Amid reports of a surge in fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Moscow will be sending a second humanitarian convoy into the war-torn region as early as this week.
Experts say that both the rebel claim of a new offensive to break the Ukrainian army's weeks-old siege of Donetsk and Mr. Lavrov's announcement are part of the maneuvering ahead of Tuesday's possible face-to-face meeting between Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk.
"On one hand we are seeing a concerted effort to demonstrate that the anti-Kiev rebels are not cornered, as much of the Western media has declared, and that they are very much a viable force that will have to be negotiated with at some point," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
On the other hand, he says, Moscow is staking out its claim to be a provider of humanitarian assistance to the largely Russian-speaking populations of Luhansk and Donetsk, where hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped for weeks, with only sporadic gas and electical power, and dwindling supplies of food, drinking water, and medicines. Last Friday a Russian convoy of 280 trucks, said to be carrying 2,000 tons of essential supplies, entered Ukraine without permission from the Kiev government and delivered the materials to Luhansk, before returning to Russia.
The Russians argue that Western powers themselves set the precedent that humanitarian aid should trump the rights of a sovereign government just last month – with Russian support – when the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to allow assistance to be delivered to rebel-held areas in Syria even over the objections of the central government in Damascus.
"Look, all other considerations aside, people down there need help," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Russia is willing to help them. We feel close to them, and this is a peaceful and constructive way of demonstrating our solidarity."
Mr. Lavrov said he hopes Kiev will drop its reservations, which delayed the first convoy for over a week, and cooperate in clearing the second one to deliver supplies this week. "We have no secrets here," he insisted.
But there doesn't seem to be much transparency regarding the ongoing supply of Russian military materiel to the rebels. Moscow adamantly denies it, but credible observers have seen it happening and rebel leaders have boasted of receiving it.
That question hangs over the conflicting reports of fighting around Donetsk Monday. The rebels claimed that their newly re-organized "army" has gone on the offensive, was pushing back Ukrainian forces, and recapturing territories they had earlier lost, and even advancing on the city of Mariupol where the pro-Kiev government of Donetsk region currently sits. Kiev insisted its forces were battling a column of Russian tanks that had crossed the border in the far southeast and was making a thrust for Mariupol. Neither side has a very good track record of accuracy.