The Chaos Convoy

The Red Cross has no idea what 280 Russian trucks making their way to the Ukrainian border are carrying. Is Putin's "humanitarian" mission a Trojan horse?

A convoy of 280 Russian Kamaz military vehicles -- all painted a nice, soothing white, absent any license plates, and brandishing flags of the Red Cross -- are en route from the Moscow suburbs to a relatively peaceful border crossing just north of Kharkiv, Ukraine. If the Russian state-controlled media is to be believed, they are collectively transporting around 2,000 tons of baby food, grain, bottled water, sleeping bags, sugar, and medicine to a war-ravaged nation next door.

Of course, if you believe the Russian media, eastern Ukraine's desperate state of affairs has nothing to do with the fact that for the last several months Moscow has underwritten, encouraged, and armed disparate factions of pro-Russian separatists -- many of them Russian nationals, intelligence agents, and even soldiers posting to Instagram photos of themselves driving Russian anti-aircraft missile systems.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organization tasked with coordinating all aid shipments into Lugansk and Donetsk, claims that it has no idea what the hell is in those Kamaz trucks, nor has it licensed them to go anywhere near Ukraine. And yet the vehicles are nevertheless driving toward Ukraine flying the Red Cross's recognizable pendant.

Laurent Corbaz, the head of ICRC's operations for Europe and Central Asia, issued a press statement today claiming that his organization is in the dark about what Russia is really up to. "We of course have heard of this Russian initiative," he said, "and we have realized that this was in agreement with the Russian authorities and the Ukrainian authorities that such a convoy should be a possibility, provided that ICRC could be on board. We said that we could be onboard but we needed to have some clarification first regarding the modalities, practical steps that have to be implemented prior to launch such an operation." 

In other words, Putin's cooked up another game of guess-the-strategy, which has met every expectation in befuddling and distracting an international news cycle.

Clearly, the ICRC is not thrilled about being enlisted in a highly controversial and obfuscatory relief scheme fewer than 48 hours after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen publicly stated there was a "high probability" that Russia would invade Ukraine under "the guise of a humanitarian operation." Russia still has some 20,000 troops at the Ukraine border -- 45,000 if you count the garrisons it has in illegally annexed Crimea, which Kiev certainly does. Troops, armored personnel carriers, and transport trucks are also on the move in the Belarusian city of Vitebsk, and as my colleague Pierre Vaux wrote in the Daily Beast, Ukraine recently withdrew its forces from some 60 miles of borderland, leaving it wide open to Russian incursion from multiple directions.

It also bears noting that on the night of Aug. 8, Moscow tried and failed to have another one of its "humanitarian convoys," this one accompanied by Russian military, penetrate Ukraine's frontier, stopping just short of it in what one high-ranking Ukrainian official dubbed "nearly a real disaster, nearly an invasion." It was only Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's swift "diplomatic work," in the words of his deputy chief of staff, Valeriy Chaly, that turned the Russians around. A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the story as one of Kiev's "fairy tales." It seemed nonfictional enough to Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, however, who tweeted: "Why would Russia try to deliver 'humanitarian assistance' to UA in the dead of night? If it's legitimate, shouldn't she proudly display it?"

Russian propaganda can often be a Talmudic exercise, but sometimes the Kremlin makes exegesis fairly straightforward. Its agitprop in the last week shows that its seeming metamorphosis from the Clausewitz of proxy warfare into the Florence Nightingale of unsolicited relief is indeed a ruse hinting at something wicked on the way. Many anti-Kremlin Russian bloggers think so, which is why this photograph of the Kamaz trucks topped with Trojan horses is now being circulated on Twitter.

As I reported for Foreign Policy last week, on Aug. 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a joint press conference with his Kazakh counterpart that the ICRC had "supported" the idea of a Russian-led humanitarian mission to the blighted regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, and that the organization would "develop ... the practical aspects of the implementation of this initiative."*

Then on Aug. 11, an entire diplomatic fandango ensued, following by much contradictory reporting, about the nature of some agreed-upon plan to deliver aid to Ukraine -- with Washington, Kiev, and Brussels all more or less saying the same thing, and Russia saying something entirely different. "The president noted that Russia, working together with International Red Cross officials, is sending a humanitarian convoy to Ukraine," ran the Russian Presidential Office's read-out of Vladimir Putin's phone call with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Except that Barroso made no mention of any convoy, and the European Commission's own read-out of this conversation reiterated the European Union's firm stance "against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian."

