MOSCOW — A Russian aid convoy struck a new course toward rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, apparently flouting Ukrainian demands that all humanitarian shipments be subject to government inspections and prompting Kiev to threaten a direct confrontation if the convoy tries to pass through.
“Any attempt to introduce any convoy without the agreement of Ukraine will be considered an open aggression,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev. “The entire world will consider them direct aggressors.”
It is the second time in less than a week that tensions between Ukraine and Russia have flared over the convoy, which Ukrainian authorities refused to allow through a government-controlled border crossing in the Kharkiv region earlier this week.
Early Thursday, the vehicles set off on their journey south through Russian territory along a highway leading from Moscow through areas abutting Ukraine’s eastern regions. By afternoon, the convoy had taken a sharp turn westward and was headed directly for the Izvarino border crossing in the Luhansk region, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Russian officials have maintained that the convoy of more than 250 trucks is a humanitarian mission to provide civilians of war-torn Luhansk with food, blankets and other emergency supplies. But Ukrainian officials fear that Russia might use the mission as a Trojan Horse to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to let Russian and European aid be sent to Luhansk under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Russia dispatched the convoy hours later, saying it was cooperating with the ICRC and complying with the agreement. But Ukrainian and ICRC authorities said they had never certified the shipment.
Journalists following the convoy were allowed to inspect the vehicles Thursday and saw large amounts of food supplies. But a reporter for the Financial Times also noted the presence of two heavy military vehicles on flatbed trucks bringing up the rear of the convoy.
The prospect of direct confrontation between the Russian convoy and the Ukrainian military appeared to grow Thursday, as Kiev announced that troops had seized the town of Novosvitlivka, between Luhansk and the rebel-held checkpoint closest to the location of the convoy. The Washington Post could not independently verify the government’s account.
But should the convoy pass the Ukrainian military without having been checked by border guards, Kiev will have to decide whether to fire on the trucks, risking a Russian invasion, or acquiesce to what would amount to a major violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Ukraine’s government on Thursday started sending its own aid shipments to the east, dispatching 75 trucks loaded with supplies. The aid was sent even as Kiev significantly escalated the bombardment of the rebel stronghold Donetsk, where city officials said two civilians were killed after a central boulevard was shelled.
Although no white flags are waving in those regions, leading rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk stepped down Thursday. Valery Bolotov cited injuries as his reason for passing the leadership of the Luhansk rebels to their “defense minister,” Igor Plotnitskiy. In Donetsk, chief defense leader and Russian citizen Igor Girkin also stepped down, according to the Russian news service Interfax. A Donetsk rebel spokesman quoted in the report dismissed rumors that Mr. Girkin had recently been injured as “a hoax.”Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Ukraine - Moscow - Kiev - Donetsk - Petro Poroshenko