A Convoy of Trucks: Is Russia Invading?

Ukraine convoy

Photo courtesy of AP/Pavel Golovkin

A Convoy of Trucks: Is Russia Invading?
| published August 22, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

We’ve seen them for ten days now—cruising in long, lumbering lines; parked in orderly rows; arranged in queues. The 260 trucks are Russian-made, with cabs and storage areas of all white. Only a handful of the trucks have been inspected by international authorities.

Moscow has said that the vehicles are on standby to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians under siege because of fighting between the Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev, and the heavily-armed pro-Russian militants who seem to take their marching orders from the East.

Now, the government in Kiev says that those convoys of trucks, 70 total, have illegally entered Ukrainian territory in what is tantamount to an actual invasion by Russian troops. The “humanitarian” side of this quiet foray into eastern Ukraine by those Russian trucks, driven by Russian-speaking drivers, is a ruse—so say the Ukrainians—and the operation is little more than a classic Trojan Horse. The Ukraine’s chief of security, Valentyn Nalivaychenko, says that the trucks may be the start of military engagement by Russian forces in the seven-month old civil war.

“We consider this a direct invasion by Russia of Ukraine,” Nalivaychenko told reporters on Friday.

Kiev has complained that the “aid” trucks are operating with no clearance or cooperation with the Red Cross, the United Nations, or any other independent humanitarian entity, and government officials in Kiev say that the contents of the vehicles have not been identified or verified. In a statement, Russian officials warned Ukrainians and others not to interfere with the movement of the trucks.

All told, reporters and other on-the-ground witnesses have said that there are at least 250 trucks massed at various entry points along the Russian-Ukrainian border. The 70 trucks which crossed the border today entered the country near Luhansk, and were seen using roads which would lead them directly into central Luhansk. Luhansk is stronghold for the pro-Russian rebels, and fighting near Luhansk has been intense in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces continue their aggressive campaign to take back areas which fell under militant control in May and June.

Intelligence analysts and Ukrainian officials have worried openly that Russia’s humanitarian effort was in fact little more than a way to give license to Russian army regulars to come to the aid of the rebels. Worse, some fear that the trucks may be carrying weapons and ammunition, if not additional personnel, into militant strongholds.

The pro-Russian militants have lost ground in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces have taken the offensive. At one time, as many as 25 cities and towns had fallen into militant hands, and many feared that the Ukraine would become a divided nation—with Ukrainian speaking people west of the Dnieper River leaning toward Europe and the European Union, if not NATO, and the mostly Russian-speaking people east of the Dnieper inclined toward Moscow, the Warsaw Pact, and their former patrons in Russia.

Peaceful protests for a more European Ukraine in November and December turned more volatile in January as thousands filled the city center of Kiev. The mass protests reached the boiling point and became violent at the same time that the Olympic Games were being held in Sochi, Russia. At the height of the disruptions and the fighting in Kiev, then-President Viktor Yanukovich—a pro-Russian politician—fled the country, boarding a small jet for Moscow. In the days that followed, a newly reorganized government emerged in Kiev—one with a decidedly pro-European outlook and pro-EU economic values. A displeased Vladimir Putin declared Kiev’s actions illegal, and soon afterward violence broke out across the eastern part of the country. Russia sent troops into Crimea, seized control of its strategic port and other key facilities, and scheduled an “election” to determine the political fate of the Crimea. Immediately after the referendum, Russia annexed Crimea. Within days, pro-Russian militants began their armed campaign across much of eastern Ukraine. The rebels seized public buildings, built barricades, and set-up checkpoints. The militants also appeared to be heavily armed and well-supplied, and many witnesses have claimed that some of the rebels spoke with Russian accents.

The United States and some of its closest allies have used a variety of economic sanctions to pressure Putin to back down, but some of the harshest sanctions were not met with enthusiasm by European countries still struggling with weak markets—still recovering from the Great Recession and reeling from austerity measures. The fear of a sudden shutoff of Russian-supplied oil and gas outweighed the impulse for sanctions in a global marketplace increasingly interconnected. Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal were especially reticent to sign on to some of U.S. President Barack Obama’s more stringent sanctions.

But after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 and the loss of life of all 298 passengers on board, EU attitudes began to quickly change. The jetliner was shot down by a surface-to-air rocket, apparently a Russian-made BuK-11 weapons platform which fired a Gadfly missile—a rocket designed to reach high-altitude aircraft. After the downing of the plane, pro-Russian militants hampered recovery and crash investigations for days, delaying identification of bodies and interfering with the crash site. Many Europeans were outraged by the actions of the heavily-armed rebels.

Relations between the United States and Russia are in their worst state since the Cold War. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that direct intervention by American troops is not an option, but the U.S. has been quietly supplying the Ukrainians with intelligence information and technical data.

Russia has consistently denied that it has supplied weapons or ammunition to the militants. Russia has also massed as many as 25,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, and satellite images show scores of MiG fighters, hundreds of tanks, scores of heavily-armed attack helicopters, and hundreds of other military vehicles in staging areas near the border. It is the largest military build-up by Russian troops since before the break-up of the Soviet Union and before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Russia has said that the troops and equipment are part of large-scale exercises, and not a prelude to invasion.

Reports of the columns of trucks were accompanied by photographs and video images which show as many as 70 trucks in orderly columns crossing the frontier or arriving on the outskirts of Luhansk. Some reporters and witnesses counted 70 trucks crossing the border, but other reports suggest the total number may be as high as 200. At least 140 other trucks remain in holding areas at the border. (Some reports late on Friday indicate that nearly all the trucks are now on the move, and some witnesses near the border say that in all 280 trucks may have already entered Ukraine, with many of the trucks diverting toward Donetsk, another city where Ukrainian forces are battling separatists).

There was more heavy shelling and fighting in and around Luhansk on Wednesday and Thursday as Ukrainian forces continue to press forward into rebel-held areas. Kiev fears that the trucks carry weapons and military supplies for the embattled militants.

The Red Cross has said variously that it has been denied access to the trucks (or their contents) and that they were unable to participate in humanitarian efforts in the area since their operating rules preclude them from aid work without security guarantees from combatants. Neither the militants not the Russians have been forthcoming with the needed assurances.

The Ukrainian crisis has put stress on the Obama administration, already tasked with tensions in Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Gaza. Some analysts in the U.S. and the U.K. feel that Putin is using this opportunity to meddle militarily in the Ukraine precisely because he understands that U.S. strategic interests and concerns are spread thin.

Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, stressed today that Russia’s actions are both dangerous and provocative.

“We’ve made our position very clear,” Kirby told reporters, “that they [Russia] should not be doing this under the guise of a humanitarian convoy, to use that as an excuse to corss the border in an unorganized way.”

NATO spokesmen also complained that Russia’s actions are provocative, and called the convoys “a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Is Russia Poised to Invade Ukraine?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 13, 2014.

How Chilly is This New Cold War?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 9, 2014.