U.S. officials are saying that Russia has 18,000 combat-ready troops at the Ukraine border on Friday, just as the Russian aid convoy crossed into Ukraine without authorization. Russian officials say the humanitarian aid, which includes food and sleeping bags, is meant for people in the war-torn southeastern regions, while Ukrainian officials are calling the entry a "direct invasion."
According to CNN, the troops are stationed just a few miles from the border. A Defense official told the network, “They are definitely more overt, aggressive and out in the open” and they “aren't even hiding it." Another official expressed concern about the transport of Russian long-range-missile systems into the country. NATO has also accused Russia of using Russian personnel to fire artillery units at Ukraine from inside the country.
Yet Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin tried to quell some of those concerns in a press conference Friday:
Churkin denies Russia is in Ukraine. #UkraineInvasion— Nina Ivanovna (@ninaivanovna) August 22, 2014
When asked directly just now if Russia sent troops into Ukraine, Churkin says "they need to provide proof, then we can confirm or deny."— Paula Chertok (@PaulaChertok) August 22, 2014
Churkin: cannot verify if #convoy trucks are empty or not. "Sometimes you need to have a spare trucks. It makes sense."— Nina Ivanovna (@ninaivanovna) August 22, 2014
Indeed, pro-Russian rebels are keen to focus on the relief trucks. Former Donetsk People's Republic “prime minister” Alexander Borodai welcomed the aid trucks to Luhansk and announced the formation of 24 aid distribution points:
Гуманитарный конвой в Луганске. pic.twitter.com/PYDzDKnksr— Александр Бородай (@Dnr_borodai) August 22, 2014
на плакатах написано "Спасибо" pic.twitter.com/xWj0zHSMbX— Александр Бородай (@Dnr_borodai) August 22, 2014
The Red Cross had initially committed to escorting the trucks to Luhansk, one of the areas occupied by pro-Russian rebels, but said it would go no farther because of security concerns. It later withdrew that offer because the route remained volatile. Ukrainian military forces have been clashing with pro-Russian rebels continuously in the region, with government forces making significant gains in recent days.
"All pretexts for delaying the delivery of aid to people in the humanitarian disaster zone have been depleted," said a statement explaining the move from the Russian foreign ministry. "The Russian side has decided to act. Our humanitarian relief convoy is setting out towards Lugansk."
Not everyone was so forgiving. NATO's secretary general condemned the incident, writing, "This is a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments, including those made recently in Berlin and Geneva, and a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia. It can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel."
A Pentagon spokesman also called the move an "unauthorized entry."
It remains uncertain how many trucks exactly crossed into Ukraine. All reports indicate that it was at least several dozen vehicles, but the New York Times’ Andrew Roth reported seeing all 200 trucks pass the border:
@BBCDanielS yes, they kept coming out as we were following the convoy.— Andrew Roth (@ARothNYT) August 22, 2014
Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs alleged that the escort-less convoy meant Russia is “ignoring established international rules, procedures and agreements.” The statement continued:
In order to prevent any provocations we have issued all necessary instructions for the safe passing of the convoy. Despite all attempts by the Ukrainian side the contact between the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the one of Russia, has not been established, which is critical to ensure security along the route. We point out that terrorists carry out mortar attacks along the possible route of the cargo.
We also are not aware of the content of the agreements of the Russian side with Luhansk insurgents and we do not exclude the possibility of any planned provocation.
A provocation may be just what the forces stationed across the border are waiting for. As it is, the conflict has only been getting more heated in recent days. Among the other signs of escalation in the region is the apparent murder of a Lithuanian diplomat:
With deep sorrow just learned about Lithuania's honorary consul in Lugansk Mr Mykola Zelenec kidnapped &brutaly killed by terrorists there.— Linas Linkevicius (@LinkeviciusL) August 22, 2014
Meanwhile, in mother Russia, a teacher was detained in St. Petersburg for wearing a blue-and-yellow cap that read "Ukraine." He refused to remove it after police warned him that it was a "provocation."
Not one to take the easy road, the teacher told the Russian-language service of RFERL that he wore it because he had just returned from a trip to the neighboring country, and realized that conditions there were far different from what he was seeing on government TV. That won't make future dealings with the cops easier for him.