Friday, August 15, 2014
Armoured personnel carriers in Russia move towards the Ukraine border. Photograph: Shaun Walker
The white trucks of humanitarian aid rumbled through Russia in a convoy stretching for miles, moving slowly southwards on the M4 highway, amid a landscape of fertile fields and Ladas stopped at the roadside – their boots overflowing with watermelons for sale.
But, while the trucks came to a halt well short of Ukraine's border, a different Russian convoy did make the crossing into Ukrainian territory late on Thursday evening.
The Guardian saw a column of 23 armoured personnel carriers, supported by fuel trucks and other logistics vehicles with official Russian military plates, travelling towards the border near the Russian town of Donetsk – about 200km away from Donetsk, Ukraine.
After pausing by the side of the road until nightfall, the convoy crossed into Ukrainian territory, using a rough dirt track and clearly crossing through a gap in a barbed wire fence that demarcates the border. Armed men were visible in the gloom by the border fence as the column moved into Ukraine. Kiev has lost control of its side of the border in this area.
The trucks are unlikely to represent a full-scale official Russian invasion, and it was unclear how far they planned to travel inside Ukrainian territory and how long they would stay. But it was incontrovertible evidence of what Ukraine has long claimed – that Russian troops are active inside its borders.
It was also ironic given the attention to the huge convoy of humanitarian aid that moved slowly southwards on the M4 highway on Thursday. As the convoy moved closer to the stretch of border controlled by pro-Russian rebels it was hard to escape the feeling that Moscow's aid convoy had the potential to turn into a slow-motion disaster, perhaps even prompting a moment that could push Ukraine and Russia out of the messy conflict fought by proxies into full-blown, open engagement.
According to Moscow, the convoy is a goodwill gesture, packed with much-needed aid for the residents of eastern Ukraine. In Kiev's view, the convoy is at best a cynical ploy; at worst, a kind of Trojan centipede, winding its way into the country at a border point no longer controlled by Ukrainian forces, the nature of its cargo taken only on trust.
The humanitarian convoy stalled for 24 hours in the city of Voronezh during Wednesday, but set out at dawn on Thursday.
At one point, with President Vladimir Putin more than two hours late to address a gathering of top Russian officials in newly annexed Crimea, and the first lorries in the convoy taking the turnoff from the main M4 highway towards rebel-controlled Luhansk in Ukraine, there were whispers that perhaps Putin's announcement was being delayed to announce that the trucks would enter Ukraine whether or not the country's authorities gave the green light, a move Kiev has said would be seen as an invasion. The aid convoy on the road in Russia. Photograph: Itar-Tass/Corbis
In the end, the convoy ground to a halt shortly after the turnoff, still about 20 miles from the border and, over a period of two hours, the vehicles parked in neat lines, throwing up clouds of dust.
Russia's foreign ministry has said there are 262 vehicles in the convoy, including 200 carrying aid. Some of the drivers put the number at 270. Already, the start of a field camp had been erected on the site, with a dozen large tents and a shower area where the men could wash off the grime and sweat of the long journey.
The trucks could be stacked with weapons, some said. Others claimed they could be carrying advance supplies for a later Russian invasion using the ground troops that have hovered in border areas. There was also a suggestion that the circus around the mysterious convoy could distract attention from other Russian moves, a fear apparently justified given the military column that crossed the borderon Thursday night.
The hundreds of men driving the trucks in the convoy were all dressed in identical khaki T-shirts, shorts and caps, and there was certainly something military about their bearing.
For some observers, the large convoy moving with obvious top-level coordination and accompanied by numerous vehicles with official Russian military plates brought back memories of the "little green men" involved in the annexation of Crimea back in March. Wearing green uniforms without insignia, those men claimed to be local volunteers, although they were clearly highly trained Russian special operatives. Despite denying their presence all through the annexation, Putin later admitted that Russian military units had been involved.
But, with their easy manner, lack of discipline and in some cases physiques that hinted more at beer halls than special forces training grounds, the "little brown men" of the aid convoy are clearly not the highly trained elite troops used in the annexation of Crimea.
In general, the men did not want to speak about who they were or how they had come to be involved in the convoy. One said he was a volunteer from a non-governmental organisation, but clammed up when asked for the name of the organisation.
"I'm being paid to do a job here, not to stand around talking to journalists," he said when pressed, and then looked sheepish when reminded he had just claimed to be an unpaid volunteer.
Others said they were military veterans but claimed not to be serving currently. It is possible the convoy was assembled using the semi-official method Russia has used to find volunteers to fight for rebel separatists in eastern Ukraine – phone calls from military veterans' organisations offering work.
Those at the site were dismissive of fears in Ukraine that the convoy may be carrying secret military cargo. Two of the men in brown, who would not give their names but said they were "in charge of the cargo", offered to open any of the trucks picked at random and show what was inside. Men scrambled to untie the cords securing the tarpaulin on two of the trucks chosen by the Guardian and other journalists at the site.
Inside one were white sacks filled with buckwheat, while the other contained stacked cardboard boxes. Three men pulled the tape from one of the boxes to reveal newly packed sleeping bags. As the tarpaulin was pulled away, the original military green of the trucks was revealed; their exteriors apparently only recently painted white.
Nobody would say how long they planned to be there: a few hours or several days. Neither was it clear whether a decision had been taken in Moscow to move only with approval from the International Committee of the Red Cross, or whether a decision would be made to move ahead regardless, if diplomatic wrangling takes too long.
A lone car with diplomatic plates and Red Cross insignia arrived at the location of the convoy on Thursday afternoon. Two men inside confirmed they were Red Cross officials based in Moscow but refused to give any further information about whether they had travelled with the convoy, what plans there were for inspection, or whether more representatives were on the way. On Thursday evening, the organisation tweeted that "initial contact" with the convoy had been made, and there were "many practical details to be clarified".
Credit to The Guardian