Trucks from Russia returned to Donetsk, Russia, on Saturday after delivering aid to Luhansk, Ukraine. Credit European Pressphoto Agency
MOSCOW — The huge convoy of Russian trucks that entered war-torn eastern Ukraine on Friday, sharply escalating tensions, returned to Russia on Saturday after unloading food and medicine in the city of Luhansk, and the Russian government quickly declared its satisfaction with the operation.
Russia’s decision to send the convoy across the border without an escort by the International Red Cross or final clearance from the Ukrainian government in Kiev had drawn harsh criticism. President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine called it a “flagrant violation of international law.” Another senior Ukrainian official denounced it as a “direct invasion.” And Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO, in a statement condemning the convoy’s entry, said it coincided with a “major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.”
The convoy’s swift return suggested that, at least for a moment, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had scored a public relations victory, especially on the domestic front.
Areas of Recent Fighting
Sources: Ukrainian Council of National Security and Defense; Pro-Russian separatist leaders
Trucks from a Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into a rebel-held area in eastern Ukraine, without the consent of the Ukrainian government on Friday. On the same day, NATO officials said that Russian artillery units had moved into Ukrainian territory and were firing at Ukrainian forces. Clashes continue throughout the region.
Ukraine Crisis in Maps »
During a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Saturday in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Mr. Poroshenko said that 185 trucks had returned to Russia. It was unclear where the rest of a fleet of more than 200 vehicles that crossed into Ukraine on Friday had gone. Russian news media reported that some of the trucks might move from Luhansk to Donetsk, a second rebel stronghold.
While Moscow cheered a successful aid mission, Mr. Poroshenko claimed credit for Ukraine, saying that “our strong and coordinated efforts managed to avoid provocation.” He derided Russia’s relief effort as “so-called help” and said Russia’s convoy was “in violation of all norms of international law.” But he praised Ms. Merkel for a pledge by Germany to help set up a fund of 500 million euros, or about $660 million, to rebuild war-ravaged areas of eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbass.
“We all remember the Marshall Plan for postwar Europe,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “Today I can say that this is the beginning of the Merkel plan to restore the infrastructure of Donbass.”
Russian television stations, largely controlled by the government, had carried constant coverage of the convoy crossing the border on Friday. The Russian Foreign Ministry declared the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine so grave that it could no longer tolerate what it described as stalling by the Ukrainian government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had agreed to oversee the convoy.
For weeks, Kiev and its allies, including the United States and major European countries, had raised suspicions about Russia’s plans to deliver humanitarian aid, fearing that the trucks could be used to carry arms and other supplies to pro-Russian militants who seem to be on the verge of defeat in their fight against the Ukrainian government.
There were also concerns that Russia would use the trucks to slow the Ukrainian government’s military operations in Luhansk, essentially to shield rebels as they regrouped and rearmed.
In Kiev, a military spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko, said the Ukrainian government was also hoping to defuse the situation, but he accused Russia of using some of the aid trucks to take military equipment from Ukrainian factories back to Russia. However, he offered no evidence to support his assertion.
“The leadership of Ukraine is using all diplomatic and political means to resolve this crisis and will not allow it to develop further,” Colonel Lysenko said at a briefing for reporters.
While witnesses reported seeing more than 200 trucks in the convoy, Colonel Lysenko said that Ukrainian officials had counted fewer than that crossing the border on Friday and that some of them, having dropped off their cargo, were being used “to take away equipment from Ukrainian enterprises.”
He said, without offering any proof, that the equipment was taken from the Topaz plant, which makes Kolchuga, a type of radar system, and from a factory in Luhansk that produces firearms magazines.
The colonel said Russia was continuing to fire artillery and missiles at Ukrainian military positions from the Russian side of the border, repeating an accusation that Ukraine has made consistently in recent weeks. Russia has denied direct military involvement in the conflict.
By swiftly returning the trucks to Russia, the Kremlin seemed to seize an opportunity to make its detractors in Kiev and the West appear alarmist, and the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the goals all along had been strictly humanitarian. “We are satisfied that the Russian humanitarian aid for southeast Ukraine was delivered to the destination,” the Foreign Ministry said. “We were guided in this exclusively by the goal of helping needy civilians.”
The statement added that Russia intended to work with the Red Cross to deliver the assistance. The hasty unloading of the trucks also seemed to confirm that many of them had been nearly empty. Journalists who were allowed to look inside some trucks had seen that many were only partly filled.
The State Border Guard Service of Ukraine found that most of the 34 trucks it inspected carried foodstuffs, including buckwheat, rice, sugar and water, and that some bore medical supplies.
The Red Cross said on Friday that fighting in eastern Ukraine made it too dangerous for the convoy to cross the border and deliver the aid. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the humanitarian crisis was worsening and that it could no longer wait.
Military experts say that there is no doubt that Russia could invade Ukraine — with tanks not cargo trucks — on extremely short notice and that the West could do little about it.
The loud criticism from Kiev and the West, however, seemed to provide the Kremlin with an easy opportunity to portray its critics as shrill and unreliable, while pushing back on hard-line Russian nationalists who have criticized Mr. Putin and his government for not doing more to help pro-Russian militants.
The Obama administration on Friday had also sharply criticized Russia’s unilateral decision to send the convoy across the border, which it said was “in violation of its previous commitments and international law.”
“Russian military vehicles painted to look like civilian trucks forced their way into Ukraine,” said a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden.
Ms. Hayden said that only a small number of vehicles were inspected by Ukrainian customs officials and that there was no way to know the contents of the entire convoy. The Ukrainian government complained that its customs agents sent to a border crossing to inspect the trucks had been blocked as Russia sent the convoy through.
Even as Ms. Merkel’s visit to Kiev was underway, fierce fighting continued in eastern Ukraine.
In Donetsk, heavy artillery bombardments struck at least two neighborhoods of the city on Saturday afternoon.
In one barrage, shells landed in a residential district near a traffic roundabout and rebel checkpoint, killing three people and wounding others while missing the separatist military installation. Earlier in the day, mortars landed again amid apartment buildings near an exhibition center occupied by separatist fighters.
(David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Andrew Higgins from Kiev, Ukraine. Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Donetsk, Ukraine, and Alison Smale from Berlin).
The New York Times.