It would be little surprise if, as is feared in Kiev, the aid convoy dispatched today by Russia in the direction of eastern Ukraine contained more than just food and basic supplies. Some 280 trucks set off, apparently from a military base, without the full assent of the International Committee of the Red Cross, under whose auspices the mission was supposed to take place, or of the Ukrainian government.
Tensions are bound to increase once the convoy reaches the border; Kiev has announced that aid will be let in, but all trucks refused entry. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin appears ready to exploit any perceived disruption: Nato’s Secretary General has admitted there is now a “high probability” that 45,000 Russian troops stationed on the border will invade.
The convoy is both a typical piece of Putin theatre – where nobody knows quite what lies behind the curtain – and a serious threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. Thus far Mr Putin has expertly wielded the threat of conflict to make political gains. But if he sought all-out war, there would be little need to stage-manage a cause. Kiev’s forces currently surround Donetsk, the Russia-leaning city where much of the “aid” is nominally destined, and such a siege would be excuse enough to launch a “protective” intervention – particularly when Russia’s state media paints the Ukrainian military as a band of bloodthirsty fascists.
Much as it would be foolish to expect anything of Putin, it can at least be hoped that he is once again playing a game of “armed politics” – seeking to destabilise Ukraine and support the rebels, without tipping in to a full-scale invasion. Still, the Russian President has placed the situation on a knife-edge and the diplomatic tables now tilt his way. Western leaders must offer all possible assistance to balance them back in favour of the Poroshenko government – close as it is to quelling the separatists.