MOSCOW - With a theatrical flourish, Russia on Tuesday dispatched hundreds of trucks covered in white tarps and sprinkled with holy water on a mission to deliver aid to a desperate rebel-held zone in eastern Ukraine.
The televised sight of the miles-long convoy sparked a show of indignation from the government in Kyiv, which insisted any aid must be delivered by the international Red Cross. Ukraine and the West have openly expressed its concern that Moscow intends to use the cover of a humanitarian operation to embark on a military incursion in support of pro-Russian separatists.
Compounding those anxieties, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday was set to travel to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed in March.
Putin so far has resisted calls from both pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and nationalists at home to send Russian troops to back the mutiny, a move that would be certain to trigger devastating Western sanctions. But dispatching the convoy sent a powerful visual symbol helping the Kremlin counter criticism from the nationalists who accuse Putin of betrayal.
The convoy provoked controversy as soon as it started moving early Tuesday from the outskirts of Moscow on its long voyage toward the Ukrainian border.
Russian television showed hundreds of white trucks which authorities said were loaded with nearly 2,000 metric tons of cargo from baby food to portable generators. A Russian Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on the trucks, some of which bore a red cross, before they departed.
Officials with both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Ukraine's government said, however, that they had no information about what the trucks were carrying or where they were headed.
A Ukrainian security spokesman said the convoy of white-tarped vehicles was being managed by the Russian army and could not as a result be allowed into the country.
The government in Kyiv said the Russian trucks could unload their contents at the border and transfer the aid to vehicles leased by the ICRC.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded that the convoy hit the road only after Ukraine had given the green light. "We have received a note expressing the Ukrainian side's readiness to accept the aid," he said.
Lavrov added that Russia has bowed to Ukrainian demands the convoy enter its territory through a checkpoint designated by Kyiv and that Ukrainian number plates be put on trucks there.
Lavrov said that the idea to unload the trucks on the border and put the cargo on chartered vehicles had come under discussion, but had been rejected for cost reasons.
He added that Russia had agreed to Kyiv's demand to put Ukrainian representatives on board the trucks alongside Red Cross staff.
The Ukrainian government has insisted that aid must cross at a government-held border crossing. At least 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the long border between the two neighbours is currently in rebel hands.
Valeriy Chaly, the deputy head of Ukraine's presidential administration, said a suitable transfer point could be between Russia's Belgorod region and Ukraine's Kharkiv region, which has been spared the major unrest seen farther south. Chaly said that any attempt to take humanitarian goods into Ukraine without proper authorization would be viewed as an attack
Ukraine has stressed that the effort to alleviate hardship in the conflict-wracked Luhansk region should be seen as an international undertaking. Officials in Kyiv have said Russia's involvement in the humanitarian mission is required to ensure co-operation from separatist rebel forces, who have consistently expressed their allegiance to Moscow.
French President Francois Hollande discussed the aid delivery Tuesday with Putin, saying "he emphasized the strong fears evoked by a unilateral Russian mission in Ukrainian territory." Hollande told Putin that any mission must be multilateral and have the agreement of the ICRC and Ukraine, according to a statement in Paris.
NATO was following the situation closely, spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
"Without the formal, express consent and authorization of the Ukrainian government, any humanitarian intervention would be unacceptable and illegal," she said.
The Western alliance also expressed concern about the possibility of a Russian military operation.
"What we see is thousands of combat-ready troops from Russia being close to the Ukrainian border," NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. "There could be a risk of further intervention."
The fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government has scarred Luhansk, the region's rebel-held capital, which had a pre-war population of 420,000. On Tuesday, authorities said the city's 250,000 remaining residents have had no electricity or water supplies for 10 days.
"Luhansk is under a de facto blockade: The city continues to be destroyed, and the delivery of foodstuffs, medicine and fuel has been interrupted," the city council said.
As Luhansk remains cut off, the situation looks to also be worsening in the main rebel city of Donetsk, where train links were no longer running Tuesday.
Residents seeking to leave Donetsk were forced to drive to a station in a rebel-held town to the north, Yasynuvata, which had also come under rocket attack in the day. Eyewitnesses said at least three people were killed when a local market and two apartment blocks were shelled.
Peter Leonard reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Laura Mills in Moscow, Lori Hinnant in Paris, Juergen Baetz in Brussels and Mstyslav Chernov in Yasynuvata, Ukraine, contributed to this report.