NATO said Friday that Russian artillery pieces are firing at the Ukrainian military from Russian territory and within Ukraine, dramatically escalating a conflict that has taken a new turn with the unauthorized entry into eastern Ukraine of what the alliance described as a “Russian so-called humanitarian convoy.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen condemned the entry of the convoy Friday as “a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” and said it could only deepen a crisis that Moscow has created and helped to fuel.
“The disregard of international humanitarian principles raises further questions about whether the true purpose of the aid convoy is to support civilians or to resupply armed separatists,” Rasmussen said in a statement from NATO headquarters. It was the strongest denunciation of Russia’s role in Ukraine that the alliance has issued, a spokeswoman said, and the first time that NATO has accused Russian forces of firing artillery at the Ukrainian army from within Ukraine.
The convoy’s move onto Ukrainian soil coincides with “a major escalation in Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” the alliance leader said. “In addition, Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces. We have also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine.”
Rasmussen added that NATO also “is observing an alarming build-up of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine.”
He issued the statement after at least 145 trucks of a Russian humanitarian convoy crossed into Ukraine on Friday without the permission of Ukrainian authorities or the accompaniment of the International Committee of the Red Cross — a step that Ukraine’s top security official called a “direct invasion.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday morning that Moscow had run out of patience with “delays” and other “excuses” from Ukraine after a nearly 10-day standoff. It charged that Ukraine’s leaders were deliberately trying to slow-walk the delivery of aid to the war-torn region of Luhansk until “there is no one at all to provide help to.”
The White House issued a strongly worded condemnation of the Russian movement, accusing Moscow of deploying “Russian military vehicles painted to look like civilian trucks,” and said it raises suspicions that Russia is using the convoy as a pretext.
“At the same time as Russian vehicles violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia maintains a sizable military force on the Ukrainian border capable of invading Ukraine on very short notice,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. “It has repeatedly fired into Ukrainian territory, and has sent an ever-increasing stream of military equipment and fighters into Ukraine.”
“We recall that Russia denied its military was occupying Crimea until it later admitted its military role and attempted to annex this part of Ukraine,” Hayden added.
The United Nations also addressed the fast-moving developments, warning that the unauthorized movement across Ukraine’s border “has the potential of exacerbating an already dangerous situation
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe, separately condemned “Russia’s illegal incursion” into Ukraine. “The humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine must be addressed, but not in a spurious manner that risks further inflaming the conflict,” he said.
He said NATO is especially concerned by the massing of 20,000 Russian “combat-ready troops” on the border with eastern Ukraine and the flow of Russian arms and operatives to pro-Moscow separatist forces. The unauthorized convoy raises “grave concern” about Russian motives and “indicates that Russia is more interested in resupplying separatists rather than supporting local populations,” Breedlove said in a statement.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said that since mid-August, the alliance has received multiple reports of the direct involvement in eastern Ukraine of Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces.
The decision to send in the aid without the consent of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or Ukrainian authorities marked a dangerous new step in the four-month conflict. If Ukrainian forces fire on the trucks, they could trigger an all-out invasion by Russian forces that have accumulated by the tens of thousands across the border from eastern Ukraine. If they allow the trucks to disperse across the Luhansk region without any Ukrainian controls, Russia in effect will have imposed a cease-fire in the fight against pro-Russian separatists without Kiev’s permission.
Ukrainian authorities appeared to be scrambling Friday to decide how to respond to the border incursion. State security chief Valentyn Nalivaychenko told journalists in Kiev, “We consider this a direct invasion by Russia of Ukraine,” Reuters news agency reported. He said Ukrainian forces would not use force against the convoy because they want to avoid “provocations.”
But Ukraine’s prime minister struck a more confrontational tone.
“It’s clear that Russia is not planning to conduct any humanitarian mission. . . . We need to use all methods to stop Russian military aggression,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatensyuk said on national television, charging that Russia had been planning “this aggression” since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Ukraine’s military officials surmised that Russia’s decision to come in without Ukraine’s permission was probably a trap.
“This is a provocation, and they expect us to attack the convoy,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Friday. “It’s very simple to shoot, but the consequences could be very destructive.”
He added, though, that if Ukraine determines that the Russian convoy participants have engaged in any “actions which go beyond the rendering of international assistance,” then Ukraine may decide to pursue military options.
“If we find in the convoy some other equipment, some other equipment that’s not humanitarian aid, then the direction will be different,” Lysenko said. “We’ll see.”
By evening Friday, Russian state television broadcast images of the trucks pulling up to a loading dock in rebel-held Luhansk. Shirtless men wearing jeans unloaded large white bags that appeared to be filled with grain, beans or flour and moved them into a warehouse. It was unclear what the trucks planned to do after unloading their cargo.
The original ICRC plan was for the trucks to leave Ukraine immediately by the same route they entered it. But Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, declined to say whether the convoy would still hold to that plan.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry urged international allies to condemn Russia’s action, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a “flagrant violation of international law.” He said the move was also tantamount to a unilateral withdrawal by Russia from the ICRC.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby stopped short of calling the movement an invasion but said the United States considers the “unauthorized entry” provocative and worrisome.
“We strongly condemn this action and any actions that Russian forces take that increase tensions in the region. Russia should not send vehicles, persons or cargo of any kind into Ukraine, whether under the guise of humanitarian convoys or any other pretext, without Kiev’s express permission,” Kirby told reporters.
