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Guessing game over Putin's next move

Jeanette Seiffert / jhAugust 14, 2014

The back and forth between Moscow and Kyiv has gone on for days. What motivated Russia to send the supplies and are the trucks destined for Ukraine propaganda, a plan to invade the country or a show of solidarity?

Russischer Hilfskonvoi für die Ukraine 12.08.2014
Image: Reuters

It's as much a war of nerves as it is a war of pictures. Filled with medicine, berries, baby food and sleeping bags, at least 260 trailer trucks formed a column three kilometers (1.8 miles) long, but the vehicles won't be allowed across the border into Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has denied them access. These are the pictures that are shown in the Russian media and present the Russian president in more than a glowing light. From Moscow's perspective, the government in Kyiv poses an unrelentingly hard line - one that attacks cities, kills civilians and now prevents the arrival of humanitarian aid.

Whoever believes Russia to be the less hostile of the two, can refer to a YouTube video that appears to show green trucks with black military symbols being painted in white. The recording has yet to be verified, but the suspicion remains that Russia's real intentions do not serve a humanitarian purpose.

The media again are being asked what the truth really is. Is Putin reaching out and providing aid to the Ukrainian people? Or is this really just a grim pretence to display themselves as the heroes? Christian Democrat Karl-Georg Wellmann, chairman of the German-Ukraine parliamentary group, has no doubt that the latter is the case. "The instigator is now attempting to become the police and that's not right," Wellmann said in an interview with DW.

Russian game of confusion

In the last few days, Russia aroused concern in the West through a number of games, half-truths and misinformation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov grandly asserted that the aid efforts had already been cleared with the Red Cross, but in an interview with DW, Andre Loersch, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), revealed that the organization was just as surprised by Russia's revelations as the rest of the Western world. The Russian government has since informed the ICRC of the details of its planned aid.

Ostukraine Krise russischer Panzer-Transporter nah der Grenze zu Ukraine
A Russian tank: What is Putin really up to?Image: Reuters

On Tuesday, the confusion was widespread after a Russian news agency revealed a message stating that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could take charge of the effort. Since then, the OSCE has denied this to DW. It is prepared to support any humanitarian aid that is organized by the ICRC, but only "if the aid is requested by the Ukrainian government and the effort is agreed by all the parties involved."

Humanitarian aid a Trojan horse?

The trust has disappeared so quickly that some have already alleged Russia of using the humanitarian convoy as a way of preparing for a military intervention. "Every angle has to be considered," said Wellmann, who added that trust with Russia has reached "rock bottom."

Political scientist Andreas Umland from the University of Kyiv said Ukraine is right to be concerned about the convoy. "This is a propaganda war and that makes it very difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction," he told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

On the other hand, it's pointless to speculate about Russia's possible motives, according to Wolfgang Gerke, foreign policy spokesman for the Left Party. "You have to consider the facts and, according to them, Donetsk is under threat from a humanitarian catastrophe," Gerke told DW.

Ostukraine Krise Leiden der Bevökerung 12.08.2014
Is a humanitarian catastrophe edging nearer?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Gerke said he thinks little of the suggestion that Putin is wielding propaganda. "That just means that every one of the federal government's relief efforts could be devalued with the argument: There are only looking to create propaganda!" Putin using the effort as a Trojan horse, so as to smuggle weapons and soldiers into the land, is something Gerke said would "make little sense."

"If Putin really wanted to attack Ukraine, then he would have set his army into motion long ago," he said. "It's just like it was at the height of anti-communism - only that Communism no longer exists. The image of the enemy has remained though," said Gerke.

Moscow on the verge of a U-turn?

The Polish government sees the humanitarian aid that has caused so much tension as a positive sign. According to Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, the principal willingness of the government in Moscow to put the convoy under supervision of the ICRC has reduced the threat of a Russian military intervention on the eastern Ukraine border. The Polish government must now also acknowledge Russia's attempts to enter talks with the Ukrainian government and the Red Cross. This is all the more exceptional considering Poland has taken a hard line with Russia throughout the Ukraine crisis.

Political scientist and Ukraine expert Andreas Umland said he sees a change of heart in Moscow as a possible outcome. "It's feasible that the armament and support of the separatists has exposed Moscow in the wrong light."

Wolfgang Gehrke
Wolfgang Gehrke says talk of a Russia Invasion "makes little sense"Image: picture-alliance/ZB

Externally though, it still remains difficult to assume what is actually happening inside Russia's power circles. "It's not really a democratic process in which institutions, such as parliament, political parties, government and so on, play a part. It's more about informal power structures."

Whether there's a U-turn or not, Left Party politician Gerke said the Ukrainian government should allow the humanitarian convoy to enter the country. "If I was in his position, I would welcome the Russian convoy with open arms and say 'Please come and help our people.'"

The government in Kyiv, however, seems less inclined to allow Russia to conduct what Ukrainians consider provocative acts. The battle of nerves continues, and the pictures continue to be taken.