegraph reporter Roland Oliphant wrote on Twitter. He discovered harmless tools in the third truck.

But then Oliphant and Shaun Walker of The Guardian saw something quite different. They followed a column of 23 armored personnel carriers and support vehicles as it approached the Ukraine border.

“After pausing by the side of the road until nightfall, the convoy crossed into Ukrainian territory, using a rough dirt track and clearly crossing through a gap in a barbed wire fence that demarcates the border,” writes Walker.

Once again, and typically, this is a far cry from the full-scale invasion that Kiev worries about, but it is exactly the kind of stealth interference using Russian men and materiel that the Ukrainian government and its American and European supporters have denounced many times in recent months.

One of the most egregious examples was the alleged introduction of Russian BUK anti-aircraft missiles into eastern Ukraine to neutralize the government air force. One of those missiles is believed to have shot down a Malaysian airliner last month flying six miles above the battlefield, killing almost 300 passengers and crew.

Tonight, clearly, Putin’s sleight-of-hand invasion continues.