Janine Davidson

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Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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In Russian Aid Convoy Standoff, There Are Three Scenarios. Only One Is Good

by Janine Davidson
August 13, 2014

russia-convoy-putin A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine, behind a police escort, stops along a road near the city of Yelets, August 12, 2014. The convoy carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid left on Tuesday for eastern Ukraine, where government forces are closing in on pro-Russian rebels, but Kiev said it would not allow the vehicles to cross onto its territory. (Maxim Shemetov/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 14 Comments

  • Posted by herman

    Dear Janine, why only 3 scenarios?
    What about Ukraine government letting those convoy into its territory, and then doing some serious check of the cargo in front of the world media agencies. Then we would know what is really in those trucks. And what with that 280 Russian Rambo’s posing as the drivers, well disciplined “and probably well-armed” 😉 ? Any humanitarian aid when passing the border checkpoints can be searched whether the cargo holds what is in the shipping manifest, so the Ukrainian border is not unique case. Do you really expect to see drivers armed to the teeth in those circumstances?
    But, your post fits well into popular “Trojan horse” narration…

  • Posted by Ian Grove-Stephensen

    Scenario 4: the trucks will be used to facilitate a breakout from encirclement in Lugansk and Donetsk. If loaded with a 50/50 mix of troops and hostages, I’m pretty sure the Ukrainians would let them pass. The question then is whether they would go all the way back to Rostock, or revert to their previous trouble-making once out of the trap.

    I do think too much attention has been given to what the convoy might do going IN, and not nearly enough on them going OUT.

  • Posted by Bohdan Oryshkevich

    .Also as a distraction, delay, or decoy for other simultaneous or delayed activity.

    I would not underestimate the Russians.

  • Posted by Dimitri Klimenko

    ANY entry of Russian “peace keepers”, humanitarian aid, etc., is an incursion into Ukraine’s territory and only serves to delegitimize Kiev’s authority over the region, as well as its fundamental sovereignty. If Ukraine is to preserve its territorial integrity, absolutely no Russian government sanctioned entity can be allowed to enter Ukraine, under any circumstances.

  • Posted by John Ackerby

    There is a 4th possibility: The convoy could be a set-up. Russia could be sending it to Ukraine so that the rebels could attack it, which would justify an invasion by Russia.

  • Posted by David Cash

    I agree with Dimitri. This is a Ukrainian sovereignty issue, and “absolutely no Russian government sanctioned entity can be allowed to enter Ukraine…”. The three “different ways” suggested by Janine Davidson are as meaningful as the invitations of Lugansk’s Anastasiadate.com’s beautiful women. Whether or not, 280 “Russian Rambos” descend upon a checkpoint border crossing really is more a “bladder concern” than a Putin coup de’ graze. From what I’ve seen regarding the Ukraine militias, Putin is probably chuckling in Sochi that he has managed to get this far while rattling the paranoia of the disgruntled West. Check-counter Check. Who has positioned the Checkmate? That is really the issue.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Well, surely no one can fault Vladimir Putin for lack of cunning or boldness of vision. But in the end he may just prove himself to be lacking in the courage to support his ambitions. The White Truck Convoy flying false colors of the International Red Cross is a gambit that will go down in history as showing him to be a man of great wit. But is it an act of desperation ? In past years, Russian leaders have not engaged in such gymnastics.

    How the gambit plays out will clearly depend on where the convoy enters Ukraine, if it enters.

    The Ukrainian President has shown himself to be adept in dealing with Russians. He will be able to handle this challenge, if the decision is made to attempt a peaceful and permissive entry at a border crossing that Ukraine controls. The Ukrainians will then take over. The trucks will not be allowed to cross enemy lines.

    But the question is, where will that crossing be attempted ? Presently, the convoy is stopped at a Russian base east of Kharkiv. Putin is pondering his next move, and probably with a mixture of relish and panic, as he stands astounded by his own audacity – a new Napoleon for our age.

