KIEV — More than 200 trucks from a long-stalled Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on Friday without Red Cross escorts, drawing angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what a senior Ukrainian security official called a “direct invasion.”
Separately, NATO officials said Friday the Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and is using them to fire at Ukrainian forces.
The West has long accused Russia of supporting the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, but this is the first time it has said it had evidence of the direct involvement.
At a news briefing in Washington, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, condemned the convoy as an “unauthorized entry into Ukraine” and called for the vehicles’ immediate withdrawal.
But Ukraine stepped back from earlier threats to use “all forces available” to halt any Russian vehicles that crossed the frontier without its full accord, and President Petro Poroshenko assured the visiting foreign minister of Lithuania that “we will do our best to ensure that this did not lead to more serious consequences.”
The comments by Poroshenko, however, who on Saturday hosts the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, suggested that Ukraine would limit its response to verbal protests and not use force against the Russian vehicles.
The arrival of the first Russian aid trucks in Ukrainian territory nonetheless sharply raised tensions between the two neighbors before talks next Tuesday between Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. The leaders are scheduled to meet, along with officials from the European Union, in the Belarus capital of Minsk.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement in Moscow saying in essence that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev. Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for Putin as saying that he “had been informed” of the convoy’s movements.
“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”
Russia’s movement of its own artillery units into Ukraine represents a significant escalation of Kremlin involvement in the fighting there.
Since mid-August NATO has received multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian forces, “including Russian airborne, air defense, and special operations forces in eastern Ukraine,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO.
“Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” she added.
NATO has previously reported transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery from Russia to separatist groups in Ukraine. Russia has also built up its ground and air forces near Ukraine.
In addition to describing the entry of the Russian truck convoy as a “direct invasion,” Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, asserted that the vehicles were driven by Russian military personnel.
Nalyvaichenko said it was the first incursion ever carried out “under the cover of the Red Cross.”
The arrival of Russian trucks, which Ukrainian officials partly inspected Thursday on the Russian side of the border and found to contain buckwheat, rice, sugar, and water, appeared to be a Russian effort to stall an accelerating offensive by Ukrainian forces against beleaguered pro-Russian rebels.
The trucks are traveling toward Luhansk, a besieged rebel-held city that has come under heavy pressure in recent days from Ukrainian forces. The city’s fall would deliver a humiliating blow to Putin, who has faced mounting calls from hard-line nationalists in Russia to intervene decisively to stave off defeat for the Russian-speaking and often ethnically Russian rebels.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied supporting rebels, despite a steady flow of arms and fighters into eastern Ukraine from Russia, but has tied itself to their fate by whipping up a nationalist fervor with vows by Putin to protect Russians beyond Russia’s borders.
Spreading the large, white aid trucks through Luhansk could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Any respite in Ukraine’s military offensive could allow rebels still fighting for control of Luhansk to dig in further, and indefinitely postpone any attempt to oust them.
From the start, Ukraine has viewed Russia’s aid convoy, which left Moscow on Tuesday last week, with deep suspicion, fearing the vehicles could be carrying arms or be a ruse by Moscow to support the pro-Russian separatists.