Situation in Ukraine worsens as Russian convoy moves towards frontier

The crisis in Ukraine has entered its sixth month in August. From a national opposition between Ukrainian supporters of the country’s integration to the EU’s Eastern Partnership and followers of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union,  the crisis has gradually moved into a international political deadlock between Western states and Russia. While diplomatic sanctions escalate from both sides, the number of civilian casualties has increased dramatically in the last weeks. The convoy sent yesterday from Russia to Ukraine, officially to answer the current humanitarian crisis in the region, is suspected by the West of hiding an aggression. At the same time, the Parliament in Kiev drafted a law aiming at censoring media coverage on August 12th,  sharpening the communication war between both parts.

Casualties double in a fortnight

While the Ukrainian army declared being ready to launch the “final phase” of its counteroffensive in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the number of casualties has dramatically increased in the last weeks. Twenty-two civilians died in the last 24 hours near Luhansk, two days after twelve members of the Ukrainian nationalist movement Pravy Sektor, which fights alongside the Ukrainian army, also died in a separatist ambush. According to the United Nations, the number of deaths has doubled between July 26th and August 10th, moving from 1,129 to 2,086 people killed. On average, at least seventy people would have died every day between these two dates. Around 5,000 injured people –soldiers, militiamen and civilians- were counted while civilians have become short of food, water and electricity. On August 9th, the new self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic Aleksandr Zakharchenko affirmed Donetsk was about to enter a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

Separatist leader Valeri Bolotov announced on August 14th he would leave his functions as chief of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, following Alexander Borodai, another separatist leader’s decision to resign as Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic on August 7th.  The two resignations come amid rising tensions within the separatist movement which is gradually losing its grip over the area. The cities of Luhansk and Donetsk are the rebels’ only two remaining strongholds after the intensification of the Ukrainian military’s intervention in separatist regions.

West fears “Trojan horse” convoy

Officially aiming at relieving the civilian populations in the region, Moscow has sent on August 12th a 280 trucks convoy towards the Russian border city of Donetsk in the Rostov Oblast, close to separatist-led Eastern Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) asked for clarifications, which it got. "The Russian authorities have shared a general list of items with the Ukrainian authorities and the ICRC. The list includes basic necessities such as water bottles, food items, as well as generators," ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk said. However, ICRC also declared not having “further information regarding the content, and the volume of aid that it contains."

In front of this event, Ukrainian and Western officials remain sceptical on Moscow’s motivations to send such humanitarian aid. The Ukrainian government denied the convoy’s entry on its territory and decided today to send itself humanitarian aid to the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. They should also allocate around €600,000 to Donetsk and Luhansk populations. "No 'humanitarian convoy' from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be admitted through the Kharkiv region's territory. A provocation by the cynical aggressor on our territory is unacceptable," Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen notably declared there was a “high probability” of a Russian attack “under the guise of a humanitarian operation”, while the US State Secretary spokeswoman, Marie Harf, highlighted concerns that the trucks may be carrying non-humanitarian goods. French President Francois Hollande expressed “grave concerns” about a Russian unilateral mission in Ukraine, and US Secretary of State John Kerry conditioned Russia’s attendance to the next G20 summit in Brisbane to its behaviour regarding Ukraine.

Ukrainian Parliament to censor media for "security and national interests"

The conflict in Ukraine is also set on communication. French newspaper Le Monde talked about a “propaganda war” that increased after the downing of MH17 plane in July. In this context, the Ukrainian Parliament approved on August 12th a first bill draft which should give Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, the power to censor media for the sake of its “security and national interests.” The Council, directed by President Poroshenko, could launch interdictions without any prior justice decision against both local and international newspapers, websites, radio and TV channels. Reporters Without Borders Head for European Bureau, Johann Bihr declared the law "gives the [authorities] exorbitant powers to order the broadest forms of censorship on the basis of extremely vague criteria and with no safeguards." Pressure also came from the OSCE, through the voice of its representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, who said it would “endanger media freedom and pluralism and go against OSCE commitments on free expression and free media.” The bill should nevertheless be examined again today. The security of journalists in the country has raised international concerns after three Russian and one Italian journalists were killed in the conflict.

Sources : Radio Free Liberty, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, The Moscow Times, Interfax, BBC,  The Guardian, Radio Free Liberty II, ITAR TASS.

Author : Laura Gounon

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