    Clearly, this is a telling moment. He must order his convoy further south, to the place where Russia has been sending arms in to Ukraine, the place where the Malaysian airliner was shot down, in order to achieve an entry in to Ukraine on his own terms, and have his convoy arrive behind rebel lines, where he wants it to be.

    That is where the trucks are headed. They are the pacifist spearhead of a Russian invasion. If they are attacked, or damaged inadvertently, Russia will occupy the Donbas. If they are not, their presence will force a de facto cease fire to the advantage of rebels.

    This is indeed a desperate gambit. Putin is trying to win. Poroshenko and his forces have their work cut out for them.

    R/s TPH

  • Posted by Evan Larkspur

    Traveling with the white convoy were a goodly number of APCs and other military vehicles. The white convoy stopped near the border by Luhansk. Reporters for Reuters and the Guardian report witnessing the military vehicles continuing on across the unguarded border in insurgent territory. So much for Russian support of the terrorists being “alleged.”
    Putin’s lies, duplicity, lack of even a shred of integrity, and refusal to honor even signed treaties leave us nowhere further to go. What assurances or agreements, even in writing, are of any worth whatsoever with Russia at this point? The making and keeping of commitments is the fundamental building block of our modern civilized world. Putin demonstrates over and over that, while he wants to profit from connection to this world order, he refuses to uphold it. We are out of options with him. He must simply be shut out of all contact with the civilized world, as he poisons everything he touches. Maybe in another 25 years back in the cage, Russia will decide to join the civilized world. But I don’t know how we will trust them. I guess they will have to put up a trillion dollar bond as assurance of upholdign any agreement anyone is foolish enough to make with them. It’s very sad.

  • Posted by Dave

    Putin could , I stress “could” , simply stop the convoy at the border. Drop off the goods and leave. That would answer all questions and settle all fears. Option #5.

  • Posted by Dave P

    280 TRUCKS? One can only be pessimistic.

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    Wow – I´m kind of astounded at this piece. Not becauuse it´s not good but because I would have expected an expert to kind of know whether Putin would be so mental as to attempt to send in 280 white áid´trucks with 2 or 3 armed Russian soldiers in the front seat or not… and it seems the writer isn´t sure at all… which is scary…. mad even. This Putin lad is challengly insane it seems from well…most of his choices… like what the hell is going to happen if he´s busted sending in troops tretending to be áid´trucks. How will he look to his people and to the world if he is actually trying to pull a mad plan like this one off? I mean The Ukrainiansare obviously going to check papers then check the back of the truck then ask the drivers to step out and search the cabs for weapons and underneath etc etc etc… I mean how in the name of anything is Putin really going to pull off such a nutjob corny ass plan like the world is wondering out loud rifght now? in reality how would it be done given they´ll be searched well? Just take the aid and send the drivers back…simple as that. It aiñt rocket science or am I totally wrong here?

  • Posted by Ivan Sipos

    I believe that everybody is mesmerized by conspiratorial theories
    Do you really believe that if Russia decided to invade Ukraine it needs a cover of hundreds of trucks?
    How about starting with the presumption that this is a genuine humanitarian gesture towards some civilians that found themselves in a war zone with shortages of food and water?.
    Let’s suppose that Russia really has tens of thousand of troupes massed at the border. and its want to invade. Who will stop them?
    This is another sad episode of irrational politics on the back of ordinary citizens.
    I wish the world would return to great realpolitik-Brandt, Schmidt, Kissinger where are your decedents?

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The Kiev government is “killing its own people”. Russia has been consistent in insisting that it has no intention of intervening militarily. The government has said that there is no popular domestic support for such a move. This humanitarian aid is a way for Russia to show the world that it will not intervene. The West is superimposing its own penchant for subterfuge on the Russian situation. It has nothing to do with the Russian policy. How about letting this aid get to the desperate Ukrainians as soon as possible? That’s scenario no. five.

  • Posted by Mueller

    Just be frank. Russian troops are present in Ukraine and American and European inaction to defend Ukraine makes us a global laugh . Nothin you say or write can change that. Putin is given a green light to do what he wants due to cowardly behavior by Western politicians!

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