KIEV/DONETSK: Ukraine declared yesterday that Russia had launched a “direct invasion” of its territory after Moscow sent a convoy of aid trucks across the border into eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian rebels are fighting government forces.
Moscow, which has thousands of troops close to the Russian side of the border, warned against any attempt to “disrupt” the convoy it said was a purely humanitarian operation; but it did not say what action it might take if Kiev’s military intervened.
The European Union urged Russia to reverse what it called a clear violation of the Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the entry of the trucks without Kiev’s permission as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
But a senior security chief said Ukrainian forces would not attack the trucks, and had allowed them in, even without proper clearance, to avoid “provocations”.
The Ukraine conflict has driven relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War, with Western states imposing economic sanctions on Moscow and the Kremlin retaliating. Nato has deployed extra troops in member states bordering Russia, including the Baltic states and Poland.
Kiev called on international allies to unite in “a decisive condemnation of illegal and aggressive actions” by Russia.
Poroshenko said more than 100 trucks had crossed the border, of which only some had been checked earlier by Ukrainian officials inside Russian territory. Other Ukrainian officials said only 34 or 35 of them had been properly checked.
Repeating earlier suspicions by Kiev that the aid cargo could be somehow used to support the separatists, the foreign ministry said: “Neither the Ukrainian side nor the International Committee of the Red Cross knows the content of the trucks. This arouses special concern.”
The fact that Russian vehicles had crossed into Ukraine without permission “testifies to the deliberate and aggressive character of actions by the Russian side,” the ministry said.
A witness said the white-painted trucks had crossed onto Ukrainian soil and headed towards the rebel stronghold of Luhansk escorted by a small number of separatist fighters.
Mikhail Denikin, Chairman of the village council in Izvarino, on the Ukrainian side of the border, stood by the road waving a large Russian flag as the trucks drove past.
“Big thanks to Russia. Our brothers did not forget us. We are brothers. That is the most important thing. We are Slavs, we are together,” Denikin told Reuters Television.
A traffic police officer on the Russian side of the border, who had been escorting the aid convoy within Russian territory, said the entire convoy of about 260 trucks had crossed over into Ukraine. He said it was possible they would cross back into Russia on Friday evening after delivering their cargo. “We consider this a direct invasion by Russia of Ukraine,” Ukrainian state security chief Valentyn Nalivaychenko said in a statement to journalists.
Asked whether Ukraine would use air strikes against the convoy, Nalivaychenko said: “Against them, no.”
But Ukrainian authorities said the convoy would pass through an area where the rebels were firing so its security could not be guaranteed. Interfax news agency said later that the first trucks had reached the rebel-held city of Luhansk.
The largely Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions both declared independence after a plebiscite deemed illegal by Kiev. The regions have seen intense fighting in recent weeks as rebels have been driven back into pockets.
Moscow, which denies accusations it has given military support to the rebellion, had earlier expressed impatience with delays with the convoy which left Moscow region around August 13.