KIEV, Ukraine -- The U.S. and the European Union joined the government in Kiev in condemning Russia’s decision to send a truck convoy filled with what it says is humanitarian aid into battle-torn eastern Ukraine.
The convoy of about 280 trucks that reached the city of Luhansk is a “flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty” and Russia risks added sanctions if the convoy is not removed from the country, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters yesterday.
The Ukrainian government called the trucks’ entry onto its territory without permission an “invasion.”
Tensions are spiking between Russia and Ukraine, which has been on the offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the country’s easternmost regions.
Russia, which Ukraine and its allies blame for stoking the insurgency, dispatched the convoy containing food and other supplies on Aug. 12.
Ukrainian government forces have been claiming advances in their efforts to root out the separatists.
Rebel leader Oleg Tsarev said on Russian television Vesti last night that the rebels have retaken some villages from the army.
He was speaking from Donetsk, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) southwest of Luhansk.
Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO, said by e-mail that since the middle of this month the alliance had received “multiple reports” of direct involvement of Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in eastern Ukraine.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that no Russian artillery or military forces are there.
Russia is invading under the cover of the convoy, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the head of Ukraine’s security council, said on TV5.
The Russian trucks encountered no provocation along the way to Luhansk, Russian state TV channel Vesti said yesterday, after they entered the country without a Red Cross escort.
“We call this direct invasion,” Nalyvaychenko said.
“We are witnessing a clearly planned and dangerous provocation against Ukraine, with the cynical use of the well-respected Red Cross.”
In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a website statement that Russia is acting “in complete accordance” with international law by sending its humanitarian aid through rebel-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine.
“Western governments have their own ways of figuring out the extent of what happened today, but what they don’t know is the implications,” Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, said yesterday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to visit Kiev today, where officials are looking to Germany to provide leadership out of the conflict with Russia.
Merkel plans to meet with President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Merkel talked by phone yesterday with U.S. President Barack Obama and both leaders said the convoy is a provocation and violates Ukraine’s sovereignty, according to a White House statement.
They concluded Russia should recall the trucks.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, said the Pentagon was consulting with its allies on the next steps to be taken in the conflict.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in a statement the entry of the convoy was a “blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” that can “only deepen the crisis in the region.”
The EU, in a statement issued in Brussels, said Russia’s dispatch of the convoy without Red Cross escort or Ukraine’s approval “is a clear violation of the Ukrainian border.”
“We deplore Russia’s decision,” the EU said as it urged Russia to reverse course.
Yatsenyuk called the convoy a “farce,” not humanitarian aid, in an interview with local television channels.
Ukraine has been fractured by fighting that’s erupted since Russia annexed Crimea in March.
Russia denies it’s involved in the conflict, which has triggered sanctions from the U.S. and Europe.
“We consider this act of the Russian Federation to be in violation of key principles of international law, including the integrity of borders and the non-interference in domestic issues of other countries,” the Foreign Ministry in Kiev said.
“We call on our international partners to condemn the Russian Federation over these illegal and aggressive acts.”
Russia isn’t planning to invade Ukraine under the cover of the convoy, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said after a meeting with Laurent Corbaz, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s operations in Europe, according to the ministry’s website.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow reiterated a call for a cease-fire to facilitate the delivery of aid and proposed a United Nations Security Council statement on the truce, it said on its website.
“Because of the complicated security situation, we’re not accompanying the convoy,” Galina Balzamova, an ICRC spokeswoman, said by phone.
“We don’t think we’ve received sufficient security guarantees.”
The Russian president’s office said in a statement on its website that it gave Ukraine a detailed explanation of the aid convoy.