U.S., EU Join Ukraine in Condemning Russian Convoy

The U.S. and the European Union joined the government in Kiev in condemning Russia’s decision to send a truck convoy carrying what it says is humanitarian aid into Ukraine’s battle-torn easternmost regions.

The column of about 280 trucks that reached the 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 yesterday. The Ukrainian government called the move an “invasion.” The trucks are returning to Russia, the Rossiya 24 television station said today.

Tensions are spiking between Russia and Ukraine, which has been on the offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. The nation has been fractured by fighting since Russia, which Ukraine and its allies blame for stoking the conflict, annexed Crimea in March, saying Russian speakers were threatened. Russia denies it’s involved in the conflict, which 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 nation’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.

‘Complete Accordance’

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.

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 that the rebels are now on the offensive and have retaken some villages from the army. He was speaking from Donetsk.

Russian Forces

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.

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.

German Chancellor Angela 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, Obama

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 has previously sent ‘humanitarian’ and ‘peacekeeping’ efforts to Georgia, Moldova and Crimea, and we have seen how they proved to be deceptions that freeze conflicts rather than resolve them.”

‘Clear Violation’

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.”

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 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.