WHAT’s in the white trucks, Russia?
A massive convoy of more than 200 trucks ostensibly carrying aid from Moscow has sparked fears of a Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.
The vehicles — ex-military trucks that have been painted white and covered with white tarpaulin — set out yesterday morning from a military depot in the southern Russian city of Voronezh where they had been parked since late Tuesday.
They arrived close to Ukraine’s border, near a crossing controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
Moscow says the convoy has 262 vehicles, including about 200 trucks carrying aid.
But others aren’t so sure, and Ukraine insists on inspecting the vehicles before letting them cross the border, believing the trucks could be carrying more sinister cargo.
Meanwhile, Ukraine suspects another convoy could be a pretext for a Russian military invasion or further support for the pro-Russian rebels it has been fighting since April.
While the disputed aid convoy stopped short of the border, The Guardian reported seeing a separate convoy of Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine late Thursday.
It said a column of 23 armoured personnel carriers with Russian military plates crossed through a gap in barbed wire fence into Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine and The West have long accused Russia of carrying out such incursions to help arm the rebels, claims that Moscow denies. It was impossible to independently verify the report.
The white-tarped trucks, some flying the red flag of Moscow and escorted by military vehicles, drove down a winding highway through sunflower fields and then turned west toward the rebel-held border crossing of Izvaryne.
But about 28 kilometres (17 miles) from the border, the trucks pulled off and parked in a large field where dozens of beige tents had been set up. Drivers in matching khaki shorts and shirts piled out and appeared to be stopping for the night.
The route suggested Russia has decided not to abide by a tentative agreement to deliver aid to a government-controlled border checkpoint in the Kharkiv region, where it could more easily be inspected by Ukraine and the Red Cross.
Such an inspection would ease concerns that Russia could use the aid shipment as cover for a military incursion in support of the separatists, who have come under growing pressure from government troops.
Moscow has insisted it coordinated the dispatch of the goods — which it says range from baby food and canned meat to portable generators and sleeping bags — with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Tanks spotted in convoy
Ukrainian security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters if the Russians refused to let the Red Cross inspect its cargo “the movement of the convoy will be blocked with all the forces available.”
The convoy is the most recent move from Russia to have sparked fears from Ukraine and the West, who are becoming increasingly dubious of Russia’s agenda in recent weeks.
The United States has warned Russia that it needs to secure Ukraine’s permission for the convoy to enter.
“We’ve made that very clear to the Russians that they should not move these trucks in, without taking all of the steps the Ukrainian government has outlined,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.
Ukraine suspects the convoy could be a pretext for a Russian military invasion or further support for the pro-Russian rebels it has been fighting since April.
As the circle around the separatists tightens, two of their top figures have resigned in the past week. On Thursday, the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic said its defence minister Igor Girkin had resigned.
Both Girkin and former rebel prime minister Alexander Borodai, who was replaced last week, are Russians and both were replaced by Ukrainians. Those moves could indicate an attempt by the separatists to distance themselves from allegations by Kiev and the West that Russia supports or directs the insurgency, charges that Russia denies.
In a relatively subdued address overnight at the Black Sea resort of Yalta in Crimea, Vladimir Putin said Russia’s goal was “to stop bloodshed in Ukraine as soon as possible.”
Moscow should improve life in Ukraine “without building a wall from the West,” he said, but asserted that Russia would “not allow anyone to treat us with arrogance.”
Ukrainian forces have stepped up efforts to dislodge the separatists from their last strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk and there was more heavy shelling overnight.
The sounds of artillery fire and blasts could be heard all over Donetsk on Thursday. Shells hit two shopping complexes, city authorities said, warning citizens to stay off the streets.
Valentina Smirnova, a resident of Donetsk, cleaned up broken glass and rubble Thursday in her damaged kitchen.
“My son left and now I am staying with my daughter. I don’t know what to do afterwards. Where should I run to after that? Please tell me!” she said, tears welling up.
The U.N.’s human rights office in Geneva says the death toll in eastern Ukraine has nearly doubled in the last two weeks — rising to at least 2,086 as of Aug. 10, up from 1,129 on July 26.