What to make of Russia’s “humanitarian convoy”?

Earlier this week, my sense was that the odds that Moscow would openly send its troops across the border into eastern Ukraine had gone up to around even. Western officials were also clearly very worried, issuing blunt warnings to Moscow about the consequences of an invasion.

It was also clear that were Russia to invade, it would represent the operation as a “humanitarian intervention.” Russian public officials were arguing (correctly) that conditions for civilians in the conflict zone were dire, particularly in Luhansk, which has been without electricity and water in the heat of the summer for over a week. They also argued that Kyiv’s so-called anti-terrorist operation (ATO) was the cause of the crisis, and that it was incumbent on the international community to stop the suffering either by pressuring Kyiv to end its offensive or by authorizing some kind of peace enforcement operation, presumably with Russian participation. There was also an implicit threat, particularly given another buildup of Russian forces on the border, that Russia would intervene unilaterally if Kyiv and the international community ignored its concerns.

How, then, to interpret Russia’s dispatching today of a large convoy of trucks, presumably filled with humanitarian aid, to the Ukrainian border? According to ITAR-TASS, the convoy consists of “up to” 280 trucks packed with 2,000 metric tons of relief supplies, including grain, sugar, baby food, medicine, sleeping bags, and electric power generators. The trucks have been painted white and marked with red crosses, and the convoy is expected to arrive at the border just to the north of Kharkiv early Wednesday morning. Representatives of the OSCE are reportedly accompanying the convoy.

All this raises a number of particular questions about the convoy itself, as well as the broader question of the motive behind the Kremlin’s initiative.

The cargo manifest

I have no doubt that the trucks are filled with humanitarian goods – it would be entirely unnecessary, risky, and ineffective to deliver military supplies in highly vulnerable trucks that are going inspected at the border. But there is one curious aspect to the list of goods cited by ITAR-TASS that warrants mention, which is the absence of water, despite the fact that drinking water is much the most critical commodity in short supply in Luhansk.

It may be that this was simply an omission by ITAR-TASS, but if not, the implication is that the convoy will do little to solve the humanitarian crisis in the city. It is possible that Kyiv has agreed to contribute water to the convoy once it enters Ukrainian territory, or that it will make efforts to solve the problem in other ways, but I have seen nothing suggesting that.

If the relief column arrives in Luhansk, possibly as early as Wednesday afternoon, but does not significantly alleviate the suffering in the city, Kyiv is going to find itself under increasing pressure from the international community to provide water to the city, including if necessary halting or ending its assault on Luhansk.

The convoy’s border crossing point

It seems likely that the convoy will continue on the M2 highway toward a border crossing just to the north of Kharkiv. Given that Kharkiv is well within the zone of Ukrainian control, that suggests that the ICRC, Moscow, and Kyiv have agreed to allow the convoy to travel through Ukrainian-controlled territory under the protection of the Ukrainian military. It also suggests that the separatists have agreed to allow the convoy to cross their lines and enter Luhansk.

That said, it is also possible that there is no such agreement, and that Moscow is expecting, and counting on, some kind of incident at the border that prevents it from continuing on to Luhansk – e.g., Ukrainian insistence that Russian personnel with the convoy not be allowed to cross the border and insisting instead that the convoy come under full control of Ukrainians.

Nevertheless, it is significant that Russia does not appear to be organizing a relief column from southern Russian across border points and territory controlled by the separatists, which would have been much more provocative and certainly would have been objected to by Kyiv.

What happens at the border?

Kyiv and the ICRC have stated that their understanding is that the trucks will be unloaded at the border and the cargo transferred to neutral vehicles, although to my knowledge that has not been confirmed by Moscow. Moreover, it raises the question of why the trucks in the convoy have been painted white if they are to remain on Russian territory. It is also hard to believe that Ukraine will be able to manage organizing that many trucks for the trip to Luhansk very quickly. One possibility is that the trucks will be turned over to Ukrainian control, with Ukrainian drivers, once they enter Ukrainian territory, but I very much doubt that Moscow would be willing to lose control of the operation. One thing that is clear is that the Kyiv and the ICRC have ruled out armed Russian escorts for the column once it passes into Ukraine.

What is the role of the US, other Western governments, the EU, and the ICRC in organizing and/or endorsing the relief convoy?

