Putin's power game in Ukraine has featured one set-piece after another, many of which seem to be used as decoys. This can also be said about the mysterious armada of 262 white Russian semi trucks, said to be hauling 'aid' intended for Russian speaking people living in the embattled rebel-held city of Donetsk.
Taken at face value, the intent of this convoy may seem benign, but some think the strategy behind it is anything but. Russia has made it clear that they think they have every right to supply humanitarian aid to those caught in the middle of the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine's military, the latter of which has seen major gains over the last month and a half of fighting.
Now, the separatist stronghold city of Donetsk is the focus of the Ukrainian government's attempts to squash retreating rebel forces, but the Russian aid convoy, destined for Donetsk, may seriously complicate this offensive.
At first, Russian authorities said that they were working with the Red Cross to facilitate the convoy's crossing from Russian into Ukraine, but the Red Cross had no idea what Russian officials were talking about. Now, there has been some progress with involving the Red Cross in the supposed humanitarian relief mission, and the convoy has temporarily stopped near the Russian-Ukrainian border. In what has become yet another strange twist in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, many of the white-washed trucks are reported to be mostly empty, which makes their true intended use dubious to say the least.
Meanwhile, reporters from The Guardian said that they saw a Russian armor column of at least 50 armored personnel carriers, and dozens of trucks and troop carrying vehicles, many tagged with "Peacekeeping Forces" and flying the Russian flag, pass through a gap in a border fence two nights ago. Ukraine says they engaged this border-busting force with heavy artillery and destroyed it, or at least partly destroyed it, as it made its way towards Ukraine's interior. NATO also says it had observed the crossing as well as many others over the past six months:
"What we have seen last night is the continuation of what we have seen for some time," said the Nato secretary general, Anders Rasmussen.
If this engagement did indeed happen, than it would be glaring proof that Russia continues to support pro-Russian rebels not just with small arms, basic material and command and control capabilities, but with armor and heavy weaponry. Russia denies that this supposed clandestine event ever took place.
All these events are taking place as Russia has surged its forces to the Russian-Ukrainian border once again. There is an estimated 40,000 Russian troops now awaiting orders on the border, including close to 200 main battle tanks and around 400 armored vehicles.
This force is equivalent to Ukraine's available fighting force, the vast majority of which is already deployed to Eastern Ukraine and some sources say that only about 20,000 are really tactically proficient and well armed.
In other words, Russia's forces deployed along the two countries' shared borders are just the right size to crush Ukraine's ability to defend itself.
In addition, Russia's advanced air power also deployed to the region, which includes the latest versions of Flankers, Fulcrums, and Havoc attack helicopters, as well as advanced mobile SAM systems for protecting a potential invasion force, are more capable than anything Ukraine has fielded.
So what is Russia up to with its half empty super-convoy and its cross-border armor insertions? One can only speculate, but it does seem that with pro-Russian forces suffering a series of losses on the battlefield, and their control over territories in the eastern part of Ukraine shrinking, that a major move by Russia may be eminent.
When you see 262 half empty tractor trailer trucks on Russia's border with Ukraine, the first thing that comes to mind is that such a large convoy, delivered to the center of pro-Russian forces' power in Donetsk, would be the perfect delivery vehicle for the leading edge of a 'Trojan Horse" Russian invasion force. Yet if the Red Cross's involvement with the convoy's final execution materializes there will be strict oversight in regards to the manifests of each truck, the routes they take and even who is driving them.
Seeing that Russia has used guile above all else during the invasion of Crimea, and its ongoing support of the civil war in Ukraine, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Russia's 'aid convoy' could be used as a set piece prop for which to create a grounds for a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.
For instance, if the convoy were to be attacked or destroyed, Russia would have a reason to cross the border en masse without giving up its "we are not directly involved" script. Russia destroying its own convoy may sound crazy, but is it really outside the realm of possibility at this point, especially after the downing of MH17 and Russia's complete denial of having anything to do with that horrific incident, not to mention the Kremlin's denial of having invaded Crimea?
I would say not at all.
Such a circumstance would allow Russia to continue to mold and manicure a manufactured story line that perfectly suits its operational abilities and timeline, right down to the timing and justification for a much deeper and more direct involvement in the conflict. This is especially relevant now that what many think was Russia's primary plan of having a rebel-led insurgency that they could completely deny having a part of seems to be stalling out.
Such a convoy could also be a big and bright distraction from the border area, as Ukraine's military capabilities will almost certainly be focused on tracking and observing the convoy as it makes its way to its destination. This event, especially paired with another distraction or decoy operation, possibly emanating from Crimea to the south, may give Russia the time it needs to insert more forces over the border, or to complete another operation of great strategic significance.
The convoy in question could also very well end up doing exactly what Russia says it is meant to do; deliver supplies to the war weary people of Donetsk. Such an act would be a show of support for Russian speaking residents of Eastern Ukraine and an act of humanitarianism for the world to see. The half empty trucks would be just another sign of Moscow's continued use of rickety propaganda, because 100 trucks just does not look worthy of growing global power but 262 sure does, right?
Yet when you consider the events of the last six months in the region, calling a spade a spade, or a Russian aid super-convoy a Russian aid super-convoy, seems outright naive. It would be sadly surprising if this peculiar half empty humanitarian caravan and Russia's simultaneous 'military exercises' on the border end up being just that.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who edits the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com