The spectacle surrounding the Russian aid convoy for eastern Ukraine was interesting to observe. The gut reaction from some quarters was to claim it was a Trojan Horse filled with troops and weapons. That was quickly disproved, as Western journalists were allowed to make random checks of the contents and the trucks contained precisely what the Kremlin had claimed, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.
A second gut reaction was to claim the convoy was a provocation for war. The convoy would be fired on and the Russian army would intervene to protect it. That was also quickly disproved too. The trucks parked quietly in a field near the Ukraine border, awaiting inspection by Ukrainian border guards and mediation by the International Red Cross.
A third, and more plausible, explanation was that the aid convoy was a public relations stunt, designed to show the world that while Ukraine’s army is creating a humanitarian disaster, Russia is ready to provide humanitarian aid. This , at the very least, went down well with domestic Russian opinion.
But by far the most credible explanation is that the main purpose of the convoy was to allow Western journalists to witness – and get used to – the nightly infiltration of military support for the ‘pro-Russian’ rebels.
It was striking that the convoy of white trucks parked close to a section of the border under rebel control and where most incursions are likely to be happening. It was striking that nobody interfered when Western journalists filmed a column of Russian armoured vehicles rolling across Ukraine’s border at night.
This was the first independent confirmation of what Nato has claimed to be observing since early July. Making it public served two purposes. First, it undermined any hope that the rebels are about to be defeated by the superior force of the Ukrainian army.
The total number of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and rocket launchers which have reached the rebels is likely to be quite substantial. Top rebel official Alexander Zakharchenko says 150 armoured vehicles and 1,200 fighters trained in Russia over four months have now arrived in Ukraine to join the fight. There are also indications that air defence weapons, including the infamous BUK which allegedly shot down Malaysia airline Flight MH17 on July 17 killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew, have been brought into the theatre, effectively neutralising the Ukrainian air force.
By making these facts known, the Kremlin may hope to undermine the resolve of Ukraine’s ‘anti-terror operation’ and therefore brings its main goal of forcing serious negotiations between Kiev and the West closer.
If this fails, and more substantial support is needed, the aid convoy has served its second purpose of ensuring that the West gets used to nightly incursions of military convoys. The Kremlin has prepared the ground for increasing the stakes via a more overt daytime operation, without provoking massive sanctions.
This has been precisely its policy all along. By taking small successive steps up the ladder of escalation, it achieves maximum gain at minimal pain.
The downing of Flight MH17 was a severe setback which provoked serious sanctions. But now we appear to be back to basics, to small steps of escalation which are met with increasingly tiresome routine condemnations.
This is a game of smoke and mirrors which the West simply cannot win.