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Russia Claims Its ‘Humanitarian Convoys’ to Donbas are Inspected by Customs, But Whose Customs?

Ukraine -- Workers go to unload a truck from a convoy allegedly carrying humanitarian aid supplies from Russia, in Donetsk, March 19, 2015
Twitter Account of Russian Embassy in South Africa

Twitter Account of Russian Embassy in South Africa

Russian Foreign Ministry official Twitter account

“#Russia’s 82nd humanitarian convoy delivers 700+ tonnes of supplies to the people of #Donetsk & #Lugansk, including food packages for children, medical equipment and first aid kits. All cargo underwent thorough customs inspection. #HelpingDonbass”

The tweet doesn’t say which customs service inspected the convoy.

On October 25, the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the Republic of South Africa tweeted that Russia’s “82nd humanitarian convoy” had delivered aid to the territory in Ukraine’s Donbas region controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The tweet was accompanied by photographs showing the white cargo trucks typically used in these “humanitarian convoys” and bearing the insignia of the Russian Ministry of Extreme Situations, as well as photos of some of the humanitarian aid, packaged and stacked on palettes.

According to the tweet, the vehicles in this convoy were inspected by customs services at the border to verify the trucks’ contents. However, a crucial detail is missing: it does not say whose customs service inspected the trucks. Russia’s “humanitarian aid convoys” cross from Russia into Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine, and the border between these regions is controlled by Russia and the customs service of the separatist pseudo-states known as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In other words, the aid is going to the same forces Russia is accused (with overwhelming evidence) of supporting militarily and logistically. These convoys have come under scrutiny in the past.

Russia -- Trucks of a Russian aid convoy carrying banners reading 'Humanitarian help from Russian Federation' wait for departure to Ukraine in Rostov region, December 11, 2014.
Russia -- Trucks of a Russian aid convoy carrying banners reading 'Humanitarian help from Russian Federation' wait for departure to Ukraine in Rostov region, December 11, 2014.

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has tried to monitor the convoys in the past, but its members have often been blocked by armed men on the pro-Russian side.

“In Luhansk city, the SMM saw five white cargo trucks in a compound known to us as used by the armed formations at 2a Rudnieva Street and that they were being unloaded by men in blue work uniforms without visible insignia, but could not see the cargo,” reads an SMM report from May 25, 2018.

“One of the trucks was labeled ‘Humanitarian Aid from the Russian Federation:’the other trucks were not labeled. The SMM saw three armed men in military-type clothing standing around the perimeter of the compound. At the entrance of the compound, an armed man in military-type clothing told the SMM that it could not enter and that none of the people traveling with the convoy could speak to the SMM without permission from the armed formations in Luhansk.”

In a May 31 report to the head of the OSCE observation mission, the interim chargé d’ffaires of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, Harry Kamian, alluded to Ukrainian border guards stationed at the Donetsk border crossing point, but noted that they had no opportunity to inspect the trucks.

“Mr. Chair, markings or no markings, we have no idea what is actually inside these supposed humanitarian aid convoys, because the Russian Federation will not let the Observer Mission or the SMM inspect them or watch them unload,” Kamian said. “We do know, however, that these so-called aid trucks did not unload at any hospital, school, NGO, or UN warehouse. Rather, they were unloaded at a compound the SMM reported as used by Russia-led forces. Armed men in military uniforms guarded its perimeter and prevented the SMM monitors from seeing the cargo or speaking with anyone on site.”

In addition to the concerns of the OSCE SMM, Russian and non-Russian journalists alike have noted anomalies in past convoys. For example, some of the trucks were almost two-thirds empty. The convoys have often been spotted being accompanied by military vehicles, including fighting vehicles.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly protested the convoys, pointing to the “continued illegal supply of weapons, armored vehicles and mercenaries from Russia.”

Additionally, they acknowledge that the Russian border is not controlled by the Ukraine government nor does Russia allow inspections of the convoys.