Russian aid trucks depart for Ukraine’s eastern conflict zones

KIEV — A long column of Russian trucks laden with relief supplies rumbled toward war-torn eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, unsettling Ukrainian officials who warned that any attempt by Moscow to deliver humanitarian aid without their consent would be treated as an invasion.

The convoy’s departure — announced on Russian television as an Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on the tractor-trailers — raised fears among Western officials that Russia’s planned aid for the devastated region was a ruse to boost the combat capability of pro-Russian rebels there.

By day’s end, Russia and Ukraine appeared to have worked out a rough agreement that Russia would deliver the contents of the 198 trucks to the International Committee of the Red Cross at a Ukrainian-controlled border post near the city of Kharkiv. But important questions remained about the logistics of delivering the aid to hard-hit areas of eastern Ukraine, including whether the Russian vehicles would be allowed to cross the border.


Ukrainian officials appeared to have little faith in their Russian counterparts, accusing them of funneling weaponry to rebels and then saying Russia’s aid was needed to stanch the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe. Russia has denied helping the rebels.

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‘‘Russia is playing an absolutely cynical game,’’ Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky said Tuesday. In eastern Ukraine, ‘‘they are trying to use the pretext of humanitarian aid and assistance, and it seems they are just running out of excuses for their aggression.’’

Ukrainian, US, and NATO officials have been cautious about the Russian aid offers, fearing that they could simply be a pretext to boost the rebels.

Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that there were ongoing negotiations about the structure of any humanitarian assistance to Ukraine from international partners, including Russia, but that plans would not be in place for up to a week. Important questions remained unanswered, they said, including the scope of civilian needs in eastern Ukraine and the willingness of rebels in the Luhansk region to facilitate aid distribution.

‘‘Ukraine is ready to receive from our partners. If Russia gets involved, we don’t mind, but it should happen according to our rules,’’ said the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Valeriy Chaly.


But he said that any assistance that reaches Ukraine’s borders would need to be examined and handed over to the Red Cross for delivery. He warned that attempts to bring anything across the border without the consent of the Ukrainian government would be treated as an act of aggression.

‘‘If we have some surprise,’’ he said, ‘‘we will react as an independent sovereign country must react.’’

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday evening that it would follow Ukrainian requests about routes for transportation and inspection and that it would bring the convoy — totaling 262 vehicles, including the cargo-laden trucks — to the border near the Ukrainian-held city of Kharkiv.

But it said there were ‘‘puzzling statements’’ from Kiev about ‘‘new logistics requirements,’’ an apparent reference to the demand that the convoy not be allowed into Ukraine.

Western leaders said aid to Ukraine needs to be coordinated with the Ukrainian government.


Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during a visit to Australia that diplomatic efforts are underway to resolve tensions over the Russian shipments.