Considerable confusion has arisen over the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the much-delayed humanitarian convoy from Russia to East Ukraine. The reasons that Russia has sent the convoy have also invited significant speculation.
The ICRC is being used as an intermediary because it has been working in Russia for over 20 years in sensitive places such as the North Caucasus. The ICRC will have made assessments and drawn up beneficiary lists, and it will have the capacity to operate through an established network of people on the ground, not least the Ukrainian Red Cross.
Any humanitarian operation of this size and sensitivity must have the agreement of all sides involved. Contrary to popular opinion, the ICRC cannot force any party to do anything it does not want to do. All it can do is remind all sides of their obligation under international law to allow humanitarian access to conflict zones. It is worth noting that Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has agreed to the convoy entering Ukraine – nothing here is being done against Ukrainian wishes. Indeed, it should not be ignored that Ukraine is sending its own convoy, and that the same humanitarian principles apply to that mission.
In order to operate in conflict areas, the ICRC needs all sides to provide explicit security guarantees for ICRC personnel. In Ukraine, this includes the rebel side as well as the government side. The cause of the operation being delayed is probably the difficulty involved in obtaining security guarantees from the rebels. It takes time to identify the right people to contact, particularly when the nominal leadership changes often, as seen with the fairly abrupt departure last week of the rebellion’s main man, Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov. Amid rumours of internal rivalries, it may not be immediately obvious who has the actual decision-making power over troops on the ground. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that the local leadership will follow the Moscow line. And it takes time to cultivate the trust of people on the ground so that ICRC employees can deliver aid as they see fit, according to need and without armed escort.
For all the talk of a Trojan horse disguising a supposed Russian invasion, it is hardly likely that this what is happening here. First, Moscow can and has smuggled weaponry into East Ukraine in other less visible ways. Secondly, the media coverage of the convoy is useful both as a smokescreen for smuggling through other channels and also as a way to influence domestic and international opinion. Russia – and Vladimir Putin personally – is coming across less as a warmonger than as a humanitarian actor. Achieving sustained media coverage, which has now been spun out over more than a week, is likely aimed at improving Moscow’s image and room for manoeuvre in any future peace talks.