COLUMN

The Chaos Convoy

The Chaos Convoy

A convoy of 280 Russian Kamaz military vehicles — all painted a nice, soothing white, absent any license plates, and brandishing flags of the Red Cross — are en route from the Moscow suburbs to a relatively peaceful border crossing just north of Kharkiv, Ukraine. If the Russian state-controlled media is to be believed, they are collectively transporting around 2,000 tons of baby food, grain, bottled water, sleeping bags, sugar, and medicine to a war-ravaged nation next door.

Of course, if you believe the Russian media, eastern Ukraine’s desperate state of affairs has nothing to do with the fact that for the last several months Moscow has underwritten, encouraged, and armed disparate factions of pro-Russian separatists — many of them Russian nationals, intelligence agents, and even soldiers posting to Instagram photos of themselves driving Russian anti-aircraft missile systems.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organization tasked with coordinating all aid shipments into Lugansk and Donetsk, claims that it has no idea what the hell is in those Kamaz trucks, nor has it licensed them to go anywhere near Ukraine. And yet the vehicles are nevertheless driving toward Ukraine flying the Red Cross’s recognizable pendant.

Laurent Corbaz, the head of ICRC’s operations for Europe and Central Asia, issued a press statement today claiming that his organization is in the dark about what Russia is really up to. "We of course have heard of this Russian initiative," he said, "and we have realized that this was in agreement with the Russian authorities and the Ukrainian authorities that such a convoy should be a possibility, provided that ICRC could be on board. We said that we could be onboard but we needed to have some clarification first regarding the modalities, practical steps that have to be implemented prior to launch such an operation." 

In other words, Putin’s cooked up another game of guess-the-strategy, which has met every expectation in befuddling and distracting an international news cycle.

Clearly, the ICRC is not thrilled about being enlisted in a highly controversial and obfuscatory relief scheme fewer than 48 hours after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen publicly stated there was a "high probability" that Russia would invade Ukraine under "the guise of a humanitarian operation." Russia still has some 20,000 troops at the Ukraine border — 45,000 if you count the garrisons it has in illegally annexed Crimea, which Kiev certainly does. Troops, armored personnel carriers, and transport trucks are also on the move in the Belarusian city of Vitebsk, and as my colleague Pierre Vaux wrote in the Daily Beast, Ukraine recently withdrew its forces from some 60 miles of borderland, leaving it wide open to Russian incursion from multiple directions.

It also bears noting that on the night of Aug. 8, Moscow tried and failed to have another one of its "humanitarian convoys," this one accompanied by Russian military, penetrate Ukraine’s frontier, stopping just short of it in what one high-ranking Ukrainian official dubbed "nearly a real disaster, nearly an invasion." It was only Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s swift "diplomatic work," in the words of his deputy chief of staff, Valeriy Chaly, that turned the Russians around. A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the story as one of Kiev’s "fairy tales." It seemed nonfictional enough to Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, however, who tweeted: "Why would Russia try to deliver ‘humanitarian assistance’ to UA in the dead of night? If it’s legitimate, shouldn’t she proudly display it?"

Russian propaganda can often be a Talmudic exercise, but sometimes the Kremlin makes exegesis fairly straightforward. Its agitprop in the last week shows that its seeming metamorphosis from the Clausewitz of proxy warfare into the Florence Nightingale of unsolicited relief is indeed a ruse hinting at something wicked on the way. Many anti-Kremlin Russian bloggers think so, which is why this photograph of the Kamaz trucks topped with Trojan horses is now being circulated on Twitter.

As I reported for Foreign Policy last week, on Aug. 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a joint press conference with his Kazakh counterpart that the ICRC had "supported" the idea of a Russian-led humanitarian mission to the blighted regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, and that the organization would "develop … the practical aspects of the implementation of this initiative."*

Then on Aug. 11, an entire diplomatic fandango ensued, following by much contradictory reporting, about the nature of some agreed-upon plan to deliver aid to Ukraine — with Washington, Kiev, and Brussels all more or less saying the same thing, and Russia saying something entirely different. "The president noted that Russia, working together with International Red Cross officials, is sending a humanitarian convoy to Ukraine," ran the Russian Presidential Office’s read-out of Vladimir Putin’s phone call with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Except that Barroso made no mention of any convoy, and the European Commission’s own read-out of this conversation reiterated the European Union’s firm stance "against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian."

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, weighed in, acknowledging that there was to be a multilateral aid effort that would "include an international component and, in particular, humanitarian assistance provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States, the EU, and Russia." A senior official in Ukraine’s presidential administration elaborated to the Kyiv Post‘s Christopher Miller: "Russia will have a formal part in the convoy, but there will be no Russian [military] forces, no soldiers." This appeared to indicate that Poroshenko and Putin had in fact struck a deal, albeit one that each interpreted in his own way.

The ICRC acknowledged receipt of the Lavrov initiative on Aug. 8, but it did not mention any organizational support for the initiative, as the Russian foreign minister stated on Aug. 6.* When the ICRC on Aug. 11 commented on the Russian "initiative," it was only to insist upon its own leadership as aid coordinator and to emphasize that nothing concrete or definitive had yet to be decided: "[T]he ICRC should receive without undue delay from the authorities of the Russian Federation all necessary details concerning the aid, including the volume and type of items, and requirements for transport and storage," an organizational statement read. "All parties must also guarantee the security of ICRC staff and vehicles, for the entire duration of the operation, in view of the fact that the organization does not accept armed escorts."