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, weighed in, acknowledging that there was to be a multilateral aid effort that would "include an international component and, in particular, humanitarian assistance provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States, the EU, and Russia." A senior official in Ukraine's presidential administration elaborated to the Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller: "Russia will have a formal part in the convoy, but there will be no Russian [military] forces, no soldiers." This appeared to indicate that Poroshenko and Putin had in fact struck a deal, albeit one that each interpreted in his own way.

The ICRC acknowledged receipt of the Lavrov initiative on Aug. 8, but it did not mention any organizational support for the initiative, as the Russian foreign minister stated on Aug. 6.* When the ICRC on Aug. 11 commented on the Russian "initiative," it was only to insist upon its own leadership as aid coordinator and to emphasize that nothing concrete or definitive had yet to be decided: "[T]he ICRC should receive without undue delay from the authorities of the Russian Federation all necessary details concerning the aid, including the volume and type of items, and requirements for transport and storage," an organizational statement read. "All parties must also guarantee the security of ICRC staff and vehicles, for the entire duration of the operation, in view of the fact that the organization does not accept armed escorts."

Which raises a number of interesting questions, chief among them being: Who's driving those Kamaz trucks, if not Russian soldiers?

A clue may have been furnished by a post on Russia's popular VKontakte social media platform by Semyon Borisov, who described himself as a serviceman in Russia's 1117th Air Defense Regiment of the 2nd Guards of the Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, whose regiment is located in the Moscow suburb of Kalininets. In 1991, this division took part in the abortive military coup to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev; one of its tanks, from a unit that defected to the other side, was famously stood upon by Boris Yeltsin to deliver his barnstorming speech in front of the White House. So it didn't go unnoticed when Borisov posted, as my team at the Interpreter translated: "Today we loaded humanitarian aid into Kamazes for Ukraine. Water, medicines, canned food, baby food, sleeping bags, electrical generators, and various equipment (field kitchens and so on). There were about 300 trucks, all military Kamazes; they were painted white in a few days." (Borisov's post was subsequently removed from VKontakte, without explanation, but a screen capture of the original is still available here.)

Indeed, this video, which was uploaded to YouTube on Aug. 10 -- a day before the Putin-Barroso phone call -- shows lines of white Kamaz trucks bearing the slogan "medical service," arrayed on a military base. (Smaller, ambulance-looking vehicles were also displayed with the Red Cross symbol.) Curiously, the license plates have yet to be removed. Some of the trucks are parked next to a mobile radar tower for the S-300 missile system, one of Russia's most sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft weapons, which it once threatened to sell to Iran and has just announced it won't be delivering to Syria. In front of the trucks stand Russian troops wearing uniforms which read "Military Auto Inspection." A rail yard is also visible just beyond the base, along with white apartment buildings that would seem to track with Google Street View pictures of present-day Kalininets. Later, Russia's state-owned TV 1 news channel carried a report showing the Kamaz convoy traveling through the Tula region and reaching Voronezh, where they were stopping to spend the night. This broadcast also clearly showed more Red Cross flags, this time atop the Kamazes, and the flags are even referred to as those of the ICRC by the news anchor.

Southern Russia, too, has seen a fair share of activity in the last two days. Russian journalist Savik Shuster noticed that another sophisticated anti-aircraft system, the 9K33 Osa (aka SA-8 Gecko), is being transported to Taganrog in the Rostov region. According to the independent Russian media outlet RosBiznesKonsalting (RBC.ru), another 15 Kamaz trucks arrived in Rostov, near the Ukrainian border, where they were apparently being readied for dispatch to the Donbass region of Ukraine. "[T]he Russian Interior Ministry and Emercom will be responsible for the delivery of the convoy," RBC.ru reported. Emercom stands for Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry, which is responsible for responding to natural disasters such as forest fires. But it's curious that the ministry's office for the South Region in Rostov denied to RBC.ru that it was doing anything with respect to humanitarian aid. The regional government, it said, was in charge of all prospective supply runs to Ukraine.

