The mysterious Russian 'aid' convoy — announced with much fanfare by the Kremlin on 11 August — has now reached Voronezh near the Ukrainian border. What happens next has been the subject of intense speculation. But it does seem that Vladimir Putin has made up his mind to intervene directly in eastern Ukraine.
The news that Russia would be contributing its own humanitarian relief to Donetsk and Luhansk sent what one source neatly referred to as the 'geopolitical telephone' into meltdown. Did the 280 identical white trucks really only contain food and medical supplies? Or would the cargo be unloaded and replaced with Russian Special Forces and military equipment en route to Ukraine? Why had Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, suddenly changed his tune on the need for humanitarian corridors for Ukraine when he had previously been so vehemently against them for Syria? And why did the relief convoy have stickers marked 'MC' (short for 'Mirotvorcheskiye Sily' or 'peacekeeping'), the exact same ones to be found on vehicles operated by Russian forces in Transnistria, South Ossetia and most recently in Crimea?
In the lead-up to the convoy's departure, the Kremlin engaged in a hefty amount of signaling. Russia moved more troops up to the border with Ukraine, bringing the total from 12,000 to 20,000. Reports increased about heavy weapons (including Grad unguided rocket systems) moving into separatist-held areas. Ukrainian fighter aircraft were shot down by Russian jets. There was even evidence that Ukrainian ground forces were repeatedly coming under artillery fire from within Russian territory.
In addition to its build-up on the border, Russia held a coordinated series of military exercises involving front-line air assets, assault forces and artillery. Partly this was designed to show off new hardware which had become ready for operational deployment following the Kremlin's ambitious 2008 modernisation project. But during an address to his troops, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu also told Russian forces that they should 'expect the unexpected'. He went on to note that the world had changed, and that peace-keeping units could be called upon without warning.
The idea that the Russian aid convoy really contains heavily armed soldiers, ready to pour out of their trucks and open fire, is probably better left to Hollywood.
The troops would automatically be discovered at the border and turned back. And if they decided to fight, they would be quickly cut down as they left their vehicles. Either way, it would be a public relations disaster for Moscow, with domestic as well as international consequences. Putin would have been caught out in a barefaced lie about humanitarian relief. And engaging in a shooting match from trucks makes for a senseless and unpopular waste of well-trained personnel.
It is almost definitely the case that the convoy does indeed contain aid, and it will continue to do so as it attempts to cross into Ukraine. The International Committee for the Red Cross was able to confirm, as the convoy moved towards the border, that the trucks were indeed full of relief supplies.
But this raises a couple of scenarios much more likely than the idea of a series of Russian Trojan Horses.
The first is that the Russian convoy moves up to the border and the Ukrainians refuse to accept it or guarantee safe passage. That will open up a new window for the Kremlin to accuse Kiev and the West of appalling double standards: that aid from the Europe and the US is acceptable, but Russian aid is not. It will allow the language of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to be used, showing that there is one set of rules for the West and another for everyone else.
The second scenario is that Ukraine allows the convoy to pass, but along the way it is forced to turn back due to 'provocations', has its cargo stolen, or is even fired upon. That will represent a perfect pretext for Putin to launch a rescue mission using his new military machine.
However contrived, it will nonetheless be defensible on both statist and humanitarian grounds. Putin will be able to claim, with justification, that Kiev has failed in its obligation to protect civilians and those assisting them. He will also be able to point to the targeted use of force by Russian peacekeepers as an entirely reasonable response under the circumstances.
Putin's recent moves, and his likely intentions, have further incensed leaders in the US and the West more broadly. This is mainly because there is little they are prepared to do to stop it. International attention is now much more closely focused on the renewed conflict in Gaza and the American intervention in Iraq. The US population is also worried about the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.
As a result, the war in eastern Ukraine has been slipping off the radar, and marshaling the domestic and international will for a firm response to any Russian intervention will be difficult. But equally, preventing Putin from achieving his ambitions will take much more than symbolic sanctions, tough talk or 'de-friending' Putin at the upcoming G20 summit in Brisbane.
Given the series of half-measures witnessed so far, one must wonder whether the West has inadvertently sent a signal to Putin. If so, he seems to have received the message, and is acting accordingly.