KIEV, Ukraine — A long column of Russian trucks laden with relief supplies rumbled toward war-torn eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, unsettling Ukrainian officials who warned that any attempt by Moscow to deliver humanitarian aid without their consent would be treated as an invasion.
The convoy’s departure — announced on Russian television as an Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on the tractor-trailers — raised fears among Western officials that Russia’s planned aid for the devastated region was a ruse to boost the combat capability of pro-Russian rebels there.
By day’s end, Russia and Ukraine appeared to have worked out a rough agreement that Russia would deliver the contents of the 198 trucks to the International Committee of the Red Cross at a Ukrainian-controlled border post near the city of Kharkiv. But important questions remained about the logistics of delivering the aid to hard-hit areas of eastern Ukraine, including whether the Russian vehicles would be allowed to cross the border.
Ukrainian officials appeared to have little faith in their Russian counterparts, accusing them of funneling weaponry to rebels and then saying Russia’s aid was needed to stanch the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe. Russia has denied helping the rebels.
“Russia is playing an absolutely cynical game,” Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky said Tuesday. In eastern Ukraine, “they are trying to use the pretext of humanitarian aid and assistance, and it seems they are just running out of excuses for their aggression.”
Ukrainian, U.S. and NATO officials have been cautious about the Russian aid offers, fearing that they could simply be a pretext to strengthen the rebels. Western officials have said that Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine.
The International Red Cross, which both sides said was tasked with receiving and then distributing the aid, said in a statement that it “is seeking more information” about the convoy and that it still did not have the security guarantees that it would require to operate in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. The aid is intended for the Luhansk region. Officials in the main city there, also called Luhansk, said Tuesday that residents had been without electricity or water for 10 days.
Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that there were ongoing negotiations about the structure of any humanitarian assistance to Ukraine from international partners, including Russia, but that plans would not be in place for up to a week. Important questions remained unanswered, they said, including the scope of civilian needs in eastern Ukraine and the willingness of rebels in the Luhansk region to facilitate aid distribution.
“We are talking about international humanitarian assistance, which Ukraine is ready to receive from our partners. If Russia gets involved, we don’t mind, but it should happen according to our rules,” said the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Valeriy Chaly.
But he said that any assistance that reaches Ukraine’s borders would need to be examined and handed over to the Red Cross for delivery. He warned that attempts to bring anything across the border without the consent of the Ukrainian government would be treated as an act of aggression.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday evening that it would comply with Ukrainian requests about routes for transportation and inspection and that it would move the convoy — totaling 262 vehicles, including the cargo-laden trucks — to the border near the Ukrainian-held city of Kharkiv. But it said there were “puzzling statements” from Kiev about “new logistics requirements,” an apparent reference to the demand that the convoy not be allowed into Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia would allow Ukrainian officials onto the trucks along with international observers, but he said that switching trucks would be a needless waste of time, Interfax reported.
At a news briefing in Kiev, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko played a covertly recorded video that he said showed the Russian aid was connected to the Russian military. He suggested that Russian military personnel were driving the trucks.
Western leaders said aid to Ukraine needs to be coordinated with the Ukrainian government.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during a visit to Australia that diplomatic efforts are underway to resolve tensions over the Russian shipments. Kerry said that he was hopeful that talks this week would yield a way “to deliver humanitarian assistance without the guise of a military delivery,” saying that no aid should be given to countries that say they do not want it.
France, too, said it was concerned.
French President François Hollande spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and “expressed worries over the developments in eastern Ukraine” and about “the prospect of a unilateral Russian mission to Ukraine,” Hollande’s office said in a statement.
Russian state television showed white-painted Kamaz trucks without license plates being loaded at dawn near Moscow and departing for the Ukrainian border. At least one appeared to be flying a Red Cross flag; others flew the flag of Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the trucks were carrying grain, salt, sugar, baby food, water, medicine and medical equipment, as well as 12,000 sleeping bags and 69 portable power generators. The total weight of the goods was nearly 2,000 tons, the ministry said.
State television quoted truck drivers as saying that the convoy would take two to three days to reach the Ukrainian border. The distance from Naro-Fominsk, the town from which the convoy departed, to Kharkiv is about 425 miles.
Rebels in the stronghold of Donetsk now say they are encircled and that fighting has intensified in recent days.
“The intensity of clashes has increased tenfold,” a Donetsk rebel leader, Andriy Purgin, told Interfax on Tuesday. “Considering the current humanitarian disaster in our region, Kiev has apparently decided to take advantage of this situation and press ahead.”
Anne Gearan in Sydney contributed to this report.