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Russian Convoy Heads To Ukraine, Bearing Aid — But Some Suspect Foul Play


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. A Russian convoy of nearly 300 trucks left today for Eastern Ukraine. Russia says the trucks are carrying aid - food, medicine, sleeping bags, power generators. They're due to arrive tomorrow. But Ukrainian leaders are suspicious. They're worried that the convoy could be a cover for a military operation. The Red Cross has said the details of the aid mission have not been agreed on by all sides. And for more on the convoy and the concerns around it we've reached Katherin Hille, she's Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: NATO and European leaders are warning Moscow against using this convoy as an excuse to get Russian troops involved on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. What are they saying and what has Russia's response been?

HILLE: Well, NATO has repeatedly said that the risk of a Russian invasion is high and they've also warned Russia that any attempt of getting Russians in there, even under the pretext of a humanitarian mission, will be seen as an invasion. And Russia denies any such intent and says, it wants to help the civilian population in the war zone.

SIEGEL: This convoy is traveling to Ukraine. As we're hearing Ukrainian government troops are close to retaking the major city of Donetsk. And also reports that tens of thousands of Russian troops have been massing just over the border. What is the situation on the ground like in Eastern Ukraine and around it now?

HILLE: Well, according to the journalists who are on the ground the situation in Lujan, the Eastern most provincial capital, seems to be the worst. And there are fewer foreign journalists there than there used to be a few weeks ago because fighting is now fierce and it's unsafe to go there. But we know that power, water and telecommunications in the city have been out for more than a week.

SIEGEL: And how is this convoy understood there? That is to say, is the impulse for it humanitarian and philanthropic? Or is it to show that Russia will help people who side with Russia and that Russia is still important in the region - what do people make of this gesture?

HILLE: Well, you know, in Russia Vladimir Putin's situation now domestically is not a very comfortable one. Because he has kind of backed himself into a corner by telling his own people here that the Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine are under threat - under attack and the propaganda spread by the state meeting here has fueled kind of nationalist fervor in Russia. And there is a lot of pressure on Putin to do something and by sending this convoy he can demonstrate that he is indeed taking action.

SIEGEL: And so what you're saying is if the convoy is carrying nothing more dangerous than power generators and sleeping bags, it still has political content in the context in Putin's political situation.

HILLE: It has a lot of political content. And then if you continue thinking even if it gets into Ukraine and to the intended recipients of the aid, the Ukrainian military might have to slow down its attack - especially if you have international Red Cross trying to distribute aid there has to be some kind of agreement that they are not to be shot at. So that might actually take some of the military pressure off the rebels.

SIEGEL: You've described how this looks from the Russian standpoint. From the Ukrainian capital they would be in the situation of blocking a convoy of trucks full of material to help people in their own country because they would object to it being a Russian convoy. That wouldn't be a very palatable political situation for them, would it?

HILLE: Well, that's the beauty of the whole set-up from the Russian point of view, right? It it serves political PR interests of the Russian government and that clearly puts the Ukrainian government into a big dilemma. And even Western governments because the Russians are pushing the line at the West. Just sort of ignoring a humanitarian catastrophe and it's blocking Russian attempts to help these people.

SIEGEL: Katherine Hille, Moscow Bureau chief for the Financial Times. Thank you very much.

HILLE: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.