TIME russia

Russia Is Closing McDonald’s Restaurants Over Health Violations

The oldest of Moscow's McDonald's outlets, which was opened on Jan. 31, 1990, is closed on Thursday, Aug. 21.
The oldest of Moscow's McDonald's outlets, which was opened on Jan. 31, 1990, is closed on Thursday, Aug. 21. Alexander Zemlianichenko—AP

But the crackdown comes amid tit-for-tat sanctions between Russia and the West

Russian regulators are targeting McDonald’s restaurants in a crackdown that authorities say is a matter of food safety.

But the closure of several Russian McDonalds restaurants and unscheduled checks of several others comes on the heels of tit-for-tat sanctions between Russia and Western countries over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Earlier this month, Russian authorities banned a wide array of food imports from the United States, the European Union and several other countries after Western powers enacted economic sanctions against Moscow.

According to Reuters, the Russian state food safety agency temporarily shuttered four restaurants on Wednesday, including the world’s busiest McDonald’s store in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, citing breaches of sanitary rules. On Thursday, the agency said it was conducting checks on other outlets across the country.

The agency has denied that its actions are politically motivated, according to Reuters.

“We are aware of what is going on. We have always been and are now open to any checks,” a spokesperson for McDonald’s in Russia told Reuters. The chain operates 438 restaurants in the country.


TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 20

1. Smart labels that monitor food can reduce food-related illness and waste.

By Adrienne LeFrance in the Atlantic

2. With a “Right to Work” law that lets refugees earn a living, Uganda avoids the pitfalls of wartime migration. Other countries can too.

By Gregory Warner in National Public Radio

3. Integrate the protests: Why Ferguson needs a “Freedom Summer.”

By Jay Caspian Kang in the New Yorker

4. To deter Putin and defuse the crisis in Ukraine, policymakers must be creative, strategic and collaborative.

By David Ignatius in the Washington Post

5. Extra ISP fees for companies like Netflix only stifle Internet innovation.

By Reed Hastings in Wired

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME russia

Chinese, Russian Media Turn Criticisms Back on U.S.

Police Shooting Missouri
A man is arrested as police try to disperse a crowd during protests in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. Jeff Roberson—AP

"China gets criticized so much by the West that when something like this happens, it's convenient to offer a countercriticism"

(BEIJING) — Chinese and Russian state media have seized on the U.S. police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old and ensuing protests to fire back at Washington’s criticisms of their own governments, portraying the United States as a land of inequality and brutal police tactics.

The violence in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Ferguson comes amid tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine, as well as friction between Washington and Beijing over what China sees as a campaign to thwart its rise as a global power.

Both countries have chafed under American criticism of their autocratic political systems — China and Russia tightly control protests and jail dissidents and demonstrators — and the events in Ferguson provided a welcome opportunity to dish some back.

“China gets criticized so much by the West that when something like this happens, it’s convenient to offer a counter-criticism,” said Ding Xueliang, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology.

The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 at the hands of a white police officer has inflamed racial tensions in the predominantly black suburb of Ferguson, where the police force is mostly white. Violent confrontations between police and protesters followed, in which tear gas, flash grenades and Molotov cocktails were exchanged.

A tartly-worded editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper on Tuesday said that while an “invisible gap” still separated white and black Americans, countries should deal with their problems in their own way without criticizing others.

“It’s ironic that the U.S., with its brutal manner of assimilating minorities, never ceases to accuse China and countries like it of violating the rights of minorities,” said the popular tabloid, published by the ruling Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily.

The Xinhua News Agency ran a similar commentary, tossing in references to enduring racism, National Security Agency spying and drone attacks abroad.

“Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others,” Xinhua said.

U.S. criticisms of China center on attacks on political critics, along with heavy-handed policies toward minorities, especially Tibetans and the Muslim Uighur ethnicity from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Washington also chides Russia over its intolerance of dissent and has joined the European Union in imposing sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists.

Both China and Russia have invested heavily in state-controlled news outlets to project their own version of events.

In Russia, state television station Rossiya emphasized the use of force in dispersing protesters in Ferguson, sending the underlying message to Russians that the security forces in the democratic West are no less brutal or tolerant of protest than in Russia. Shots of rampaging protesters also seemed meant as a warning of the dangers of allowing protests to get out of control.