Which raises a number of interesting questions, chief among them being: Who’s driving those Kamaz trucks, if not Russian soldiers?

A clue may have been furnished by a post on Russia’s popular VKontakte social media platform by Semyon Borisov, who described himself as a serviceman in Russia’s 1117th Air Defense Regiment of the 2nd Guards of the Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, whose regiment is located in the Moscow suburb of Kalininets. In 1991, this division took part in the abortive military coup to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev; one of its tanks, from a unit that defected to the other side, was famously stood upon by Boris Yeltsin to deliver his barnstorming speech in front of the White House. So it didn’t go unnoticed when Borisov posted, as my team at the Interpreter translated: "Today we loaded humanitarian aid into Kamazes for Ukraine. Water, medicines, canned food, baby food, sleeping bags, electrical generators, and various equipment (field kitchens and so on). There were about 300 trucks, all military Kamazes; they were painted white in a few days." (Borisov’s post was subsequently removed from VKontakte, without explanation, but a screen capture of the original is still available here.)

Indeed, this video, which was uploaded to YouTube on Aug. 10 — a day before the Putin-Barroso phone call — shows lines of white Kamaz trucks bearing the slogan "medical service," arrayed on a military base. (Smaller, ambulance-looking vehicles were also displayed with the Red Cross symbol.) Curiously, the license plates have yet to be removed. Some of the trucks are parked next to a mobile radar tower for the S-300 missile system, one of Russia’s most sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft weapons, which it once threatened to sell to Iran and has just announced it won’t be delivering to Syria. In front of the trucks stand Russian troops wearing uniforms which read "Military Auto Inspection." A rail yard is also visible just beyond the base, along with white apartment buildings that would seem to track with Google Street View pictures of present-day Kalininets. Later, Russia’s state-owned TV 1 news channel carried a report showing the Kamaz convoy traveling through the Tula region and reaching Voronezh, where they were stopping to spend the night. This broadcast also clearly showed more Red Cross flags, this time atop the Kamazes, and the flags are even referred to as those of the ICRC by the news anchor.

Southern Russia, too, has seen a fair share of activity in the last two days. Russian journalist Savik Shuster noticed that another sophisticated anti-aircraft system, the 9K33 Osa (aka SA-8 Gecko), is being transported to Taganrog in the Rostov region. According to the independent Russian media outlet RosBiznesKonsalting (RBC.ru), another 15 Kamaz trucks arrived in Rostov, near the Ukrainian border, where they were apparently being readied for dispatch to the Donbass region of Ukraine. "[T]he Russian Interior Ministry and Emercom will be responsible for the delivery of the convoy," RBC.ru reported. Emercom stands for Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry, which is responsible for responding to natural disasters such as forest fires. But it’s curious that the ministry’s office for the South Region in Rostov denied to RBC.ru that it was doing anything with respect to humanitarian aid. The regional government, it said, was in charge of all prospective supply runs to Ukraine.

As we can see from the photos filed by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti, the trucks in the convoy have no identifying marks or registration numbers on the vehicles. Russian media has also been confusing about the provenance of the convoy, even as it reports the trucks leaving from areas that have military garrisons. The Defense Ministry’s TV Zvezda, for instance, reported the convoy as being under the command of Emercom, although all the ministry’s vehicles have license plates and a distinctive paint job — and they don’t turn their vehicles white for humanitarian missions. The site Vesti 24 also cited Emercom and even shows scenes of the loading of trucks. Yet on Emercom’s website, there is no press release about this highly publicized convoy covered by all the major networks supposedly involving them.

Despite the confusion and apparent subterfuge, the Ukrainian government appeared to be amenable to receiving what’s in those 280 Kamazes, provided, however, that not a single tire hits Ukrainian soil. "This cargo will be reloaded onto other transport vehicles (at the border) by the Red Cross," Poroshenko’s aide Chaly told journalists today in Kiev. "We will not allow any escort by the emergencies ministry of Russia or by the military (onto Ukrainian territory). Everything will be under the control of the Ukrainian side."

Maybe. But once again, the Russian Foreign Ministry has its own spin on what was agreed. Lavrov told ITAR-TASS that the reloading condition had now been dropped by Kiev, owing to the inconvenience and cost of taking 2,000 tons of materials off one set of trucks only to put them onto another. Ukraine has yet to confirm if that’s true, but it seems clear that Russian trucks are planning to drive through into Ukraine with a cargo that only Moscow can identify.

So is a Putinist provocation in the offing? Both BuzzFeed‘s Max Seddon and radio station Ekho Moskvy’s editor-in-chief, Alexey Venediktov, suggested that Russia might be planning a Gaza flotilla-style fiasco — whereby Ukraine violently blocks or interdicts the convoy it doesn’t want penetrating its border, presumably to furnish a pretext for Moscow to launch all-out war. Or perhaps Putin has instructed one of his favored separatist militias to fire on the convoy and blame Kiev, a false-flag incident which would surely draw the same prefabricated response from the Kremlin. In any case, the Kamazes don’t have to be carrying weapons or military equipment to cause a fuss: Just reaching their destination tomorrow may do that in itself.

*Update, Aug. 13, 2014: The ICRC wrote in an Aug. 13 email to Foreign Policy that the three ICRC personnel detained by separatists were released after several hours on July 31. An earlier version of this article said that the personnel’s whereabouts were unknown. The reference to the detained personnel has been deleted in light of this new information. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, Aug. 13, 2014: The ICRC acknowledged receipt of the Russian initiative on Aug. 8. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ICRC acknowledged receipt on Aug. 11. (Return to reading.)