MOSCOW, Russia -- An enormous Russian convoy of about 280 trucks carrying so called humanitarian aid has left Moscow for southeastern Ukraine, Russian television and news agencies reported Tuesday.
The Russian aid has been an object of suspicion for Ukraine and its Western allies, who accuse the Kremlin of trying to use it as a stealth method to invade its smaller neighbor with armed forces to support the besieged separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.
But President Vladimir V. Putin and other senior Russian officials all insisted on Monday that it was a peaceful convoy coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Television pictures showed a long line of tractor-trailers stretched along a road.
A Russian Orthodox priest was shown sprinkling the trucks with holy water before their departure.
Many of the vehicles were draped in huge banners reading “humanitarian aid” in Russian, along with the double-headed eagle of Russia and its white, blue and red flag.
The convoy was carrying 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid, according to the news agency Itar-Tass.
It included 400 tons of cereals, 100 tons of sugar, 62 tons of baby food, 54 tons of medical equipment and medicine, 12,000 sleeping bags and 69 generators of various sizes, the agency reported.
Talking about the convoy on Monday, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said he hoped the humanitarian effort by Russia would not be blocked by Kiev or by its Western allies.
The Russian government began a concerted effort to get the convoy accepted on Monday, setting off alarm bells in the West despite the Kremlin’s insistence that it was coordinating its efforts with the Red Cross.
The secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has estimated that there is a “high probability” that Russia will intervene militarily in Ukraine, and Ukraine has announced that even more Russian troops than previously thought are massed along the border.
But Russian officials repeatedly insisted that the convoy was to provide relief, particularly to the besieged, separatist-held city of Luhansk, where residents have been without water and electricity for days.
Putin on Monday called the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to tell him that the convoy was being dispatched.
Mr. Barroso responded by warning “against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian,” the European Union said in a statement.
The Ukrainian government approved the aid convoy, but only if delivered under the auspices of the Red Cross.
The office of President Petro O. Poroshenko issued a statement saying that he had spoken on Monday with President Obama, who also welcomed the decision to allow humanitarian aid under Red Cross auspices into the city of Luhansk.
A spokesman for the Red Cross said the logistical details for the convoy’s entry into Ukraine had yet to be worked out.
“A general agreement exists but not a detailed plan,” said Andre Loersch, the spokesman, speaking by telephone from Kiev.
The general agreement calls for the Russian Federation to hand over humanitarian aid, which will then be distributed by the Red Cross.
Mr. Poroshenko has consulted twice by telephone in recent days with Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the agreement, he said.
In Kiev, the former Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, who has served as a mediator between the government and the rebels, said the aid would be distributed to hospitals, kindergartens, orphanages and other people in need.
“The militants must not receive one gram,” he was quoted as saying by the news agency Interfax.
The Russian aid convoy would cross into Ukraine near Kharkiv, he said, and would then drive to Luhansk.
Along with the Red Cross, representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has also been part of the mediation effort, would accompany the convoy to Luhansk, Mr. Kuchma said.
The convoy evoked suspicion and anger from some Ukrainian politicians on Tuesday.
At a morning session of Parliament, called the Rada, Oleh Lyashko, a nationalist politician who has helped form several paramilitary battalions, called for Ukraine to turn back the convoy and seal the border.
“How can you take humanitarian aid from a country that destroys our country?” Mr. Lyashko said.
“Stop this nonsense.”
Parliament was also due to vote on imposing economic and legal sanctions against 172 Russian, Ukrainian and other foreign nationals.
Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk proposed the sanctions on Friday, saying they were directed at those “who have been financing terrorism, supporting the annexation of Crimea and encroached on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The Red Cross said that many details regarding the Russian aid convoy remained to be worked out, including security guarantees.
“The practical details of this operation need to be clarified before this initiative can move forward,” Laurent Corbaz, the group’s head of operations for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.
The Red Cross stressed that it never accepts armed escorts.
“Very intensive work is being carried out,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Russian presidential spokesman, according to Russian news agencies.
Once the details were worked out, the aid would be delivered immediately because of the “tragic humanitarian situation” in Luhansk and Donetsk, he said.
There has been speculation for months over whether Russia wanted to intervene directly in the conflict next door.
Most analysts concluded that it did not, figuring that the costs of what would amount to an occupation would be too high in soldiers’ lives and in financial terms, especially in the face of sweeping Western sanctions.
But as the area controlled by the separatists has gradually shrunk to the two cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, the question has focused on what Putin would do to assure continued influence over events in Ukraine.
Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of sending men and weapons to the area, a charge the Kremlin has denied.
There is little doubt that Russia possesses the capacity to carry out an invasion of southeastern Ukraine.
NATO has said in the past that Russia had deployed about 20,000 troops along the border.
On Monday, however, a Ukrainian military spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, said the numbers had risen alarmingly, to around 45,000 troops, supported by 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 390 artillery systems, 150 truck-mounted ground-to-ground rocket launchers, 192 fighter jets and 137 helicopters.
Those figures could not be independently verified.
The headquarters for Ukraine’s “antiterrorism operation,” as the military campaign in the east is officially known, said Tuesday that military raids had destroyed three rebel checkpoints.
Shelling continued in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions late Monday evening and early Tuesday morning.
In Donetsk, the City Council said that shelling had damaged the electricity infrastructure, leaving 206 substations without power.
Source: The New York Times