Trucks that sparked international condemnation by crossing into Ukraine without authorization returned to Russia as German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the battle-torn country.
All of about 280 trucks that carried what Russia says is humanitarian aid have crossed the border, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, said by phone today. Ukrainian border guards were unable to inspect them, said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military. The U.S. and the European Union condemned the decision to send the convoy, which the government in Kiev called an “invasion.”
Tensions are spiking anew in Ukraine, fractured by fighting that the United Nations says has left at least 2,000 dead since Russia annexed Crimea in March. Russia, which Ukraine and its allies blame for stoking the unrest, denies it’s involved in the conflict that has triggered sanctions from the U.S. and Europe.
“Ukrainians won’t ever be divided by language,” President Petro Poroshenko said today in central Kiev during the country’s Flag Day celebrations. “We are a peaceful nation but we are ready to pay with sweat and blood for the right to live under the Ukrainian flag.”
While Ukrainian should be the country’s only state language, the nation “shall pay respect” to its Russian-speaking members “who protect Ukraine,” he said.
The truck convoy that reached the eastern city of Luhansk yesterday is a “flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty” and Russia risks added sanctions if it isn’t removed from the country, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.
In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a website statement yesterday that Russia is acting “in complete accordance” with international law by sending its humanitarian aid through rebel-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office said in a statement on its website that it gave Ukraine a detailed explanation.
The Russian government is “satisfied” with the aid mission to Ukraine and was in close contact with the Red Cross on all stages of preparation and delivery, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its website. Russia wants to continue cooperating with the Red Cross as its help is “still desirable” because Ukraine’s southeastern regions need further aid, it said.
Fighting continued in Ukraine’s easternmost regions, where government forces have been claiming advances in their efforts to root out the separatists, taking parts of Luhansk and encircling Donetsk, the two largest cities held by the insurgents. Oleg Tsarev, a leader of the rebels, said on Russian state television Vesti last night from Donetsk that the rebels are now on the offensive and have retaken some villages.
Government forces are under attack near four towns and are being shelled from Russia, the Ukrainian military said on Facebook. The troops continued their assault in the past 24 hours, destroying two GRAD rocket-launcher systems among other equipment, it said. Two districts of Donetsk were shelled by artillery fire that killed three civilians, the city council said on its website today.
The rebels control about 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the border with Russia, while Ukrainian troops were being shelled from across the frontier along a stretch of about 400 kilometers, Lysenko said.
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.
Merkel is scheduled to visit Kiev today, where she plans to meet with Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. She spoke by phone with Poroshenko and Putin yesterday, German government spokesman Steffen Siebert said in an e-mailed statement. Merkel expressed deep concern about the convoy and urged a cease-fire agreement, he said.
Merkel also 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.”
“A forced crossing without authorization or escort indicates that Russia is more interested in resupplying separatists rather than supporting local populations,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, said in a statement yesterday.
Russia isn’t planning to invade Ukraine under the cover of the convoy, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said yesterday, according to the ministry’s website.
The war effort is also draining Ukraine’s economy. The country’s local-currency debt was yesterday downgraded by Fitch Ratings to CCC from B-, which signals a high risk of default. Only Argentina, which failed to make an interest payment last month, is rated lower.
While the government has recaptured territory from the rebels, conflict may persist or intensify, delaying economic revival and damaging productive assets, Fitch wrote in a statement. The economy will shrink at least 6.5 percent this year, with zero growth forecast in 2015 and 2016, it said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at email@example.com; Anatoly Medetsky in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com Randall Hackley