The White House today denounced a Russian convoy's move into Ukraine, calling it a flagrant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and saying Russia should remove it or face more economic sanctions.
Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters the Russian move adds to the escalation of the Ukraine conflict in a dangerous way.
He said the United States planned to discuss the situation with the U.N. Security Council today.
He said if the convoy is not removed, the Russians will face “additional costs,” meaning sanctions that have been levied against the Russian economy.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon today expressed alarm at reports of a Russian aid convoy entering Ukraine without the approval of Kiev and suggested it could lead to an escalation of tensions, Mr Ban’s press office said.
“The Secretary-General follows with deep concern reports that a Russian aid convoy has crossed the border into Ukraine without the permission of the Ukrainian authorities,” Mr Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. “While recognizing the deteriorating humanitarian situation, any unilateral action has the potential of exacerbating an already dangerous situation in eastern Ukraine,” he added.
Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen today condemned Russia for sending a “so-called humanitarian convoy” into Ukraine without the consent of Kiev and accused it of escalating the crisis.
Kiev accused Moscow earlier on today of launching what it called a "direct invasion" of its territory, while Russia warned against any attempt to disrupt the convoy which it said was a purely humanitarian operation.
“It can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel,” Mr Rasmussen said in a statement.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said more than 100 trucks had crossed the border, of which only some had been checked earlier by Ukrainian officials inside Russian territory.
Mr Rasmussen also said that Nato had also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and artillery to separatist groups in eastern Ukraine.
“Moreover, Nato is observing an alarming build-up of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine,” Mr Rasmussen said.
He said that Russia continued to escalate the situation in Ukraine despite the efforts of the international community to find a political solution to the crisis, adding this can only lead to Russia‘s further isolation.
“I strongly urge Russia not to take further provocative actions, to stop destabilising Ukraine and to take genuine steps to resolve this dangerous situation with full respect of Ukraine‘s sovereignty and territorial integrity and international law,” he said.
Moscow, which has thousands of troops close on the Russian side of the border, warned against any attempt to “disrupt” the convoy but did not specify what action it was prepared to take if Kiev’s forces intervened.
Kiev, for its part, said Ukrainian forces would not attack the convoy and had allowed it to pass to avoid “provocations”.
"Ukraine will liaise with the International Committee of the Red Cross so that we, Ukraine, are not involved in provocations (accusations) that we have been holding up or using force against the vehicles of so-called aid," he told journalists.
The Ukraine conflict has driven relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War, with Western states imposing sanctions on Moscow and the Kremlin retaliating. Nato has deployed extra troops in member states bordering Russia.
Witnesses said some 70 white-painted trucks, part of a column of about 260 that had been waiting at the border for permission for over a week, had crossed onto Ukrainian soil and was heading towards the rebel stronghold of Luhansk escorted by a small number of pro-Moscow separatist fighters.
Ukrainian authorities gave the number of trucks which had crossed variously as 34 and 90.
“They passed into Ukraine without clearance or participation of the International Red Cross or (Ukrainian) border guards,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists.
“We consider this a direct invasion by Russia of Ukraine,” Ukrainian state security chief Valentyn Nalivaychenko said in a separate statement.
In response to a question whether Ukraine would use air strikes against the convoy, Mr Nalivaychenko said: “Against them, no.”
But Ukrainian authorities said the convoy would pass through an area where the rebels were firing and that therefore its security could not be guaranteed.
Luhansk region has been a major focus of conflict in recent days between rebels, who have declared an independent republic, and Ukrainian forces. Luhansk city itself has seen fighting.
Moscow had earlier expressed impatience with holdups at the frontier.
“All excuses to delay sending aid have been exhausted,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. “The Russian side has taken the decision to act.
“We warn against any attempts to disrupt this purely humanitarian mission,” it added.
“Responsibility for any possible consequences of provocations ... will lie, completely and entirely, with those who are prepared to further sacrifice human lives for the sake of their ambitions and geo-political ploys.”