“I think it strains credulity to think that this equipment’s not moving across the border accompanied by Russian forces,” he added, without suggesting how many may have crossed into Ukraine. “More worrisome than the number is the readiness and the capability,” he said.
Kirby called on Russia to withdraw vehicles and personnel and threatened “additional costs and isolation” if it does not. That is a reference to potential further economic sanctions on Russia and diplomatic ostracizing of Moscow, tactics the West has applied for months with little success.
“They should not be doing this under the guise of a humanitarian convoy, to use that as an excuse,” to cross the border without Ukrainian permission or ICRC supervision, Kirby said.
In a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia decided to send the convoy after “explicit delays from the side of Kiev” over Russia’s participation helping to alleviate a humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. Further delay, Putin said, would be “unacceptable.”
But Poroshenko said Russia’s unilateral decision to send the trucks without international participation or permission was tantamount to a withdrawal from the ICRC.
Ukraine held up its end of a bargain with Russia last week to bring humanitarian aid into Luhansk by giving permission for 35 Russian trucks to enter Ukraine, Poroshenko added in a statement. The only obstacle was that separatists could not guarantee the ICRC that the roads would be safe, he said.
“We underline that responsibility for the secure movement of Russian trucks through territory that is not under control of Ukrainian armed forces is the responsibility of the Russian Federation,” Lysenko told a briefing in Kiev early Friday afternoon.
After the trucks crossed the border, Lysenko said, “the Ukrainian side suggested holding negotiations between the leadership of the general staffs of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, but the Russian side refused.”
The Russian government said Friday that it had run out of patience after the aid convoy sat along the border for more than a week.
“Continuing to tolerate such chaos, outright lies and the inability to agree any longer is impossible. All excuses delaying the delivery of aid to people in the humanitarian catastrophe area have been exhausted,” the Russian statement said. “The Russian side has decided to act. Our convoy with humanitarian cargo is beginning to move in the direction of Luhansk.”
Within an hour of that statement, journalists along the border reported seeing the first trucks of the convoy cross the border into Ukraine.
The ICRC said its officials were not on board.
“At the present time, those trucks are not being escorted by us,” said ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson. “Our team in Luhansk reported heavy shelling overnight. This morning we were not convinced we had received the sufficient security guarantees from the relevant authorities.”
Watson said the ICRC informed Russia of its decision Friday morning. The organization did not rule out accompanying the aid to Luhansk in the future if it were confident its teams could work safely, he said.
By Friday afternoon, Raisa Lukutsova, the head of Russia’s national Red Cross Society (a separate organization from the ICRC), told the Russian news agency Interfax that she supported the government’s decision to unilaterally move the convoy into Ukraine and that she had reached out to her Ukrainian counterpart in Ukraine, offering to send Russian staff to oversee deliveries of the goods.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said in a statement Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is aware of the convoy’s proceedings.
Poroshenko agreed last week to let Russian and European aid into the eastern region of Luhansk, provided that international workers from the ICRC presided over the shipments.
Within hours of that agreement, Russian authorities dispatched a convoy of more than 200 trucks toward Ukraine.
The convoy was shrouded in controversy from the very start. The trucks set off without an official verification from the Red Cross, leading Ukraine and its allies to accuse Russia of trying to use the aid convoy as a Trojan horse to launch a military invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Initially, Russia seemed willing to allay those fears by having the trucks cross into Ukrainian territory through a government-controlled checkpoint in the northeastern Kharkiv region. But before the trucks could arrive at the border, Ukrainian officials announced that they would not get through, and the convoy headed for rebel-controlled territory instead.
The trucks then spent more than a week idling outside the Izvarino border crossing to Luhansk, which is controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
During that time, reporters in the area were allowed to see many of the convoy’s contents, noting the presence of food, water and emergency supplies. Some on the scene also reported seeing heavy military vehicles traveling just behind the convoy.
Last week, Western reporters watched a column of Russian armored personnel carriers enter Ukraine while the aid convoy was waiting on the Russian side. Ukraine said its forces subsequently destroyed part of the column, but Russia denied that any of its vehicles had crossed the border or had been attacked.
As diplomats argued over the terms of allowing the convoy trucks in, Ukrainian authorities began sending their own aid shipments to Luhansk, and they threatened to respond militarily if any Russian trucks tried to cross the border without their permission or the guidance of the ICRC.
On Thursday, Russian customs officials cleared the first group of those trucks into the border zone between Russian and Ukrainian territory, where they were waiting for the go-ahead to enter Ukraine.
ICRC officials had said that the first Russian convoy trucks would enter on Friday. But on Friday morning, Red Cross officials told the Interfax news agency that they still did not have the security guarantees they needed to do their work in the country.
Ukrainian authorities had guaranteed the safety of ICRC officials, but only in areas under government control.
Although Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Friday it would still like to have the ICRC’s participation, it appeared to dismiss the organization’s safety concerns.
“We went over and over again with respect to meeting the wishes of checking and rechecking the route of the delivery, completing the procedures for its transmission. We signed the necessary documents with the ICRC,” the Russian statement said. “We provided all the necessary security guarantees to ensure the provision of such guarantees from the side of the militias, too — and not just for the Russian columns, but also for the humanitarian convoys directed to Luhansk by the Kiev authorities.”
William Branigin and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report, which originally appeared in The Washington Post.