As we can see from the photos filed by Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti, the trucks in the convoy have no identifying marks or registration numbers on the vehicles. Russian media has also been confusing about the provenance of the convoy, even as it reports the trucks leaving from areas that have military garrisons. The Defense Ministry's TV Zvezda, for instance, reported the convoy as being under the command of Emercom, although all the ministry's vehicles have license plates and a distinctive paint job -- and they don't turn their vehicles white for humanitarian missions. The site Vesti 24 also cited Emercom and even shows scenes of the loading of trucks. Yet on Emercom's website, there is no press release about this highly publicized convoy covered by all the major networks supposedly involving them.

Despite the confusion and apparent subterfuge, the Ukrainian government appeared to be amenable to receiving what's in those 280 Kamazes, provided, however, that not a single tire hits Ukrainian soil. "This cargo will be reloaded onto other transport vehicles (at the border) by the Red Cross," Poroshenko's aide Chaly told journalists today in Kiev. "We will not allow any escort by the emergencies ministry of Russia or by the military (onto Ukrainian territory). Everything will be under the control of the Ukrainian side."

Maybe. But once again, the Russian Foreign Ministry has its own spin on what was agreed. Lavrov told ITAR-TASS that the reloading condition had now been dropped by Kiev, owing to the inconvenience and cost of taking 2,000 tons of materials off one set of trucks only to put them onto another. Ukraine has yet to confirm if that's true, but it seems clear that Russian trucks are planning to drive through into Ukraine with a cargo that only Moscow can identify.

So is a Putinist provocation in the offing? Both BuzzFeed's Max Seddon and radio station Ekho Moskvy's editor-in-chief, Alexey Venediktov, suggested that Russia might be planning a Gaza flotilla-style fiasco -- whereby Ukraine violently blocks or interdicts the convoy it doesn't want penetrating its border, presumably to furnish a pretext for Moscow to launch all-out war. Or perhaps Putin has instructed one of his favored separatist militias to fire on the convoy and blame Kiev, a false-flag incident which would surely draw the same prefabricated response from the Kremlin. In any case, the Kamazes don't have to be carrying weapons or military equipment to cause a fuss: Just reaching their destination tomorrow may do that in itself.

*Update, Aug. 13, 2014: The ICRC wrote in an Aug. 13 email to Foreign Policy that the three ICRC personnel detained by separatists were released after several hours on July 31. An earlier version of this article said that the personnel's whereabouts were unknown. The reference to the detained personnel has been deleted in light of this new information. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, Aug. 13, 2014: The ICRC acknowledged receipt of the Russian initiative on Aug. 8. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ICRC acknowledged receipt on Aug. 11. (Return to reading.)

REUTERS/Nikita Paukov


What If the United States Had a Middle East Strategy?

Washington's lack of a plan to confront the spread of radical Islam  looms as an epoch-defining failure.

What would it look like if America actually had a Middle East strategy?

To begin with, of course, it would hardly look like what we are seeing today. At the moment, we are confronted with an unprecedented region wide series of crises that are each seemingly being treated by U.S. policymakers as though they were unrelated. American responses to each have been reactive, typically veering between the passive and the inadequate. While there has been lots of rumination about what could go wrong if we embraced risky or bad policies, there has been less focus on how to actually achieve our goals and seemingly precious little thought given to the consequences of our inaction. In short, at a particularly fraught moment in a dangerous and vital part of the world we seem to be without a clear vision or a plan for achieving it.

As a consequence, America's vital national interests are suffering. A region of substantial economic importance to the United States and to the world is spiraling into ever deeper instability. Allies are at risk. Bad actors who pose a material security threat to the United States and those allies are growing and multiplying and gaining strength. Unchecked or inadequately, haphazardly challenged, recent disturbing trends could grow much, much worse.