In Monday’s broadcast, a reference to recent U.S. military interventions was thrown in for good measure.

“Everything looked as if it were a military operation somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq,” said reporter Alexander Khristenko. “Forming themselves into their own kind of fist, the police slowly moved forward, clearing the street, and the people saved themselves by running into residential areas.”

Like Rossiya, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV sent a reporter to report live from Ferguson — something unthinkable in the case of similar unrest in China. It also ran clips from U.S. talk shows blasting the police action and quoted African-American political commentator Richard Fowler saying social injustice was worsening.

“I don’t think it’s just African-Americans. I think what you have is a continued fight between the haves and the have-nots,” Fowler said.

Russia’s always-bellicose Russia Today channel ran an interview with U.S. professor and government critic Mark Mason, who called the Ferguson protests an outgrowth of income inequality and the militarization of American police forces.

“The police protect the Wall Street bankers, who own the City Hall, the City Council, the State House, the Federal government, the president of the U.S. and the Congress,” Mason told the channel.

There were also distinctions between the Russian and Chinese coverage, reflecting domestic concerns and the state of their relations with Washington.

While Russia and the U.S. have feuded bitterly and publicly, Beijing has sought to cultivate a stable relationship with Washington in which it is treated as an equal partner. Unlike in Russia, the U.S. is also widely admired by the Chinese public, who’ve made it a top choice for overseas education, investment and emigration.

China maintains an official policy of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs and says criticisms should be made in private. Too much open vitriol could undermine that position, and apart from the opinion pieces, Chinese media’s coverage of Ferguson has been relatively straight-forward.

The issues of racism and social unrest are also delicate one for China, which has been shaken by a rising number of protests and a string of violent incidents blamed on Uighur radicals seeking to shake offChinese rule over Xinjiang. Critics say the ensuing security crackdown has led to widespread abuses, including the killing of civilians.

The danger is that overplaying its criticism of the U.S. could open the window for more critical self-reflection among Chinese citizens, especially minority groups, Ding said. “They want to avoid holding an unintended public education campaign.”

The government is aware of that and is likely muting its coverage of Ferguson to avoid comparisons with Xinjiang, said Qiao Mu, director of Beijing Foreign Studies University’s Center for International Communications Studies.

“They’re wary of collateral damage, of tainting themselves,” Qiao said.

— Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report from Moscow

TIME Ukraine

Rebels in Besieged Ukrainian City Reportedly Being Reinforced

A Russian APC moves in a field in about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the Russia-Ukrainian border control point at Russian town of Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region on Aug. 18, 2014. Pavel Golovkin—AP

Separatist rebels fighting to maintain control of Luhansk appear to be aided by a supply of men and weapons from over the border in Russia

The Ukrainian army has blasted its way into the separatist stronghold of Luhansk, but Reuters reports that retreating rebels are fighting to maintain control of the city, aided by a supply of men and weapons from over the border in Russia.

Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoly Proshin told the Guardian on Monday that government forces would completely encircle Luhansk within 24 hours. Inside, residents are facing a catastrophic situation. After almost two weeks under siege, they are in dire need of food, water and medical supplies.

On Monday, a missile hit a convoy of residents fleeing the city, reportedly killing dozens. Both sides blame each other for the incident, which took place on the road leading to the Russian border.

The Ukrainian army intends to cut off the supply link from Russia to rebel fighters in Luhansk, which is located along the main route between the two countries. Moscow denies providing any assistance, but on Friday two British journalists witnessed two dozen military vehicles crossing into Ukraine.

On Monday, Polish TV correspondent Wojciech Bojanowski reported on another convoy — including artillery, infantry vehicles and tanks — moving toward the border.

On Saturday, Alexander Zakharchenko — prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic — claimed that the separatists were going to receive 150 armored vehicles, and 1,200 Russian-trained troops, in order to launch a major counter-offensive.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned on August 11 that there was a high probability of further Russian intervention in Ukraine. Much attention has since been focused on a convoy of trucks purportedly carrying humanitarian aid from Moscow, but which Kiev believes could contain military supplies.

