Russian Trucks Cross Border Without Assent of Ukraine

Andrew Roth and David M. HerszenshornNew York Times

IZVARYNE, Ukraine -- The first trucks from a long-stalled Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on Friday, apparently without the consent of the Ukrainian government and unaccompanied by Red Cross escorts, as had been earlier agreed upon.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement in Moscow saying, in essence, that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev.

Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin of Russia as saying that Putin had been informed of the convoy’s movements.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was not traveling with the trucks because of the “volatile security situation” in rebel-held regions of Ukraine. The Red Cross had earlier agreed to oversee delivery of the aid and had been part of the protracted negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. There were no signs of Russian military vehicles or any other indications of an armed escort by Russian forces.

Several dozen trucks, from a convoy of about 270, crossed the border at Izvaryne, in the conflict-torn region of Luhansk, around noon. Soldiers carrying automatic rifles and wearing camouflage, some bearing the markings of the rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine, cleared the road of cars and people to let the convoy pass.

The trucks traveled about 10 miles to the city of Krasnodon, where they appeared to change course to take smaller roads, presumably to avoid areas of continuing fighting or narrow highway checkpoints.

Russian and Ukrainian border and customs officials had checked 34 of the Russian trucks Thursday in the presence of Red Cross observers, Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in Geneva.

Under the arrangements agreed to by Russia and Ukraine, Red Cross officials were to escort the trucks to Luhansk but decided not to proceed after heavy shelling around that city during the night, Watson said.

“This morning we decided we didn’t have the security guarantees in place to move with this convoy,” he said. “The convoy subsequently left without us.”

The Red Cross remains ready to facilitate aid deliveries when conditions permit, but the remaining trucks in the Russian convoy have yet to be inspected by customs officials. “We don’t know if that will go ahead,” Watson said.

The United States and its European allies have warned that any crossing of the border by Russian military vehicles, even under the pretext of protecting the aid convoy, will be regarded as an invasion.

In its statement, the Russian foreign ministry made it clear that the Kremlin had decided on its own to send the convoy forward.

“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”

While Russia accused the Ukrainian government of stalling the convoy while the Ukrainian government in Kiev, the capital, tries to achieve its military aims, the Kremlin’s decision to begin moving the convoy to Luhansk without the participation of the Red Cross may have been a ploy to spare rebels in the city from imminent defeat by the Ukrainian military.

Spreading the conspicuously large white aid trucks through the embattled city could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide humanitarian assistance. Any respite in Ukraine’s military offensive could allow rebels still fighting for control of Luhansk to dig in further, and indefinitely postpone any attempt to oust them.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement accusing the Russians of “ignoring the established international rules, procedures and agreements reached with the consent and support of the International Committee of the Red Cross” and said Russia was “smuggling humanitarian aid to Ukraine.”

The ministry’s statement said Russia was now responsible for the safety of the convoy. “We consider this act another flagrant violation by the Russian Federation of the key principles of international law, including inviolability of borders, noninterference in the internal affairs of another state and conscientious fulfillment of international obligations,” the ministry said.

The State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said in a statement Friday that it had cleared 34 trucks: 32 containing food including buckwheat, rice, sugar and water and two containing medical supplies.

The border service said that as the trucks began moving, the Ukrainian team of inspectors was blocked at a checkpoint that leads into a part of Ukraine still controlled by rebels.

The trucks rumbled along the one-lane highway toward the regional capital of Luhansk, which has been the site of heavy fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian military The trucks passed a sign indicating 55 kilometers (about 34 miles) to Luhansk; 143 miles to the bigger rebel stronghold of Donetsk; and 267 miles to Kharkiv, a city in a region that is now under government control.

The trucks also rolled past an orange-and-black flag, the colors of St. George, a symbol of Russian solidarity. The trucks were driven by men wearing plain beige T-shirts and shorts who had been shown repeatedly on television in recent days waiting with their parked vehicles on the Russian side of the border for clearance to cross into Ukraine.

The move comes before what is expected to be several days of high-level diplomatic maneuvering to try to find a political resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. The government in Kiev is pushing to crush the rebels with military force, perhaps confining them to one last stronghold in the city of Donetsk and then offering an escape corridor toward Russia.

On Saturday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to visit Kiev and meet with leaders there including President Petro Poroshenko. On Tuesday, Poroshenko and other leaders of former Soviet republics, including Putin, are due to meet in Minsk, Belarus.

The Russian foreign ministry accused the Ukrainian government of stalling the convoy to avoid halting its military offensive and as part of a push to seize the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk before Sunday, which is Ukraine’s Independence Day. It accused the Ukrainian government of trying to kill or expel people in need of assistance.

“There is a hardening feeling that the current leadership of Ukraine is deliberately delaying the humanitarian aid in order to get to the moment when no one needs this aid anymore,” the statement said. “Probably their calculation is to achieve this result ahead of the meeting scheduled in Minsk for Aug. 26.”

Andrew Roth reported from Izvaryne, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Donetsk, Ukraine; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; and Alexandra Odynova from Moscow.