The White House is threatening to ratchet up sanctions against Russia if its government doesn’t remove from Ukraine what the U.S. says are Russian military vehicles painted to look like civilian trucks.
The convoy of trucks “forced their way into Ukraine” today -- without an escort from the International Committee Red Cross, which the Ukrainian government had required, said National Security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. She called the move a “flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia.”
The U.S. planned to talk with the U.N. Security Council to discuss its next steps, said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, adding that Russia’s failure to withdraw could mean “additional costs and consequences from the United States and our partners in the international community.”
Rhodes said there had been negotiations in which Ukraine had agreed to accept the delivery of a humanitarian convoy into the country, with Red Cross participation. But he said it’s not part of the convoy and the “government of Ukraine did not give agreement for this convoy to move within their borders.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was forced to act, complaining in a statement that “endless delays hampering the initial deliveries of the Russian humanitarian relief aid to southeastern Ukraine have become intolerable.”
It said the convoy had been standing idle on the border while the Russians “made unprecedented efforts in all areas and at all levels” to comply with Ukrainian government demands.
The move bears “all the hallmarks” of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He called for a U.S. response to include broader, more crippling sanctions, lethal assistance and intelligence support to the Ukraine government.
“Our constant dithering on a response to Russian aggression over the last several months has empowered Putin to press forward instead of demonstrating that we are strongly committed to Ukrainian independence,” Corker said. “Permitting Putin to continue these provocative acts could result in devastating and perhaps irreversible consequences.”
A small number of the vehicles were inspected by Ukrainian customs officials, but most weren’t inspected by anyone but Russia, Hayden said.
“Under the agreed terms, the mission should have been accomplished by sending a small number of inspected trucks in to drop their supplies and return to Russia within 24 hours,” Hayden said. “That is not what is taking place.”
She noted that the convoy incursion comes as Russia maintains a sizable military force on the Ukrainian border and has sent a stream of military equipment and fighters into Ukraine.
“As a result, the international community has been profoundly concerned that Russia’s actions today are nothing but a pretext for further Russian escalation of the conflict,” she said. “If Russia really wants to ease the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, it could do so today by halting its supply of weapons, equipment, and fighters to its proxies.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the incursion comes amid a “major escalation” of Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine since mid-August. He said NATO has seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine.
He called it a “blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments” and said it would “deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel.”
He said the “disregard of international humanitarian principles raises further questions about whether the true purpose of the aid convoy is to support civilians or to resupply armed separatists.”
The U.S. and European leaders last month slapped their toughest sanctions yet on Russia’s energy, arms and finance sectors to protest Russian involvement in Ukraine. Russia announced its own ban of U.S. and European food products a week later.