Ukrainian officials said today they’d refuse entry to a truck convoy that Russia says is loaded with humanitarian assistance for rebel-held eastern areas, while pledging to send their own aid to the embattled region.
Ukraine and Russia were locked in a stalemate as the column of about 280 Moscow-sent trucks headed for the border.
Russia’s government said the vehicles loaded with 2,000 metric tons of donated food, medicine and water left the Russian capital yesterday and would proceed into Ukraine under the auspices of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. Viktor Shcherbanyuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Red Cross in Kiev, said today there was no agreeement for the convoy’s entry either with his organization or with the ICRC.
“The only humanitarian aid Ukraine can accept must be within international law and can only come from the Red Cross,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a news conference today in Kiev. “The Ukrainian government is forming a convoy to bring the most-needed items to the relevant territories.”
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page the convoy wouldn’t be allowed into Ukraine and called the Russian move “provocations of a cynical aggressor.”
Finland’s government said in an e-mailed statement that the conflict in Ukraine “must be resolved through negotiations and to make that happen, it’s of primary importance that Russia stops aiding separatist groups.”
The ruble, the most-volatile currency in emerging markets, fell for a second day on concern that Russia’s humanitarian aid convoy to Ukraine may trigger an escalation of tension.
The currency weakened 0.2 percent to 36.2450 per dollar as of 11:48 a.m. in Moscow, after dropping 0.7 percent yesterday. The exchange rate is trading 1 percent away from the record closing low on March 13. The yield on 10-year government bonds fell one basis point to 9.43 percent, taking this month’s decrease to seven basis points.
Fighting continued in the eastern regions of Ukraine.
Twelve militants belonging to Ukraine’s nationalist Pravyi Sektor group were killed when their bus was shelled by pro-Russia rebels near the eastern city of Donetsk, spokesman Artem Skoropadsky told 112 TV. Five people in Donetsk were injured by heavy weapons fire last night, the city council said on its website.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is facing increasingly stiff economic sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, may meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later this month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said today on his official website. Nazarbayev, who spoke with Putin today by telephone, may also take part in the meeting as well as Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, according to the website statement.
The convoy was on its way to the Russian city of Belgorod about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, RIA Novosti said today.
Ukraine expressed fears the convoy is carrying military equipment to aid the pro-Russian separatists.
The ICRC needs “some clarification first regarding modalities, practical steps that have to be implemented prior to launch such an operation,” Laurent Corbaz, its head of operations for Europe, said in a video on the Red Cross website. “We seriously need security guarantees, for example, and direct contact with all the parties; this is not settled yet. We need as well to know precisely what is inside the convoy, the size of this convoy, and the various material that is going to be handed over.”
The wrangling over the aid comes as Ukrainian forces tighten a noose around rebel strongholds in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, where thousands are without water and power. Ukraine blames Putin for stoking a separatist war that’s killed more than 1,200 people in the east after annexing the Crimean peninsula in March.
“The Russian aid mission raises the prospect of incidents -- calculated or accidental -- that could further escalate the crisis by enabling Moscow to argue that Ukrainian and international organizations are unwilling or unable to provide adequate security,” New York-based Eurasia Group analyst Alexander Kliment said in an e-mail. “This logic would then lead Russia to insert troops under the pretext of protecting aid workers.”
Amid the continued tensions, Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, plunged as much as 6.9 percent to a record-low 13.715 per dollar yesterday. The head of the central bank, Valeriya Gontareva, told lawmakers in Kiev the hryvnia dropped after “a mood of panic” spread “because of speculation about the start of a full-scale war.”
Ukraine’s military says it’s near the end of an operation to surround the remaining separatist strongholds and has called on civilians to leave Donetsk and Luhansk. Encirclement of the rebels would shut off routes to the Russian border and sever their supply lines. The Defense Ministry said on Facebook yesterday that government forces retook control of three villages and “neutralized” a group of 30 rebels.
The fighting is causing havoc in the residential areas where it’s now concentrated. Luhansk, where about half of the 500,000 population remains, is completely isolated, with electricity cut off in the center and people without phone connections, food, medication or fuel, the city council said on its website. Many residents have had no power for three weeks and most shops are closed.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on its website the white-painted trucks were headed to the frontier between Belgorod and the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv -- about 700 kilometers (430 miles) by road from Moscow.
“We took into account all the wishes of the Ukrainian side on all aspects of the operation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in the Black Sea resort of Sochi yesterday. The trucks will be given Ukrainian license plates when they cross the frontier, he said.
“Signals” had been sent to the rebels to ensure the safety of the convoy, the foreign minister said.
The U.S. and the European Union have joined Ukraine in warning Russia not to use aid as a pretext for military intervention. The Red Cross says it can’t accept military protection for aid operations.