For almost a week, the trucks have been stalled on the Russian side of the border, while the International Committee of the Red Cross, who is overseeing the shipment, awaits a security clearance.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Inspects Russian ‘Aid’ Convoy

A Russian serviceman sits atop an armored vehicle outside Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Russia's Rostov region, on Aug. 15, 2014. Dozens of heavy Russian military vehicles amassed on Friday near the border with Ukraine where a huge Russian convoy with humanitarian aid came to a halt as Moscow and Kiev struggled to agree border crossing procedures Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Inspection comes after Russian military vehicles are seen entering Ukraine overnight

Russian military vehicles reportedly crossed into Ukraine late Thursday.

Correspondents from the Guardian and the Telegraph say they witnessed at least 23 armored personal carriers, fuel trucks and other logistics vehicles marked with Russian military plates passing through a break in the border fence.

Ukraine has long held that Russian troops are operating within its borders, but evidence has been sparse. This incursion, while small, feeds fears that a larger-scale invasion may be looming.

Meanwhile a Russian convoy of about 260 trucks is currently halted some 30 km short of the border. Russia claims it is a dispatch of humanitarian aid to war-torn eastern parts of Ukraine. Kiev, on the other hand, fears it may be a covert shipment of military supplies to Moscow’s separatist allies, or equipment to be stockpiled ahead of a future Russian invasion. Russia has amassed around 20,000 troops along the border, and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Monday that there was a “high probability” of further intervention from Moscow.

On Thursday, the kilometers-long line of white trucks unexpectedly changed course, stopping in the vicinity of a border crossing held by the separatists. This threatened to spark a new row with Kiev, which has previously said that it would regard it as an invasion if the convoy used a border crossing not controlled by Ukraine.

However, tensions started easing Friday as Ukrainian border service representatives and custom officials were able to begin inspecting the cargo in the presence of representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Kiev has sent its own aid shipments to the country’s east, but the need for humanitarian relief remains dire. Though authorities boast that the city of Donetsk will be fully recaptured by the country’s Independence Day on Aug. 24, Ukrainian advances in rebel-held territory have also had a grave humanitarian impact.

In the past two weeks, the conflict’s total death toll has almost doubled, and by a conservative U.N. estimate now stands at nearly 2,100. There are major shortages of water, electricity and medical supplies. The self-declared separatist governor of Luhansk announced his resignation Thursday, saying in a video posted on social media that the region was “at the edge of a human catastrophe.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared all claims of ulterior motives for their humanitarian dispatch as “absurd.” Yet, reporters, including Courtney Weaver of the Financial Times, have noted that the convoy has taken on a militarized appearance, acquiring an escort that includes antiaircraft weapons and helicopters. Weaver also noted that most of the trucks in the convoy appeared to be Russian military trucks covered in either white paint or white tarpaulin.

TIME russia

Russians Start Paying the Price for Putin’s Ukraine Adventure

How much are ordinary Russians willing to sacrifice for their leader's imperial ambitions?


For most Russians, indeed nearly all of them, the crisis in Ukraine has had a distant, almost virtual quality. It has been something they watched on TV, or debated in their kitchens, rooting for the pro-Russian rebel militias and cursing the Ukrainian government as though the war between them was hardly more than a gruesome sporting match. The emotions were visceral, but the suffering wasn’t personal. Only in the past few weeks has the crisis begun to hit home.

Russians have started asking themselves — or rather, they have been forced to ask themselves — whether they are prepared to make real sacrifices for the sake of their country’s policy in Ukraine. So far, of course, they have not had much choice in the matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not hold a plebiscite in Russia before deciding in March to annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine. Nor did he ask the public’s opinion before imposing a ban on Western food imports on Aug. 6 to punish the countries that have sanctioned Russia in response to the Crimean land grab. The food ban was simply imposed by a Kremlin decree “to protect Russia’s security,” and the predictable result was a run on supermarkets in Moscow and other cities, a spike in prices and panic buying in the dairy aisle.

It was not the first measure to test the public’s patience on Ukraine. Desperate for cash to develop Crimea, the Russian government has dipped into the national pension fund, essentially deciding to confiscate everything its citizens will contribute to it this year and the next. “No one has any intention of giving this money back, because this money has gone to Crimea,” said Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. (His deputy was promptly fired when he confessed on Facebook that he “feels ashamed” for the expropriation on Aug. 5.) Then there were those hapless Russian travelers, roughly 27,000 of them, who were stranded in airport terminals in early August after a Russian tour operator folded under the weight of Western sanctions. “We worry that this is only the beginning and that there will be a domino effect,” said a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency.