It appears that some kind of relief mission for Luhansk was agreed to yesterday by the so-called Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE). It also appears that the mission was discussed in a series of telephone calls involving EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who spoke with Putin, Poroshenko, and Obama. Nevertheless, just what Moscow, the ICRC, Western governments, the EU, the OSCE, and Kyiv agreed to is entirely unclear. A number of statements by Kyiv and Western officials yesterday suggested that a humanitarian mission had been agreed upon but that the humanitarian goods themselves would come from a variety of participating parties, not just Russia.

However, arranging the collection of supplies and transportation to Luhansk from countries other than Russia would take days to arrange. Moscow’s relief operation, in contrast, was fully in place today, and accordingly preparation for it had to have been underway for at least several days. One cannot assemble 280 trucks, paint them, and load them with humanitarian goods overnight. This obvious point was confirmed by a Russian soldier, who posted a note on his Vkontake page indicating that his unit, which is based outside of Moscow, had been painting the convoy’s trucks for several days.

Given that the convoy on its way from Moscow clearly does not contain any Western goods, the implication is that Kyiv and Western governments have agreed to organize some kind of follow up mission.

The big question: What is driving Russia’s humanitarian initiative?

It strikes me that there are three possible interpretations of Moscow’s initiative: (1) it is exactly what Moscow claims, which is an operation driven simply by humanitarian concerns; (2) it is intended to set the stage for an outright invasion by Moscow, presumably after some kind of “provocation” organized by Moscow whereby Ukrainians are alleged to have attacked Russian personnel accompanying the convoy (what Ukrainian analysts have been calling the “Georgia scenario”); or (3) an effort to set the stage for a negotiated settlement that keeps the crisis going from bad to worse

My sense is that the third interpretation is the most likely, for the following reasons.

First, the humanitarian argument strikes me as implausible. If Moscow were simply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine, the best way to put an end to it would be to stop allowing reinforcements and military hardware to cross the border from Russia and encourage the separatists to surrender.

Second, the “Georgia scenario” explanation doesn’t make sense as best as I can tell. If the Kremlin wanted to lay the groundwork for an invasion, the way to do so would be to announce that the international community had failed to take steps to bring an end to the sufferings of the civilian population in the Donbas, undertake a unilateral humanitarian intervention, and then openly invade if and when the humanitarian mission came under fire from the Ukrainians. I don’t see how a humanitarian convoy passing through Kharkiv, one that presumably crosses the border with Ukrainian approval and then receives Ukrainian protection on its way to Luhansk, can serve as an excuse to intervene. One possibility that suggests itself is that Russia may be hoping that the Ukrainians ultimately refuse to allow the convoy’s goods to make it to Luhansk, which strikes me as unlikely. And it is also still possible that convoys changes direction and heads for a border crossing controlled by the separatists.

My guess, howver, is that the Kremlin has now, finally, concluded that the separatists are going to lose and is looking for an exit ramp, having decided that the costs of an outright intervention would be unacceptable. Part of those costs are doubtless the costs of sanctions, but I suspect much more important are the military challenges of invading and occupying such a large and now violent region, as well as the enormous economic costs of “winning” the Donbas and being responsible for restoring its economy (which would be added to the considerable costs of keeping Crimea afloat). There have been other indications that the Kremlin may be looking for a compromise with Kyiv, including an agreement to negotiate over the implications of Kyiv’s association agreement with the EU as well as rather less inflammatory treatment of the government in Kyiv in the Russian media. My guess, then, is the Kremlin is trying to set itself up domestically for a compromise with Kyiv, one that entails allowing Ukraine to restore its sovereignty over all of the Donbas.

It is also possible that Kyiv has concluded that pressing forward with an effort to take Luhansk and especially Donetsk by force is going to be extremely costly, despite its continued progress on the battlefield, and may well last into the fall and winter. Poroshenko suggested in the last couple of days that he is willing to step up efforts to negotiate a settlement in the so-called “Normandy” or “Geneva” formats, and that he will consider a peace plan entailing a ceasefire monitored by the OSCE; the release of hostages; monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border by the OSCE; and a political dialogue without conditions (although it is unclear with whom).

In short, both Kyiv and Moscow may (and I emphasize may) be trying to bring the violence in the east to an end, but if so it is far from certain that they will succeed. I am particularly skeptical that any kind of negotiated settlement will be reached with the separatist leadership. A negotiated settlement for the Donbas is also going to leave the underlying issue of European security and the conflict between the Atlantic alliance’s and Russia’s geopolitical projects unresolved. Still, with luck it might allow Kyiv to restore its sovereignty in the east without provoking outright war between Ukraine and Russia.