Ukraine: A Poisoned Gift from Putin

Published on August 12, 2014

Global markets have been under pressure today on fears that the massive convoy of 287 trucks heading for Ukraine from Moscow may in fact represent a covert invasion force or military assistance program to rebel fighters, as opposed to humanitarian assistance for the residents of Luhansk and Donetsk as asserted by Kremlin officials.

But Moscow would in fact hardly bother to send an invasion force clandestinely under the cover of this massive truck convoy, traveling for two days, with the clear risk of verification and discovery at the border, when it already has over 20,000 troops and armor just across the border.

*** Kiev’s distrust of Russia’s motives is, of course, understandably high, but we believe the public anxiety, tensions and bitter acrimony over the convoy is for the most part politically motivated. Namely, there is an anger and bitterness over Moscow’s attempts to grab the political narrative of a “humanitarian” Russia stepping in as the savior of eastern Ukrainian citizens who are being shelled by their own countrymen, and thus clutching a moral victory for Russia amid what appears likely to be an imminent military defeat of the eastern rebels. ***

*** Reports from Moscow in fact show little to suggest the convoy is anything but a humanitarian convoy. But the convoy is intended to carry an overtly political message, a massive, unilaterally-initiated relief effort deliberately designed to embarrass Kiev, which has been reluctant to cede any ground whatsoever to Russian aid for a crisis it accuses Russia of having fostered in the first place. ***

*** Accepting aid from Russia is a bitter pill for Kiev to swallow, but Ukraine has been outmaneuvered politically on this and cannot reject the aid now, although we would not rule out the possibility of a stand-off or delays once the convoy gets to the Ukrainian border. Kiev can at that point only try and make sure Russia gets as little credit as possible for the aid, keep it buried under a cloud of reproach and suspicion, and ensure Ukraine gets as much credit as it can for both delivering the goods to the population and for “checking and stopping” what could have been a very dangerous invasion force from Russia. ***

*** If Kiev actually blocks the passage of a truly verified humanitarian convoy, Russia will surely have been given, at least for the consumption of its internal domestic audience, a casus belli in protecting the Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, as well as an unquestionable PR victory in the eyes of the Western audience. We do not believe it will. ***

Murky “Facts” on the Ground

To be fair, mired in a military conflict fraught with a deep mistrust by Kiev and the West of Moscow and the motives of Putin, the caution may be understandable. Indeed, the very size of the convoy and the stilted nature of accusations and communications over the last 24 hours between the warring sides have contributed in no small degree to this anxiety.

To illustrate, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Spokesman Andriy Lysenko at first scoffed and labeled the Russian humanitarian convoy a giant ”publicity stunt.” This morning, however, he changed that tune to a very specifc accusation that the convoy had been sighted accompanied by a S-300 anti-aircraft system.

We took the former as highly plausible and the latter with a grain of salt until further corroboration. There has been none.

In fact all the evidence continues to point not to an invasion force but to a Russian attempt to grab the high hand out of this crisis.

Russia’s Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov went out of his way to call and reassure his counterparts today, including Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier. And Moscow has from what we understand agreed already to send its convoy only to a border checkpoint of Kiev’s choosing, and to have the trucks inspected and, once in Ukraine, accompanied by members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, under the auspices of Red Cross guidelines, and for Ukrainians to escort the convoy once it enters their territory.

Furthermore, Lavrov has suggested that the trucks remove their license plates at the border and replace them with Ukrainian plates – meaning they would at that point be Ukrainian and not Russian trucks crossing Ukraine’s sovereign territory. This has been put forth as an alternative to the more cumbersome demand by Kiev to reload the contents of the convoy onto Ukrainian trucks (flying Ukraine’s colors), after inspections- a process that could take up to a week.

From the Bell-tops of Crimea

On August 13, Putin is scheduled to hold a briefing session with members of the Security Council. The next day both he and Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev will meet in Crimea with members of the political parties represented in the State Duma “for an open discussion of the nation’s most pressing issues raised in the course of meetings the parliamentarians had with citizens, specifically in the Republic of Crimea.” Putin will also meet with cultural figures to discuss “the integration of the Republic of Crimea into the cultural life of the Russian Federation.”

Those meetings are likely to coincide roughly to the dates the trucks are expected to hit the Ukrainian border.

We do not see this, as suggested by some, as a potential launching pad or forum for a military strike. We do believe it is a very deliberately provocative political statement of Russia’s support for the population of Crimea that will coincide with its public relations drive in support of the Russian speaking people of Eastern Ukraine.

To reinforce that, we would point to the following comments by Lavrov today, appearing in Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency:

“We expect the self-defense forces to express the same attitude toward this humanitarian action [convoy]. I’m sure there’ll be no breaches, as they are now on the territory, the residents of which require badly humanitarian assistance.”

The truth about events in eastern Ukraine has started to appear in the Western media, Lavrov said….

“Western media are beginning, although unwillingly, to cover the situation in detail, showing all the horrors experienced by the civilian population.”

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