As 145 white trucks rolled into Ukraine through Russian-controlled Izvarine on 22 August 2014, all the eyes of the Western and local media was on Putin’s new “humanitarian aid convoy” motion. Journalists followed the huge column from Narofominsk near Moscow to the Ukrainian border, where it didn’t wait for full clearance by Ukrainian authorities and barged into the territories of the self-proclaimed “LNR” and “DNR”. Since then, a total of 34 convoys have entered Ukraine, all without clearance by Ukrainian border control. They are coming almost on a weekly basis, without yet left largely unnoticed by the larger world. This is troubling, to say the least, as this hybrid war tactic certainly deserves more attention. Here is what we know so far about the Russian convoys to Donbas.
1. None of the convoys have been properly inspected by Ukrainian border control
The initial convoys have sparked Ukrainian and international condemnation, officials asserting that cargo entering en masse without Ukrainian border control amounts to invasion. However, as the interest to the convoy campaign gradually subsided, this overt violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty is left unanswered, accepted as a new reality. Today, all of the Russian convoys enter Ukraine through the parts of the border which Ukraine has no control over; Ukrainian border guards at best can observe, but not inspect the cargo.
2. The food supplies often end up being sold, not distributed as aid
One might argue that relieving Donbas from the ravages of war is more important than any international formalities. This could be agreed, if the convoy’s bona fide humanitarian cargo really did find those in need. However, as Russian independent Novaya Gazeta wrote in November, most of the humanitarian aid never reaches ordinary citizens, instead ending up in local stores. News from the Luhansk “republic” suggest that humanitarian supplies are used as a means to control unruly local terrorist commanders. Disloyal Cossacks may see humanitarian cargo cut off altogether, which is just another means Luhansk “authorities” use to consolidate their power (others being outright murder of those unwilling to submit).
3. The convoys serve their role as positive PR for the internal Russian audience, but some are mostly empty
Despite that, the convoys do serve their PR role, with each of them covered by Russia’s state media. For Kremlin’s propaganda machine, this is also another way to undermine Ukraine by accusing Ukrainian troops of planning provocations against the convoys that never came to fruition.
Suspicions have arisen that the convoy spectacle indeed was just for show as the white trucks were found to be mostly empty. Russian emergency ministry authorities explained this away by technical requirements. However, trucks carrying humanitarian aid from other donors (such as the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov) were full almost to the brim, raising questions as to the veracity of those technical requirements. To date, the half-emptiness of the Russian trucks still remains a mystery.
Later, Ukrainian security council spokesman accused the convoy of moving valuable equipment from Donbas factories to Russia.
4. The convoys could be used to distract from brewing military action
The very first convoy may have served yet another purpose, namely that of distraction. The trucks rolled in mid-August, as the battle of Ilovaisk was raging between Ukrainian forces and terrorists, for the first time massively aided by Russian regular troops. With the attention focused on the convoy, the conventional invasion probably had a better chance of staying covert. However, this tactic did backfire: while waiting for the convoy to cross the border, Western journalists spotted a column of unmarked military vehicles entering Ukraine.
5. Some of the convoys were crewed by Russian military
Since then, the crew and cargo of the convoys has been called into question. Ukrainian open source investigators at Informnapalm found that the trucks were manned by Russian military drivers and apparently accompanied by elite paratroopers. Curiously enough, the “white trucks” appeared to be hastily painted over from army khaki, spots of the previous color still visible under the tarp.
6. The cargo was found to contain fuel, combat helmets, and propaganda materials
The proven content of the convoys has been found to be questionable, at best dual-purpose. Ukrainian border guards and OSCE observers, still allowed to visually inspect (but not scan or thoroughly check) the trucks, have reported them to contain fuel and even combat-grade helmets. In another alarming case, the trucks were carrying “advertising of unknown origin”. Another convoy carried history books with a Kremlin version of Donbas’s history, its Ukrainian past and Stalin’s atrocities not getting a mention, and yet another – flags of the unrecognized separatist republics and information materials for a “Novorossiya’s Day of Knowledge.” The last three cases signal yet another purpose of the convoys – tearing the occupied territories even further away from Ukraine through propaganda and indoctrination.
7. There is no conclusive evidence of the convoys transporting weapons yet, but why does Russia evade inspections of cargo?
Ukrainian border guards have stated that they have not seen weapons in the cargo; however, they’ve never had proper access to it. Moreover, some of the trucks were captured on satellite imagery at a militant base. While we can’t say with 100% certainty that the convoys do carry weapons in the conventional sense, the endless columns of white trucks sporting Russian colors and coats-of-arms are themselves a powerful weapon of the hybrid war. Silently undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, used to exert control over armed thugs and their local hostages and sweetening Russia’s image in the fight over the locals’ minds, the convoys should receive a stronger international response, including sanctions on the companies that contribute to their contents.