Let’s imagine that the Russian convoy trundling toward Ukraine is in fact carrying humanitarian aid, as the Kremlin has assured the international community, and that it's not a Trojan Horse.
There is a very real humanitarian need in the conflict zones of the east. In Luhansk, civilians have been living without water, power, and medicine for eleven days, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's press secretary said Wednesday, and the government has encouraged civilians to leave the region as the anti-terrorist operations continue. Not everyone has the means to leave; those who could be mistaken for separatists have been denied seats on civilian transports. The Ukrainian military has no supply chain to support the active military campaign, so it certainly doesn’t have reliable methods of delivering aid to the besieged citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk, nor has it made providing aid a priority as it pushes forward in battle.
“Ukraine has said, ‘We'll get a military victory and then we'll see about that,’” says Jacob Kipp, a security expert at the Jamestown Foundation. There have been multiple reports of Ukrainian military units running out of ammunition and supplies on the battlefield. Forces are so undersupplied that several units at the border “were said to be close to eating grass to survive.” Annabelle Chapman and volunteers have resorted to bringing new helmets into the country from Poland, walking them across the border one by one. The military forces surrounding Donetsk are in no position to aid the Ukrainians inside. Many of these civilians already felt estranged from the new government in Kiev, and one of Poroshenko’s first priorities in office was to win their support.
Enter Russia, with its convoy of 2,000 tons of food and water. Kremlin propaganda portrays the Kiev government as fascist junta that's committing humanitarian atrocities to its own people, oligating Russia to step in and defend its brothers over the border. Rostov, the Russian town through which the convoy is rumored to be traveling, has been trumpeted in the Russian press as the place where some 13,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled—almost certainly a huge overestimation. A relative of mine who lives there told me that volunteers have been going door to door soliciting food donations for the refugees, and that the local population has been mobilized in support of Russia’s humanitarian mission. Now, Russians will be able to cheer on the humanitarian convoy as it passes through their towns, bolstering Putin's already sky-high approval ratings at home. It will also be a welcome sight for those in Ukraine who feel abandoned by Poroshenko's government. “The population of Donetsk is going to look out and say, ‘the Russians care about us,’” says Kipp.
Sending the convoy also buys Putin insurance against the separatists, who could very well bring their fight back across the border if things don’t go their way in Ukraine. Just when it looked like Putin had thrown the rebels under the bus and wasn’t going to heed their calls for help, he has found a way to seemingly come to their rescue without overtly saying so. And he has done it in standard Kremlin style, keeping the world guessing where the convoy is, what's in it, and what Russia is planning to do. The tactic, as Time's Simon Shuster writes, is perfectly designed to test the U.S. and E.U.'s assumption that every move Russia makes is an aggressive one—a safe assumption thus far.
The Ukrainian government is already losing this particular episode of the conflict. In the best case scenario, Kiev will be derided for refusing Russian aid it did not ask for and will have to figure out how to achieve the logistical feat of reloading supplies from 280 trucks over an unsecured, violent border. The government has laid out three scenarios for what could happen next: The convoy could really be a Trojan Horse and Russia will invade Ukraine outright, or the convoy will merely provoke conflict at the border, or there could be a peaceful transfer of humanitarian aid to Ukrainian customs officers once the convoy arrives.
Some combination of the second and third scenarios is most likely, but in the meantime, the civilians for whom the aid is intended stand to lose more, as the entire international community squabbles over how to help them.