As of Wednesday morning, 280 Russian trucks are en route to the Ukrainian border supposedly to supply aid as part of a humanitarian mission run by the Red Cross. Amidst accusations that the trucks are part of a Russian “Trojan Horse,” Ukraine is refusing to allow the trucks entry until they have been thoroughly inspected and verified by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The ICRC’s head of operations for Europe and Central Asia currently says they have no details of the supposed Russian mission. The Russian media has denied reports of a false humanitarian effort, claiming the trucks carry bottled water, medicine, and other emergency supplies.
This mission could go three very different ways. Only one of them is good:
1. Trojan Horse. As NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and others have suggested, this convoy may be a clever guise for Russian Forces to gain a foothold, rather than a humanitarian aid mission. Once over the border these suspiciously well-disciplined (and probably well-armed) “convoy drivers” would then constitute “boots on the ground” for Russian President Vladimir Putin to leverage if the security situation deteriorates. Even if the Russian government only claims that security is deteriorating, it will be well positioned to possess and control Ukrainian territory. Trucks can carry ammunition and troops as easily as they can carry diapers and water bottles. And trucks make great roadblocks to hold territory and control population movement.
Ukraine’s concern over this possibility may lead to these trucks being forcefully refused entry at the border…
2. Pretext for invasion. If the Ukrainian military uses forceful measures to stop the aid convoy from crossing the Ukrainian border, this will be a provocation that Putin and the Russian media may swiftly capitalize on. Even if actions taken to block the convoy are not overly provocative, pictures of eastern Ukrainians suffering—juxtaposed with other images of the Ukrainian government interdicting much-needed aid—may be used to incite Russian public support for further action. After all, 40,000 Russian troops currently remain poised at the Ukrainian border.
However, there remains the possibility that the aid is genuine. This carries its own interesting implications and presents Putin’s best way to de-escalate the crisis…
3. Face-saving de-escalation. It is possible that Putin recognizes that continued escalation is not in his medium to long term interest and that invading eastern Ukraine may only lead to a military quagmire that he needs to avoid. But having whipped Russian public opinion into such a “do-something” state, he cannot be seen as backing down. If the ICRC can certify the trucks and reassure the Ukrainian government accordingly, this could become a crucial turning point in the conflict. Making good on this strictly humanitarian move would ensure Putin remains a hero at home while avoiding serious conflict abroad. This could provide an opening for him to certify to the Russian people that things are under control, he has saved the day, and the troops can return home.
Of course, Putin offered similar aid to Crimea in March, at the same time he was carrying out his de facto annexation of the region. Meanwhile, reports have circulated of Russian soldiers already painting the word “peacekeeper” on their prepped tanks. So I am not holding my breath for option number three, but it is an opportunity that Putin would be wise to seize.