Bryan Preston reported yesterday on the claim by the Ukraine government that it had destroyed part of an Russian armored column that had crossed the border. The White House says it cannot confirm the incident occurred, but NATO says it has proof of the Russian incursion and subsequent artillery barrage by Ukraine.
Skirmishing between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists continued near the border today, but it doesn’t appear to be a widening of the conflict. Instead, a tense situation continued at the border post where more than 260 Russian military trucks (painted white with all insignia removed) filled with humanitarian aid awaits the outcome of talks in Berlin between the two country’s foreign ministers.
Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists skirmished near the Russian border Saturday but there was no sign of the conflict widening a day after Kyiv said it partially destroyed an armored column that had crossed the border from Russia.
The report of the attack on the column Friday triggered a sell-off in the U.S. dollar and on European stocks, with markets fearful it could change the Ukraine conflict into an open confrontation between Moscow and Western-backed Kyiv.
But Moscow made no threat of retaliation, instead saying it was a “fantasy” that its armored vehicles entered Ukraine. In Washington the White House said it could not confirm that Russian vehicles had been attacked on Ukrainian soil.
Meanwhile, hundreds of trucks in a Russian aid convoy remained idled near the Ukrainian border, The Associated Press reported, as complicated procedures drag on for allowing them into eastern Ukraine to help civilians suffering amid fighting.
On the ground Saturday, the conflict returned to the pattern it has been following for several weeks. Kyiv said military equipment was entering from Russia, and the rebels said they had attacked Ukrainian troops.
A Reuters reporter in Donetsk, one of two rebel strongholds in the east, said the sound of explosions was audible in the city center.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was to arrive in Kyiv later Saturday for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, aimed at finding a negotiated solution. Niinisto met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and afterwards spoke of the possibility of a truce, although it was not immediately clear how that would happen.
Ukraine is adamant that no Russian vehicles or people will be allowed to cross the border. The Red Cross has offered to transport the aid in their own vehicles, but Putin is stalling. A meeting between the two sides in Berlin today probably won’t move the needle on the conflict very much.
Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov will hold talks with their German and French counterparts to ease the standoff. The former Soviet neighbors are also trading accusations over a stalled humanitarian convoy from Moscow amid fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Any breakthrough on the humanitarian convoy of about 275 trucks, now waiting about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border in the Rostov region, might help ease tension over the separatist conflict, which Ukraine says is being fueled by Russia. Talks between the two sides and the international Red Cross, which has been asked to oversee the delivery, will continue today, spokeswoman Galina Balzamova said by phone.
“A quick resolution of the crisis remains unlikely,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, who specializes in eastern Europe, said by e-mail. “The new round of talks in Berlin might at best bring a slight detente and potentially avert a further escalation over the next days.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it’s deploying additional staff to Russia and Ukraine in preparation for aid delivery. Both sides asked the Geneva-based organization to assist.
“We still need assurances from all parties to the conflict staff will be allowed to perform tasks safely, with due respect for humanitarian principles,” Laurent Corbaz, the Red Cross’s head of operations for Europe, said in an e-mailed statement. “Given complex logistics, security challenges involved, this aid operation will take some time, we call on authorities of both countries to do all they can to resolve outstanding issues quickly.”
An aid shipment sent by the Ukrainian government was handed to the Red Cross, said Iryna Herashchenko, Poroshenko’s envoy to eastern Ukraine.
Those trucks can’t sit on the side of the road forever. Putin is unlikely to force a crossing, although there are many in NATO who believe the trucks are a ruse anyway — a pretext for Putin to invade. A denial of entry by Ukraine would give Putin all the excuse he needs to go in.