A Russian convoy of 280 trucks carrying “humanitarian supplies” was headed to conflict-torn east Ukraine on Tuesday, despite warnings from the West that Moscow could be using the mission as a guise to sneak in troops.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had on Monday justified the mission citing “catastrophic consequences” of Ukraine’s offensive against insurgents in eastern Ukraine, and said Moscow was working in collaboration with the Red Cross.
But the international aid agency said on Tuesday there was still no agreement on the issue and France insisted such convoys should not be allowed to cross the border unless they met strict conditions, including Red Cross approval.
Suspicions about Russia’s intentions are running high in the West which has accused Moscow of fanning the insurgency in eastern Ukraine by supplying pro-Russian separatists with arms.
Russia firmly denies the allegations but NATO says Moscow has amassed 20,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. Kiev has put the number at 45,000.
As wrangling continued over potential aid delivery, besieged rebel-held cities warned of a looming humanitarian disaster as fierce fighting left residents without power, running water or fuel.
Medical and food supplies were also running low in the separatist bastions of Donetsk and Lugansk — both of which have been rocked by intense shelling in recent days. Ukrainian forces have surrounded Donetsk, a rebel stronghold with a population of about one million, and the army said on Tuesday it was now ready to encircle Lugansk, another bastion with about 500,000 inhabitants.
If Kiev’s forces consolidate their gains, they could cut off rebel access to the porous borders with Russia — from where Ukraine believes the weapons are being supplied.