Still, our goals in the Middle East are straightforward: We have economic interests there such as the provision of energy resources, trade flows, and investments we wish to protect and cultivate. We wish to maintain strong relationships with countries that can help us advance our geopolitical interests -- enhancing our influence, counterbalancing the power of potential rivals.

It's clear that what we seek in the region is not only the kind of development that promotes and protects those who are well-disposed toward the United States, but stability. But not just any stability -- and this is an important point. We want a stable, prospering Middle East that is friendly to us but is also an inhospitable environment for our enemies. As the Mubarak regime showed, the stability of the oppressive autocrat resistant to change is an illusion. The region is a graveyard for strongmen who ignored the street.

A long-term U.S. strategy must therefore embrace not just momentarily stabilizing choices but those that will promote changes that make stability more durable. The stability tipping point in any society is when the majority of people feel working within the system is more within their interest than working outside of it. The Arab Awakening was a sign that many countries in the region were teetering at this point. Extremists sought to take advantage of this. To counter their initiatives we must support those who recognize the need to create systems that offer a better alternative than the mayhem and medieval values jihadists and their ideological cousins are selling -- in short, existences that are rewarding in both this life as well as in the next. Further, of course, we must recognize that stability in the Middle East cannot be imposed by outsiders. It must be cultivated from within. That said, we cannot shrug off the fact that those who lead from within still need our backing given the threats, rivalries, and momentary challenges they face.

While many forces are in play in the greater Middle East (and even in neighboring regions into which Middle East-like or related conflicts are flowing, such as North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and even Uighur China) there are important crosscutting trends that should be taken into account in our strategy. Indeed, it is the awakening to the crosscutting and indeed interlocking nature of these trends that is the secret to the formulation of such a strategy.

That is because the principal source of threat to our interests, the stability of the region, and to our allies is one and the same -- the threat of extremist or political Islam. Further, while the extremist actors and groups go by many names and are independent of one another in important ways, they also share important links. Some of these are ideological. Some have to do with the tactics they employ. Some have to do with the pools from which they draw their recruits. And, notably in terms of combatting them, some have to do with the sources of their financing and arms. For example, think of the strong, clear, and documented financing links between Qatar (including the government as well as rich Qataris and Qatari NGOs) and extremists in Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, and the Persian Gulf. Doha is not just the favored residence of on-the-run terrorists from Hamas to the Taliban, it is the financial capital of the terrorist world.

Perhaps most importantly, these threats are linked not just by shared patrons or social media ties or a common appetite for brutality; they are linked in being part of a larger historical narrative. While much attention has been given (rightly) to the Sunni-Shiite rivalry that dates back to moments after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in the year 632, another fault line of perhaps even greater importance has emerged in recent years. It is the Sunni versus Sunni battle between extremists, who are the advocates of militant radical change and proponents of political Islam, and more moderate groups who are seeking to preserve Islam but do so in a way that is either more open to the evolution historical trends demand or at least does not seek to forcibly impose their views on nonbelievers. It is a battle between those who seek to violently force the clock backwards and those who believe that piety and progress can be made to coexist. One senior Arab diplomat with whom I spoke called it the new Middle East Cold War. He's right about the divide threatening much of the region. But of course, for many there is nothing cold about this war. It already is as brutal and hot as they come.

While the conditions and specific upheavals in each state in the Middle East are, as noted earlier, different, it is this battle that is responsible for the greatest amount of today's unrest and violence. Whether it is Ansar al-Sharia in Libya or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza or al-Nusrah Front in Syria, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or the Islamic State struggling to establish its caliphate, it is clear today that extremist Islam is emerging as a threat so broad that it must be seen in its totality to be contended with. Further, the ties of these groups to others operating in the periphery of this region -- from the Taliban to the Haqqani network, from Boko Haram to Uighur or Chechen separatists -- both underscore the global scope of the problem and the potential for significant alliances to help combat it.

