KIEV, Ukraine — Russia escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine on Friday over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations in Ukrainian territory.
NATO officials said the Russian military had moved artillery units staffed by personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces. Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or military hardware into Ukraine, just as it denied any link to the unidentified gunmen who paved the way for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, until President Vladimir Putin said in April that Russian troops were “of course” involved.
There has been a “major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” said Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO. “Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” Rasmussen added.
Russia’s Permanent Mission to NATO, in a statement, accused the alliance of indifference to humanitarian suffering in eastern Ukraine and described its protests over the entry of a Russian aid convoy into Ukraine without Red Cross escorts as “another cynical attempt to cover the crimes of Ukrainian authorities.”
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Rasmussen did not say how many Russian artillery pieces had been moved into Ukraine or where they were, but one Western official said the number of Russian-operated artillery units was “substantial.”
The NATO accusations are based on intelligence reports from several alliance members, Western officials said, and the accusations generally echoed Ukrainian claims in recent days of an expanding Russian military involvement in support of pro-Russia rebels who are battling to hold off a Ukrainian offensive.
A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, also said the alliance had received multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian airborne, air-defense and special-operations forces in eastern Ukraine.
Pressure on Russia
The NATO statements added new pressure on Russia before a flurry of diplomacy in coming days, including a visit to Kiev on Saturday by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and a scheduled meeting next week between President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and his Russian counterpart, Putin, in Minsk, Belarus.
Russia’s aid convoy’s move into Ukraine, without the Red Cross escorts that had been agreed upon, drew angry accusations from Ukraine that Russia had broken its word and amounted to what Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of Ukraine’s Security Service, called a “direct invasion.”
Ukraine stepped back from earlier threats to use “all forces available” to halt any Russian vehicles that crossed the frontier without its full accord, and Poroshenko told the visiting foreign minister of Lithuania, “We will do our best to ensure that this does not lead to more serious consequences.”
Poroshenko’s comments suggested that Ukraine would limit its response to oral protests and not use force against the Russian vehicles, although it was unclear whether volunteer Ukrainian battalions of sometimes shaky discipline would respect calls for restraint.
At a news briefing, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby condemned the convoy as an “unauthorized entry into Ukraine” and called for the vehicles’ immediate withdrawal.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement saying in essence that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev. Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for Putin as saying he had been informed of the convoy’s movements.
“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”
That brought a curt response from the Obama administration.
“It is important to remember that Russia is purporting to alleviate a humanitarian situation which Russia itself created,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “If Russia really wants to ease the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, it could do so today by halting its supply of weapons, equipment, and fighters to its proxies,” she added.
Questions about convoy
Rather than an invasion, however, the arrival of Russian trucks — only 34 of which Ukrainian officials inspected Thursday evening on the Russian side of the border, and found to contain buckwheat, rice, sugar and water — appeared to be a Russian effort to stall an accelerating offensive by Ukrainian forces against beleaguered pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has suggested it would be reluctant to attack with a convoy interposed.
The trucks are traveling toward Luhansk, a war-ravaged, rebel-held city in a larger region, also called Luhansk, where the bullet-riddled body of the acting honorary consul for Lithuania, a Ukrainian national named Mykola Zelenets, 39, was found Thursday. He was kidnapped this month by armed separatists, said the Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine, Petras Vaitiekunas.
Luhansk has come under heavy military pressure in recent days from Ukrainian forces. The rebel city’s recapture by Ukraine would deliver a humiliating blow to Putin, who has faced mounting calls from hard-line nationalists in Russia to intervene decisively to stave off defeat for the Russian-speaking and often ethnically Russian separatists.
While denying that it supports the rebels, despite a steady flow of arms and fighters into eastern Ukraine from Russia, the Kremlin has tied itself to their fate by whipping up a nationalist fervor with vows to protect Russians beyond Russia’s borders.
Spreading the conspicuously large white aid trucks throughout Luhansk could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide humanitarian assistance. Any respite in Ukraine’s military offensive could allow rebels to dig in further, and indefinitely postpone any attempt to oust them.
Ukraine has from the start viewed Russia’s aid convoy, which left Moscow on Aug. 12, with deep suspicion, worrying that the vehicles could be carrying weapons or be part of a ruse by Russia to support the pro-Russian separatists, or possibly an attempt to provoke Ukraine into an ill-advised attack.
“This is a provocation,” said Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s military spokesman. “They expect us to attack the convoy.”
He added that Ukrainian forces would allow the convoy to reach Luhansk. He said Ukraine would adopt a different approach if it turned out that, after reaching Luhansk, the convoy “has other equipment, not just humanitarian aid.”
Under the arrangements agreed to by the two countries, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross were to escort the trucks to Luhansk. They decided not to proceed after heavy shelling around the city during the night, Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in Geneva.
The main highway from the border crossing at Izvaryne to Luhansk has seen heavy fighting in the past week, as Ukrainian forces pressed their military campaign against the separatists. The rebel forces have been driven out of a string of towns and villages but are still holding out in Luhansk and Donetsk.
There were no signs of Russian military vehicles or any other indications of an armed escort by Russian troops.