A Russian convoy of 280 trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine set off Tuesday amid Western warnings against using help as a pretext for an invasion.
With Ukraine reporting Russia has massed 45,000 troops on its border, NATO said there was a “high probability” that Moscow could intervene militarily in the country’s east, where Kiev’s forces are closing in on pro-Russian separatists.
Western countries believe that Putin — who has whipped up the passions of Russians with a nationalist campaign in state-controlled media since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March — could now send his forces into the east to head off a humiliating rebel defeat.
Itar Tass news agency said the convoy has departed from near Moscow, which means it would take it a couple of days to arrive in east Ukraine, some 1,000 km (620 miles) to the southwest.
“It has all been agreed with Ukraine,” Business FM radio quoted President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying.
Thousands of people are believed to be short of water, electricity and medical aid due to the fighting, but U.S. President Barack Obama told his Ukrainian counterpart that any Russian intervention without Kiev’s consent would be unacceptable and violate international law.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso delivered a blunter message directly to Putin in a telephone call on Monday.
“President Barroso warned against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian,” the Commission said in a statement.
The Kremlin, in its own account of the conversation, made clear that Moscow would send help to largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Russian state television Rossiya 24 showed several heavy white trucks departing from the town of Alabino near Moscow.
A Rossiya 24 correspondent at the scene said the convoy should arrive at the Ukrainian border in 2 to 3 days where it would meet a representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Russia has said the aid would be delivered together with the ICRC.
“It was noted that the Russian side, in collaboration with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is sending an aid convoy to Ukraine,” the Kremlin statement said, without revealing when the convoy was going.
The ICRC said it had submitted a document to Russian and Ukrainian officials on delivering aid. But the independent agency stressed in a statement that it needed agreement from all parties as well as security guarantees to carry out the operation, as it does not use armed escorts.
“The practical details of this operation need to be clarified before this initiative can move forward,” said Laurent Corbaz, head of ICRC operations for Europe and Central Asia.
According to U.N. agencies, more than 1,100 people have been killed including government forces, rebels and civilians in the four months since the separatists seized territory in the east and Kiev launched its crackdown.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came out in support of an aid mission but made clear it had to be an international effort under the aegis of the ICRC, involving the European Union as well as Russia.
He won Obama’s backing when they spoke by phone on Monday. The White House quoted Obama as saying that any Russian intervention without the Ukrainian government’s agreement would be “unacceptable” and a violation of international law.
Earlier, Kiev said it was in the “final stages” of recapturing the eastern city of Donetsk — the main base of the separatist rebels — in a battle that could mark a turning point in a conflict that has caused the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
An industrial metropolis with a prewar population of nearly 1 million, Donetsk rocked to the crash of shells and gunfire over the weekend, and heavy guns boomed through the night into Monday from the outskirts of the city.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was no sign Russia had withdrawn the troops it had massed at the Ukrainian frontier. Asked in a Reuters interview how he rated the chances of Russian military intervention, Rasmussen said: “There is a high probability.”
“We see the Russians developing the narrative and the pretext for such an operation under the guise of a humanitarian operation, and we see a military buildup that could be used to conduct such illegal military operations in Ukraine,” he said.
NATO fears Moscow would use any aid mission as a cover to save the rebels, who are fighting for control of two provinces under the banner of “New Russia,” a term Putin has used for southern and eastern Ukraine, where mostly Russian is spoken.