Certainly, our traditional allies in the Middle East have come to see the problem as one. Consider the degree to which Israel and Egypt have cooperated to deal with Hamas. Consider that unifying animus toward the Muslim Brotherhood that has linked together not only those two former warring states but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. While in some of these states there are individuals who support such extremist groups, the governments themselves are united in concern about the unchecked spread of the Islamic State. It is a concern so great that it has even caused some to set aside for the moment unease with the support of Iran or Bashar al-Assad in the battle against that rising threat. It is so great that it has led to the formation of a new, closer Russian-Israeli relationship. It is a concern so great that when Vladimir Putin last visited Beijing, a substantial part of the discussion turned to cooperation in fighting terror. It is a concern so great that the new Indian government, itself concerned with Muslim extremism, supported Israel in the last round of Gaza-related U.N. votes.

Perhaps it is a measure of the severity of such a threat that it inspires alliances, cooperation, and special degrees of tolerance among such strange bedfellows. But the loose coalescing of this group should be seen by a United States that does not wish to shoulder too many risks and is skeptical of its ability to influence outcomes far from home as the great strategic opportunity of the moment. American leadership in the years ahead will turn on our ability to reinvent our alliances and international institutions so that we can effectively achieve international goals. This requires diplomacy. And it will require active and dependable commitments of many resources including aid, arms, intelligence, logistical support, air power of the manned and unmanned variety, and special operations. But it will also require a few other underdeveloped U.S. skill sets -- diplomacy, the ability to listen, loyalty to longtime friends, a willingness to accept differences in values and approaches within alliances.

Focusing on forging a new alliance to defeat this threat has many elements. In the Middle East, it will involve real work to restore trust with the diverse set of actors that can help us from Cairo to Tel Aviv, from Amman to Abu Dhabi, from Kuwait City to Riyadh. It will require a much more intensive effort to get the EU on board -- one that should be driven by the fact that unrest in this region is likely to spill over to Europe, perhaps led by the thousands of jihadis currently fighting in Syria and Iraq who hail from European cities. But it also should take advantage of the fact that collaboration among major global powers other than the EU will be key to success and can mobilize support -- Russia, China, and India being notable in this regard.

The strategy will also require a toughness we have yet to show to countries like Qatar and Turkey that have been too cozy with bad actors. The evidence about Qatari financing of terrorists is overwhelming. Rather than letting these ties provide the Doha regime with more influence as we did during the recent Gaza talks, we should work with governments worldwide to ensure this will deny them ever-increasing influence and access until they reverse course. This should include considering opposing the World Cup in Qatar, moving our troops out of that country, and prosecuting those who are known to be financing extremists. And we need to do this actively elsewhere as well. Shutting down resource flows to all these groups must be a top priority of this effort.

If this is a top priority it will also mean recognizing that undercutting vital potential partners like Egypt or Israel or potential Gulf allies with our behavior should be reassessed. Relationships are complicated and we can still offer pressure when needed, but we need to keep our priorities -- stability in the region and the elimination of the extremist threats -- clear. That doesn't mean blind support. Regimes that embrace activities that are likely to ultimately lead to instability should be steered away from those activities precisely because they are dangerous to our overall goal.

Difficult problems will exist, of course. Eliminating Iranian nuclear weapons must be a U.S. goal. And Iran can be an ally against the Islamic State. It also can play an important role in ultimately producing change in governments in Syria and Iraq. But we must recognize that drawing too close to them will be seen as a threat to other allies in the region and that even as the Sunni-Sunni tensions take precedence, the Sunni-Shiite battle remains a risk. Thus the delicate work of a three-way balance is required, much as it will be with Russia -- which we must challenge on Ukraine even as we cooperate on fighting terror.

But that is the kind of complexity that major strategies of this kind entail. Divisions and alliances don't come neatly. There are no risk-free initiatives. Indeed, if this recent period of flying without a flight plan reveals anything, it is that the search for risk-free options may be among the most dangerous paths to choose of all. Because, as we have seen, given America's unique role in the world, our consigning ourselves to the sidelines or sporadic, very limited interventions that exist outside a broader strategy only creates a bigger opening for our enemies, for the spread of fundamental threats, and for the possibility that this will someday be seen as a period of profound strategic failure for the United States in the region and the world.