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MOSCOW — A convoy of more than 260 Russian trucks reportedly packed with aid rumbled toward the border with Ukraine today, but Kiev said the goods would only be allowed in if they were inspected by the international Red Cross.
The tug-of-war over humanitarian aid to Ukraine’s rebel-held eastern regions reflected deeper issues than just the need for food, water and shelter in a war-wracked zone where apartment buildings are being hit daily by rockets.
Although all sides agree that the aid is sorely needed, Ukraine and the West fear that Russia could use the move as a cover for sending troops into the separatist-held territory. NATO has warned about the risk of intervention, citing thousands of combat-ready Russian troops along the Ukrainian border.
In any case, tons of Russian aid moving toward Ukraine was surely a visual public relations coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has so far resisted calls from both Ukrainian separatists and nationalists at home to send Russian troops to eastern Ukraine.
The pro-Kremlin Russian television channel NTV showed hundreds of white trucks at a depot outside Moscow and said they were carrying everything from baby food to sleeping bags. In the report, a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross, before they departed.
A Ukrainian security spokesman said the convoy of white-tarped vehicles was being managed by the Russian army and could not as a result be allowed into the country. Officials with both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Ukraine’s government said today they had no information on what the trucks were carrying or specifically where they were headed.
“This convoy is not a certified convoy. It is not certified by the International Committee of the Red Cross,” said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. “No military structures have the right to escort humanitarian aid convoys, especially into another state.”
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.
The Ukrainian government has insisted that aid must cross at a government-held border crossing. At least 60 miles of the long border between the two neighbors is currently in rebel hands.
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Valeriy Chaly, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said a suitable transfer point could be between Russia’s Belgorod region and Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which has been spared the major unrest seen farther south. Chaly said that any attempt to take humanitarian goods into Ukraine without proper authorization would be viewed as an attack
The Russian Foreign Ministry later said the trucks were headed to a location between Belgorod and Kharkiv, as approved by the Kiev government. It cast the blame for confusion over the trucks’ destination on Kiev, saying that it had agreed on all the conditions for the convoy’s movement in advance.
Earlier, a spokesman for Russia’s emergencies ministry, which is handling the convoy, said he “had not yet defined” where the trucks would cross the border. The spokesman, Alexander Drobyshevsky, said the trucks could be on the road for several days.
Ukraine has stressed that the effort to alleviate hardship in the conflict-wracked Luhansk region should be an international undertaking. Officials in Kiev have said Russia’s involvement in the humanitarian mission is required to ensure cooperation from separatist rebel forces, who have consistently expressed their allegiance to Moscow.
Russian television and news agencies reported today that 2,000 tons of aid was en route to Ukraine.
But Lysenko said suspicions were raised by the military provenance of the trucks in the convoy. At a briefing, he showed a covertly filmed video appearing to show similar trucks parked at a military base in Russia. One frame in the video showed uniformed troops lined up in front of one truck.
French President Francois Hollande discussed the aid delivery today with Putin, saying “he emphasized the strong fears evoked by a unilateral Russian mission in Ukrainian territory.” Hollande told Putin that any mission must be multilateral and have the agreement of the ICRC and Ukraine, according to a statement in Paris.
NATO was following the situation closely, spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
“Without the formal, express consent and authorization of the Ukrainian government, any humanitarian intervention would be unacceptable and illegal,” she said.
The Western alliance also expressed concern about the possibility of a Russian military operation.
“What we see is thousands of combat-ready troops from Russia being close to the Ukrainian border,” NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. “There could be a risk of further intervention.”
The fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government has scarred Luhansk, the region’s rebel-held capital, which had a pre-war population of 420,000. Today, authorities said the city’s 250,000 remaining residents have had no electricity or water supplies for 10 days.
“Luhansk is under a de facto blockade: The city continues to be destroyed, and the delivery of foodstuffs, medicine and fuel has been interrupted,” the city council said.
Throughout the conflict, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of aiding the rebels with arms and expertise, a charge that the Kremlin has denied.