Indeed there is likely to be. As the sanctions war escalates, it will continue to eat away at Russia’s economic growth — and ordinary Russians will be forced to confront the question of whether they are prepared to pay for Putin’s foreign adventurism. In such a scenario, Lev Gudkov, one of Russia’s leading sociologists and director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster, believes that they are unlikely to fall in line behind their leader. “It’s one thing to express support,” he says, “but quite another to suffer for it.”

Expressions of support for Putin have lately been almost unanimous. In Levada’s surveys since the crisis began in March, his approval ratings shot up more than 20 percentage points to reach an overwhelming 87% at the end of last month. But that phenomenon has a flip side. Just as Russians applaud Putin for every perceived success in Ukraine, they are likely to fault him for every repercussion. Two-thirds of the population, says Gudkov, place all responsibility for the crisis squarely on Putin and his inner circle rather than on themselves. Only 7% to 12% are prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of Russia’s policies in Ukraine, he says. “The rest take a characteristic position: ‘Leave me out of it.’”

But short of emigrating, Russians can’t opt out. They will all have to deal with the fact that inflation is due to reach up to 9% this year, while the Finance Ministry has proposed a new sales tax of 3% to plug holes in the federal budget that have largely resulted from the crisis in Ukraine. Diabetics in Russia are having to stock up on insulin just in case it winds up on the import ban as well. People with special diets, including professional athletes, are scrambling to find Russian alternatives to the Western foods they need. “Nobody wants prices to rise,” said Arkady Dvorkovich, the government’s chief economic adviser, in trying to calm the public during a television appearance on Aug. 13. “Nobody wants hoarding. Nobody wants deficits.”

Yet that is what Russians can expect, and the task of making them accept this reality, and even embrace it, has fallen to the Kremlin’s propaganda outlets — and they have dusted off the Cold War creeds of self-sufficiency in trying to lift the nation’s spirits.

One of the more typical examples of the genre was published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most popular newspaper, on Aug. 3, a few days before Putin imposed the ban on Western food. Under the headline “Hard Times Await,” the piece lashed out at fast-food chains like McDonald’s and waxed nostalgic for the Soviet treats that Russians remember from childhood. “When the Iron Curtain fell, meat patties on round buns seemed to us like symbols of freedom,” wrote the author, Ulyana Skoibeda. “Now our national leader [Putin] has declared that Ossetian pastries and Tatar pies can compete with American hamburgers. It is a total reorientation. From looking outward, we turn in, from the West, into ourselves.”

All of this, she argued, should come naturally to Russians, as though they are just lapsed believers being shepherded back to their traditional faith. But the author (perhaps because she was about 14 years old when the Iron Curtain fell) neglects to mention how tight the cuffs of isolation were back then, and what a relief it was when they came off.

Even the Soviet elites had trouble believing the extent to which they’d been deprived. In the fall of 1989, two years before he was elected post-Soviet Russia’s first President, Boris Yeltsin took a tour of an American supermarket for the first time in his life. It was a typical franchise of the Randall’s grocery chain in Houston, the sort of place where workaday Texans did their weekly shopping. But as Yeltsin’s adviser, Lev Sukhanov, later recalled with almost childlike wonder in his memoirs, “it felt like we were standing right in the middle of a kaleidoscope.”

Yeltsin had never seen anything in Moscow, not even at the exclusive shops reserved for the chiefs of the Communist Party, that could compare to the gastronomical wonderland he found inside that Randall’s store. “The gleaming radishes the size of plump potatoes,” Sukhanov recounted, “the pineapples, the bananas.” There were some 30,000 items on the shelves, including more types of sausage than the Kremlin delegates could count. “The eye could not enumerate all the different kinds of candy and cakes, could not process the variety of their colors, their delicious attractiveness,” Sukhanov wrote. “It came as a deep shock.”

