Putin’s “humanitarian” convoy dims hope for peace, and buys time for Ukraine’s separatists

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Despite fierce fighting in and around rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine, recent signs on the diplomatic front had suggested that things were moving in a constructive direction between Russia, Ukraine, and its Western partners. Those hopes were dashed today, and it is thanks—of all things—to a humanitarian convoy.

Markets were calmed by news of a meeting next week between Russian president Vladimir Putin, his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, and EU officials. German chancellor Angela Merkel, a key go-between throughout the crisis, will be in Kyiv tomorrow to confer with the Ukrainians ahead of their encounter with Kremlin officials in Minsk a few days later.

Yesterday, Ukrainian border guards and the Red Cross began inspecting the convoy of Russian trucks dispatched by Moscow to deliver aid to the shell-shocked cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement lauding an agreement with Kyiv and the Red Cross for the trucks to cross over into Ukraine. But amid the conciliatory language, the statement warned “against possible provocations with the goal of disrupting the delivery.”

Less than a day later, the Kremlin decided it couldn’t wait any longer. With only 30-odd trucks inspected, out of nearly 300, Russia’s convoy pushed ahead into Ukraine a few hours ago. The Red Cross stayed behind:

For its part, Ukraine’s government dubbed the action a “direct invasion.” Meanwhile, representatives from the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” in Luhansk and Donetsk said that they would “set guards and regulate the cargo movement.”

In a long and belligerent statement today, the Russian foreign ministry called the “endless delays” at the border checkpoint “intolerable.” It continued:

It is no longer possible to tolerate this lawlessness, outright lies and inability to reach agreements. All pretexts for delaying the delivery of aid to people in the humanitarian disaster zone have been depleted. The Russian side has decided to act.

Kyiv fired back with stern words of its own, calling the convoy an illegal “smuggling” mission in support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. It warned, ominously, about the potential for “planned provocation” by rebel fighters against the convoy.

And so, once again, the prospects for an end to the crisis in Ukraine have veered from hope to the verge of despair. Ahead of Merkel’s visit to Kyiv, the summit in Minsk, and Ukrainian Independence Day in two days’ time, Putin has changed the facts on the ground, putting his adversaries off-balance.

The probability of a “provocation,” by the Russian definition of the word, is now uncomfortably high, as hundreds of half-empty trucks carrying humanitarian aid fan out across the places where the fighting is the worst. The aid is much needed, but the convoy also carries with it suspicions of an ulterior motive. With the separatists increasingly squeezed by Ukraine’s military, the de facto ceasefire imposed by the convoy may give pro-Russian fighters a chance to regroup.

And if any harm comes to the trucks, the risk is that the conflict could shift from Ukrainian soldiers fighting pro-Russian rebels to it fighting actual Russian troops out in the open. The Kremlin said today that the government in Kyiv “will assume complete responsibility for the possible consequences of provocations against the humanitarian relief convoy.”