MOSCOW — Russia's top diplomat on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time an official relationship with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the same day that one of their top leaders made a surprise appearance in Moscow to whip up support for his cause.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that after Ukrainian leaders declined Moscow's request in late May to allow Russian humanitarian aid into eastern Ukraine, Russia started to send it in anyway — via the pro-Russian separatist forces who earlier this month punched gaping holes into the border between eastern Ukraine and Russia.
''We are trying to provide humanitarian aid to those who have not left the conflict zone yet,'' Lavrov told Lamberto Zannier, the secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, at a meeting in Moscow. ''We applied to the Ukrainian authorities with a request in late May for permission to deliver such aid. We were refused with an official note, so we are providing aid with the support of self-defense forces, who are worried about their fathers, mothers, wives, and children.''
Lavrov did not give details, and a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment. Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry, the agency that typically coordinates humanitarian aid, said it was not involved in any efforts to help residents of eastern Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry said May 30 that eastern Ukrainians had requested ''humanitarian aid, primarily medicine.''
Sending official humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine against the wishes of the Kiev government is a highly unusual move, particularly after Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged this week to reinforce the increasingly porous border between the two countries.
Russian citizens have poured into eastern Ukraine in recent weeks to join the fight against the government in Kiev, though most of them have insisted that they are volunteers and are not working on behalf of the Kremlin. The Ukrainian government has also said that it has seized convoys of weaponry crossing the border from Russia, and separatists recently overran a border control center in Luhansk, Ukraine's easternmost region.
In a sign of how open the border remains, a top separatist leader in Donetsk appeared in Moscow on Wednesday, a day after Ukraine's prosecutor general issued a warrant for his arrest on terrorism charges.
Denis Pushilin met with Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky at his office and attended a pro-separatist rally in Moscow intended as a fund-raiser. He told reporters that he was prepared to negotiate with Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, but only if Russia mediates. And he said he would not be satisfied with an outcome that reunites eastern Ukraine with the rest of the nation, the news agency Interfax reported.