Later that day, as they flew from Houston to Miami to continue their official visit as members of the Soviet legislature, Sukhanov remembers Yeltsin sitting with his head in his hands. When he finally came out of his stupor, according to the memoirs, he said, “What have we brought our poor people to? All our lives we’ve been telling them fairy tales. All our lives we’ve been inventing. But the world had already invented everything long ago.”

Almost exactly 15 years after Yeltsin handed power over to Putin, the old fairy tales of Soviet dogma are being revived. Having gathered the entire Russian legislature in Crimea on Aug. 14, Putin told them in a speech that the ban on Western food was just a means of “supporting the product manufacturers of the fatherland.”

That has been a favorite talking point on Kremlin news outlets lately. In calling for Russians to embrace a patriotic diet, they have claimed that the domestic food industry has “the chance of a lifetime” to replace Western imports, which are in any case unhealthy and not all that good. But even some of Putin’s own spin doctors have had trouble sticking to that line.

During a radio program on a Kremlin-owned station on Aug. 10, the host went on a half-hour rant about the “stupidity” of trying to replace Western goods with Russian ones. “It’s all a catastrophe,” said Vladimir Solovyov, one of the most popular television personalities in Russia and usually one of the Kremlin’s favorite messengers. “What are we going to do, replace honey with crap? That doesn’t mean the crap will taste like honey … Don’t lie to yourself.”

His co-host, growing nervous as the live broadcast continued, tried weakly to convince him that Russia would manage, just as it did in the Soviet Union. Solovyov persisted: “I want to make my own choices, and not to have the state choose for me,” he said. “I want the right to choose for myself what wine I drink, and if I’m told that I don’t have this right, then I want to be convinced that I’m accepting these discomforts for a good cause.”

But is the conflict in Ukraine a good enough cause? Is it worth having to part with the comforts that Russians now take for grant? To give up the “kaleidoscope” of Western produce now available in Russian supermarkets? These are not easy questions, and it will be a lot harder to answer them with a resounding yes than it was to support the swift and easy annexation of Crimea. And as the consequences of that decision unfold, they will begin to weigh on Putin’s sky-high popularity. Gudkov, the sociologist, expects the President’s ratings to sink by November back to what they were before the annexation of Crimea. But that does not mean Putin will change course.

“Nobody supported the Soviet policy of isolation either,” says Gudkov. “It was very painful for people, that feeling of slouching toward a dead end. But nobody asked the public’s opinion whether they wanted this or not.” They simply had to pay the price for their leaders’ decisions. Then as now, nobody gave them much of a choice.

TIME russia

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter Was Hacked

Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev holds a meeting with deputy PMs at the House of the Russian Government, Aug 11, 20014.
Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev holds a meeting with deputy PMs at the House of the Russian Government, Aug 11, 20014. Dmitry Astakhov—Itar-Tass/Corbis

No, he's not resigning to become a freelance photographer

The press office for Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev denied that he was stepping down Thursday after his Twitter account was apparently hacked, Bloomberg reports.

“The Twitter account of the prime minister was hacked and the recent posts about his resignation and plans to become a freelance photographer are false,” an unnamed government press official told Bloomberg.

On Thursday morning, a tweet from Medvedev’s account said: “I’m quitting. Ashamed of the government’s actions. Forgive me.”

That post, which has since been taken down along with others posted on Thursday, reflected a similar post made by Deputy Economy Minister Sergei Belyakov, who was fired last week after criticizing the government, according to Bloomberg.

Another post, according to the Moscow Times, read: “I’m going to become a freelance photographer!”

Still another took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is engaged in a showdown with the West over Ukraine and is largely seen as holding the reins of power in Russia. Using Putin’s nickname, the tweet said: “I wanted to say this long ago: Vova, you aren’t right.”


TIME Ukraine

Russian Aid Convoy Keeps on Trucking Toward Ukraine

A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for residents in rebel eastern Ukrainian regions moves along a road about 30 miles from Voronezh, Russia, Aug. 14, 2014.
A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for residents in rebel eastern Ukrainian regions moves along a road about 30 miles from Voronezh, Russia, Aug. 14, 2014. Yuri Kochetko—EPA

Kiev has now agreed to let the trucks enter Ukraine, but a full agreement on the crossing has yet to be reached

A Russian convoy numbering close to 300 vehicles has resumed its journey towards separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine, laden with what Russia says is humanitarian aid supplies for the people of Ukraine.

