With a theatrical flourish, Russia on Tuesday dispatched hundreds of trucks covered in white tarps and sprinkled with holy water on a mission to deliver aid to a desperate rebel-held zone in eastern Ukraine.
The televised sight of the miles-long convoy sparked a show of indignation from the government in Kiev, which insisted any aid must be delivered by the international Red Cross.
Ukraine and the West have openly expressed its concern that Moscow intends to use the cover of a humanitarian operation to embark on a military incursion in support of pro-Russian separatists.
Amid those anxieties, Russian President Vladimir Putin today was scheduled to travel to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed in March, where he was to preside over a meeting involving the Russian Cabinet and most members of the lower house of parliament.
Putin so far has resisted calls from both pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and nationalists at home to send Russian troops to back the mutiny, a move that would be certain to trigger devastating Western sanctions.
But dispatching the convoy sent a powerful visual symbol, helping the Kremlin counter criticism from the nationalists who accuse Putin of betrayal.
The convoy provoked controversy as soon as it started moving early Tuesday from the outskirts of Moscow on its long voyage toward the Ukrainian border.
Officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Ukraine’s government said they had no information about what the trucks were carrying or where they were headed.
A Ukrainian security spokesman said the convoy of vehicles was being managed by the Russian army and could not as a result be allowed into the country. Moscow has rejected the claim, saying that the convoy is organized by the Emergencies Ministry, a non-military agency dealing with humanitarian relief tasks.
The government in Kiev said the Russian trucks could unload their contents at the border and transfer the aid to vehicles leased by the ICRC.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said talks are under way for Russia to deliver the aid to the Ukrainian border where it would be transferred to the custody of the ICRC.
She said the U.S. has received confirmation from Ukraine that it is ready to arrange for delivery of the aid to Luhansk as long as certain conditions were met.
Such conditions include that the aid passes appropriate customs clearances, that the ICRC takes custody and responsibility for the delivery in Ukraine, that the Russian-backed separatists allow safe access for the delivery and that the shipments are received at a border crossing point controlled by the Ukrainian government in the Kharkiv region.
Russian authorities said the trucks were loaded with nearly 2,000 metric tons of cargo, from baby food to portable generators. Television images showed a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkling holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross, before they departed.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia has bowed to Ukrainian demands that the convoy should enter its territory through a checkpoint designated by Kiev, that Ukrainian license plates are put on trucks there and that Ukrainian representatives are put on board the trucks alongside Red Cross staff.
However, he said the idea to unload the trucks on the border and put the cargo on chartered vehicles had come under discussion, but had been rejected for cost reasons.
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