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Amid Outrage, Aid Delivery to Ukraine Brings a Public Relations Win in Russia

The humanitarian aid sparked international outrage Friday as it crossed the border into Ukraine without permission from the authorities in Kiev.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 23 2014, 10:40pm

Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

Today, after unloading a reported 1,800 tons of food and medical aid in the besieged rebel-held city of Luhansk, a convoy of 200-plus controversial Moscow-sent humanitarian trucks headed back towards the border in a U-turn that marked a public relations victory for Russia, despite continued fighting across Ukraine's beleaguered east.

The humanitarian aid sparked international outrage Friday as it crossed the border into Ukraine without permission from the authorities in Kiev. After the trucks spent more than a week stuck at the border amid political wrangling over the inspection and transit conditions for its delivery, Russia's Foreign Ministry declared the situation "intolerable" and gave the go-ahead for the uninvited convoy to push forwards towards the besieged city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

The move came immediately after the International Committee for the Red Cross rescinded on the previous day's agreement to accompany the trucks from Russia into the rebel-held city due to heavy shelling along the proposed route the night before.

Kiev and its western allies had slowed the movement of the convoy amid fears that the aid mission could be a 'Trojan horse' acting as a proxy for a Russian invasion, a supply source for the pro-Russia fighters operating in the country's east, or a decoy for the rebel fighters to regroup behind.

Across eastern Ukraine the humanitarian crisis is mounting every day. Pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces are engaging in a heavy artillery war, which is taking an increasing toll on the civilian population. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, more than 344,000 have fled the region, and a further 2,000 have been killed in the increasingly fierce fighting.

Defying Kiev and its Western allies, the convoy's journey — live streamed on Russian TV channels — made a big media splash for the Kremlin, which is still reeling from another round of western imposed sanctions. But whether the much-disputed aid can make any real inroads into alleviating the crisis in Luhansk is questionable.

The besieged city, with a pre-war population of 450,000, has been the epicenter of a Kiev-backed anti-terror operation aimed at ousting the pro-Russia rebels since the beginning of June. Now near-surrounded, food shortages are acute in the city, with the prices of basic goods such as sugar, oil, and flour rising up to five-fold. However, a lack of running water, electricity, and telecommunications — down for more the three weeks — as well as the indiscriminate artillery fire rained down on the city, present an even more immediate and deadly problems — which are unlikely to be resolved by the arrival of half-filled trucks of buckwheat sent by Moscow.

'Nowhere Is Definitely Safe Anymore': Inside the Besieged Ukrainian City of Luhansk. Read more here.

Meanwhile, the situation in Donetsk is also deteriorating rapidly. Large parts of the rebels' administrative capital have now been without running water for four days, and shelling is now encroaching on the city center.

At 6 AM this morning, residents were awoken by the thunder of grad rocket fire landing less than one mile from the city center. The assault, the fourth in the area in a matter of days, slammed down near Shakhtarsk football stadium and scored a direct hit on the local museum, a Crimean wine shop, and a local restaurant. Residential blocks throughout the district have suffered shrapnel damage, and many windows are either blown out or boarded up.

Standing outside her hit apartment, a 54-year-old clothing factory worker, Olga, told VICE News that most of the people that remained in her block were either pensioners or to poor to escape the city.

"We have no money to go anywhere. What are we meant to do? They attack us in the middle of the night. People are sleeping, they don't even have time to make it to the basement," she said, holding back tears.

The likely target of the assaults, which came from the direction of the Ukrainian forces holed up the city's airport, is a rebel base in a motel across the road. When VICE News visited the premise the receptionist would only say that the "police had been informed," pointing nervously to a large crater outside the building. Armed rebels stationed in a car outside blocked further access to the building.

Scores of civilians have been killed in Donetsk over the last week — including at least five deaths confirmed today by VICE News — as an increasingly heavy barrage of artillery fire has rained down on the city's center and suburbs in the last week.

Heavy clashes, including tank battles and rocket fire, also continue to rage in the nearby towns of Makiyivka and Ilovaisk for a third consecutive day. Kiev had claimed it was back in control of the contested territories, but today reports on the ground suggested that the rebel forces still remained in charge of the towns.

Now, with just hours to go until Ukraine's Independence Day — celebrated annually on August 24 — the rebel-held region is on tenterhooks, with many locals fearing a festive bombardment of their towns and cities. In Kiev a large display of military might is planned for tomorrow, with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and soldiers due to parade through the center of the capital.

In response, the rebels have announced a counter-demonstration of captured Ukrainian military vehicles and prisoners will be held in Donetsk — an act that would be in violation of the Geneva Convention.

This afternoon, some of the burnt out vehicles were already on display this morning in the city's central Lenin Square. The line-up, which included a burnt out armored personnel carrier, tank, and Kamaz, attracted a small crowd of locals, but feelings appeared mixed. Some declared that the proposed rebel parade was a beacon of hope for the beleaguered region.

"It's like a candle in the church, it gives us the belief that we will win against these Kiev fascists," 69-year-old Tatiana, a retired doctor, told VICE News.

But others were less than optimistic. "It seems like it might provoke a response, which none of us want," said 34-year housewife Svetlana. "I have two young sons," she added picking her words carefully. "It's difficult to say what you want these days publicly. I can say that we just want to live in peace."

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem