A Russian aid cavalcade of 280 trucks destined for eastern Ukraine may be blocked at the border, as it is not being accompanied by any staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a core demand of the Kiev government.
With Ukraine reporting 45,000 massed Russian troops on its border, NATO has cited a "high probability" that Moscow could intervene militarily in the country's east, where Kiev's forces are encircling pro-Russian separatists.
Western officials fear that the aid convoy, expected to arrive in Ukraine on August 14 or 15, could be a cloak for a military action.
"We must be extremely careful because this could be a cover for the Russians to install themselves near Lugansk and Donetsk and put us before a done deed," the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told France Info radio today (12 August).
"This (convoy) is only possible, only justifiable, if the Red Cross authorises it," he added.
The Ukrainian Security Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko also said that, to be admitted, any aid delivery from Moscow would need to pass through a government-controlled border post, and be accompanied by ICRC officials.
But Anastasia Isyuk, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Geneva, told EurActiv that, although negotiations with Moscow were ongoing, the cavalcade did not yet have the ICRC’s blessing.
“Right now there are no Red Cross staff accompanying this convoy,” Isyuk said. “We are ready to facilitate aid deliveries in a humanitarian manner providing practical details are codified and we receive security guarantees from both sides.”
The ICRC has said that its participation in the aid mission would depend on security guarantees, access to vehicle manifests, and respect for its neutrality.
That position was given a boost by the EU’s international cooperation, humanitarian aid and civil protection commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, speaking in Brussels today.
Neutral, impartial, independent
The Russian aid “must be delivered in a way that strictly and solely assists affected populations,” she told journalists. “It always has to be done in accordance with principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. No political or other objectives must be pursued.”
Another EU official told EurActiv that “we have to stress how important it is that the international aid organisations and above all the Red Cross are in the driving seat in implementing this.”
According to Isyuk, the ICRC yesterday requested information about the types of assistance being delivered from the Russian authorities, such as the volume of items, transportation arrangements, and storage details.
The response from Moscow had been “positive,” she said, but not enough to bring the organisation on board.
“Our work is neutral, impartial and independent and this is a precondition for any operation that the ICRC can participate in,” she added.
Fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine since mid-April has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled to Russia.
Thousands more inside Ukraine are thought to be short of water, electricity and medical aid due to the fighting. US President Barack Obama said that any Russian intervention without Kiev's consent would be unacceptable and violate international law.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also warned on Monday "against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian".
More than 1,500 people are thought to have been killed including government forces, rebels and civilians in the four months since the separatists seized territory in the east and Kiev launched its crackdown.
The European Commission yesterday announced an additional €2.5 million of humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected people in Ukraine.
"I call on all sides of this conflict to facilitate the work of humanitarian organisations and allow for the provision of assistance to the civilian population in need, irrespective of who and where they are," Georgieva said.
A Ukrainian foreign ministry press release sent to EurActiv said that Kiev was also sending an international humanitarian aid mission to the Luhansk region. “In addition to goods, prepared by the Ukrainian side, the mission will also include humanitarian assistance provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States, the EU and Russia,” the statement read. “Humanitarian aid will be distributed among the civilian population of the Lugansk region, which for a long time suffered from the actions of illegal armed groups and terrorism. Such approach is conditioned by repeated violations of the state border of Ukraine by the Russian side and delivery of arms and military equipment to the pro-Russian terrorists in eastern Ukraine.”