Traveling at 50 miles per hour the aid convoy left a military base in Voronezh, Russia before dawn, the New York Times reports. The vehicles had been held there for over a day following outcry from the Ukrainian government, and as Western officials voiced suspicions they could be cover for a potential invasion.

But it now appears that the convoy will be permitted to enter Ukraine. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, said Wednesday the trucks could cross following inspections by officials from Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia says the dispatch of aid, which were dispatched early Tuesday, was intended to counter the escalating humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. Moscow said the trucks, equipped with 649 tons of water and 340 tons of canned meat, were intended to help Ukrainians in areas like Luhansk where heavy fire has cut off water and electricity supplies. Residents are also without communication as phone lines have been hit.

Moscow and Kiev haven’t yet reached a complete agreement over the convoy’s crossing, however. If the vehicles cross at Izvarino, an eastern Ukrainian town close to Luhansk which isn’t under Ukrainian control, the existing agreement between Russia and Ukraine would need to be rewritten. Both sides had originally decided that the trucks would cross further north at a Ukrainian-held border crossing.

Poroshenko’s government authorized a similar Ukrainian aid convoy this week, in response to Moscow’s actions. Lorries loaded with supplies left Kiev, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk Thursday bound for Starobelsk in eastern Ukraine.

The West has regarded the Russian convoy with deep suspicion. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN said if Russia acted unilaterally in its humanitarian mission, it would “be viewed as an invasion.” On Monday NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that there was a “high probability” of Russia invading Ukraine, potentially “under the guise of a humanitarian operation.”

Russia meanwhile insists that it’s working with the Red Cross despite their protestations otherwise. “All this is going on in complete coordination with and under the aegis of the Red Cross,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin to reporters.

Both convoys, Ukrainian and Russian, will arrive amidst escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine. The latest figures from the UN place the death toll at 2,086 since fighting began mid-April. Over half of these fatalities occurred in the past two weeks.


TIME Ukraine

NATO Chief: ‘High Probability’ of Russian Military Intervention in Ukraine

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during an interview with Reuters in Brussels on August 11, 2014 Yves Herman—Reuters

A humanitarian-aid convoy from Moscow could be a cover for military support to besieged rebels, NATO's Anders Fogh Rasmussen says

NATO is warning that a Russian intervention in Ukraine is likely, fearing that a convoy of humanitarian aid dispatched by the Kremlin to the separatist-held city of Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, is being used as cover for a military buildup.

Russian aid, which is being delivered as part of a Red Cross–administered program, comes in response to setbacks suffered by pro-Russian rebels in the past week. The Putin Administration insists the assistance is purely humanitarian, and Ukraine has indicated that it welcomes the international relief mission of which the Russian convoy is a part. Nonetheless, Kiev and its Western backers remain suspicious of Moscow’s motives. According to NATO, Moscow has around 20,000 combat-ready troops along Ukraine’s border.

The Associated Press reported that 280 trucks left the Moscow area Tuesday, painted in Red Cross livery. Andre Loersch, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, told AP that he had “no information about the content” of the trucks.

On Monday, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that there was “a high probability” of a military intervention by Russia. “We see the Russians developing the narrative and the pretext for such an operation under the guise of a humanitarian operation and we see a military buildup that could be used to conduct such illegal military operations in Ukraine,” he said.

The conflict in Ukraine has led to a crisis between East and West at a level not experienced since the Cold War, with wide-ranging sanctions on Russia imposed by the E.U. and Washington. Military intervention by Russia would significantly exacerbate tensions, although Rasmussen suggested that NATO would not be drawn into an armed conflict.

“If the Russians were to intervene further in Ukraine, I have no doubt that the international community would respond determinedly, notably through broader, deeper, tougher economic sanctions that would isolate Russia further,” he said.

The Kremlin describes the situation in eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands have fled the intensified fighting over the past week, as “catastrophic.” While agreeing that the humanitarian situation was “disastrous,” Rasmussen called on Moscow to pull back its troops, “stop the flow of weapons and fighters and money into Ukraine and cease the support for armed separatists and engage in a constructive political dialogue.”

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