Putin's 'humanitarian' convoy is simply a pretext for the war the Kremlin's been planning for months.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
Leave it to Vladimir Putin to make relief sound menacing. "All excuses for dragging out the delivery … are exhausted," the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Aug. 22, as more than 200 white-painted Russian Kamaz "aid" trucks entered Ukrainian territory without the permission of Kiev. "The Russian side has taken the decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo is starting to move in the direction of Luhansk."
"The Russian side has taken the decision to act" ranks right up there in minatory sentences with "We need to talk" — except, of course, the time for talking here is long since past. Also noteworthy is the suddenness with which this fuck-‘em-drive-on pronouncement was delivered, just a day after the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an almost kittenish statement about how everyone was finally getting along: "We welcome the final agreement concerning all variables involved in the urgent delivery of Russian humanitarian relief aid to southeastern Ukraine using the Izvarino-Luhansk route," it read.
What a coincidence that there’s been a total breakdown in communications and comity in just 24 hours.
As for the convoy, it bears emphasizing that only 34 trucks have been inspected by Ukrainian customs, and all were found to be much lighter in load than they needed to be. According the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, "The total weight [of the 34 inspected trucks] was 268,020 kg. Vehicles were loaded to two-thirds of their capacity."
There’s also the niggling question of what’s in the majority of the Kamazes, which no one, apart from the Russians themselves, has ever set foot in. The entire convoy had sat at the Izvarino border crossing for the better part of a week, ostensibly waiting for all sides to agree to the terms of its entry into eastern Ukraine — but more than enough time to allow reporters to witness that the only additional materials delivered to the area were military in nature. Last week, the Guardian‘s Shaun Walker and the Telegraph‘s Roland Oliphant spotted a column of Russian armored personnel carriers drive right through the border overnight but without making much of a pretense of trying to hide themselves. (Here’s a photograph, courtesy of Polish news station TVN24’s Wojciech Bojanowski, of the punctured border fence through which these vehicles drove.)
Perhaps because it now realizes that lending its imprimatur in any way to a Russian convoy is a public-relations land mine, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent out a series of urgent tweets today distancing itself entirely from this fiasco. "We are not accompanying the convoy due to the instability of the situation with security," ran one, in Russian. However, Raisa Lukutsova, the head of Russia’s national Red Cross Society, was quoted by Interfax saying that she fully supported Moscow’s decision to dispatch the convoy. New photographs published by RT Ruptly, one of the Kremlin’s friendly propaganda news agencies, show at least one white minivan trailing a Kamaz and flying the recognizable emblem of the Red Cross, which can be purposed by nonaffiliated entities for "protective" rather than "indicative" use. However, Russia is clearly exploiting the fact that the ICRC was originally party to the convoy negotiations, and making ambiguous use of a popular symbol.
(Foreign Policy attempted unsuccessfully to contact Anna K. Nelson, the Washington spokesperson for the ICRC, to clarify how Lukutsova could be at odds with the international wing of her own society. The Geneva headquarters of the ICRC also informed FP that the organization was now closed for the weekend and no media representatives were available for comment.)
NATO, ever wary of using the dreaded "I-word" to describe Moscow’s shenanigans at, around, and across the Ukrainian border, instead called the convoy dispatch a "blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments." NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu also confirmed today that "Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces." Additionally, she said, "Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces" have been active in Donbass. Russian Airborne forces played an outsize role in the near bloodless seizure of Crimea last March, and some members have allegedly been captured by the Ukrainians this week.
Nastya Stanko, a journalist for Ukraine’s Hromadske TV, tweeted today in Ukrainian that eight paratroopers from Russia’s 76th Pskov Airborne Division "are in a critical condition in the Luhansk regional hospital, they’re not movable. Thirty have been sent off to a hospital in Rostov. It’s not known what they were doing here." Earlier in the week, a BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicle, reportedly belonging to the Pskov Airborne Division, was captured by the 24th Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Storm Special Forces unit in the Lugutino district, just south of Luhansk. Ukrainian journalist Roman Bochkala posted an image of the vehicle on his Facebook page, as well as that of an apparent roll call journal for the Pskov Airborne. (Russia countered, saying that this particular journal’s format is five years old and no longer in use.) But this fresh evidence tracks with other BMD-2s spotted in mid-August on the Russian side of the border, about 10 kilometers from Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, a Russian town near the Izvarino crossing.
It therefore may not surprise you to learn that on Aug. 16, a presidential decree by Putin, published on the Kremlin’s website, stated that "the 76th Guards Air Assault Chernigov Red Banner Division of Russian Airborne Troops have been awarded the Suvorov Award for successful fulfillment of combat assignments of the command and display of the personal staff of courage and heroism." Odd, then, that Russia has not formally acknowledged for which "combat assignments" these brave soldiers are being honored. Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry denied that any of its paratroopers’ BMD-2s had been seized in Ukraine, and cast such reports as still further conspiracy theories emanating from Kiev about Russian military involvement in the separatists’ war.
If one wanted to be really cynical, one could argue that the U.N. Security Council resolution, unanimously passed in July, authorizing emergency aid convoys to cross into rebel-held areas of Syria without the express permission of the Assad regime will be used as legal justification for Russia’s "blatant breach" today. Hailed at the time as a much-needed act of diplomatic consensus on Syria, this resolution always seemed a little too magnanimous for Putin to sign on to. Perhaps we now know why. It’s given him cover to turn around and blame the United States for abiding by "double standards" with respect to humanitarianism and state sovereignty. This would certainly chime with Moscow’s accusation that, even as it pours troops, anti-aircraft systems, and armored personnel carriers into eastern Ukraine, and even as it has amassed 30,000 troops at the border, it is actually Washington and Kiev plumping for war.
Russia’s drip-drip invasion was never going to be heralded with a formal declaration of war. That’s not how the Russian president plays the game. In fact, the best barometer that conditions in eastern Ukraine were about to get worse — not better — came in the seeming willingness of Putin to parlay with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk on Aug. 26. Surely that meant Russia wanted a settlement? No, it meant that Russia wanted relaxed international headlines so that it could proceed with its war policy unhindered.