Even under the best of circumstances, the arrival of the massive humanitarian aid convoy from Moscow to the Ukrainian border, destined for Luhansk, was almost guaranteed to be fraught with enormous controversy and the risk of heightened tensions and conflict.
Those tensions mounted last night with the reported sighting by journalists of a different, smaller, convoy of alleged Russian armored personnel carriers and trucks crossing into Ukrainian territory.
Today, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko announced that government forces had attacked and partially destroyed that Russian convoy, deep into Ukrainian territory. Russia has denied that such a battle took place.
*** The most important takeaway from what has been an alarming news cycle today is that so far despite the tense atmosphere and serious charges that have been leveled, there still appears to be hesitation on both sides to use the alleged skirmish with Russian forces or of a right wing ambush, as Russia has in turn alleged, as cause for any significant escalation of the conflict that had already gripped Ukraine since March. ***
In fact Moscow, Kiev, and the international community have almost gone to lengths to portray both as “business as usual,” simply as evidence to corroborate grievances and continued violations from the other side.
Charges and Countercharges
When asked to provide evidence of the Russian incursion or the location of the vehicles alleged to be destroyed in last night’s attack, Lysenko refused, citing “national security concerns.” That refusal is significant either as a sign that the claims may be exaggerated, or that Kiev in fact does NOT want to use this incident to derail what we have been reporting appears to be an effort by Russia to extricate itself from the fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
The continued violation of Ukrainian territory by Moscow, if true, may appear strangely at odds with an effort to de-escalate. But we would note that the most important signals from both Moscow and Kiev since the incident have in fact pointed to a desire not to use this incident as a justification to step up into a more direct and far more dangerous military conflict between Ukraine and Russia, but rather the opposite – to come to the negotiating table.
Moscow, not surprisingly, has completely denied that its APCs crossed into Ukrainian territory and, in turn, has alleged Eastern rebels broke up a right-wing militia plan to mine and shoot at the humanitarian convoy once it crossed into Ukrainian territory.
Although the narrative of an attack on Russian “peacekeepers” was used as a pretext for the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2008, the situation now is dramatically different for President Vladimir Putin. In this instance Moscow has swiftly taken efforts to maintain its dialogue with Kiev and with the International Committee of the Red Cross over a mutually acceptable road map for delivering aid from the border to Luhansk, one which would likely also include minimizing the physical presence of Russian personnel in the convoy.
Not to be outdone by Moscow in its own backyard, Kiev has sent its own, smaller “convoy” of humanitarian assistance to its Eastern citizens. In addition, even Donbass oligarch Rinat Akhmetov has re-emerged into the spotlight with an offer to send a “third” convoy of his own, private aid to the region.
Meanwhile, however, the fighting on the ground continues to intensify as Ukrainian forces push to tighten the cordon around Donetsk and Luhansk. The delivery of aid will by definition require at least a temporary de-escalation if not cessation of these “Anti-Terrorist Operations.”
Ukraine is, of course, loathe to surrender that military advantage, but President Petro Poroshenko is now under tremendous international pressure to do so, at least temporarily. And all sides have at least for now indicated a desire to engage in a dialogue with the aim of de-escalating tensions this Sunday.