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Russia treading on ‘razor blade’ to keep influence in Ukraine: analysts

Russia’s decision to ignore warnings from Kiev and the West and force a disputed aid convoy into Ukraine reflects the Kremlin’s urgent need to retain influence over the splintered ex-Soviet state, analysts say.

Although Moscow cited a critical lack of humanitarian aid for populations cut off by fighting, President Vladimir Putin had his own reasons for wanting the convoy to break through ahead of a crucial meeting next week with his Ukrainian counterpart.

The Russian leader would have appeared hostage to Kiev’s decisions had he met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko with Russian aid lorries stuck on the border for a second week.

After a week-long delay at the border which Moscow called an “outrage”, some 280 lorries carrying what Russia said is 1,800 tonnes of humanitarian aid began rolling across the border on Friday.

The lorries left without Red Cross monitors, who said they had not received sufficient security guarantees to deliver the aid to the rebel stronghold of Lugansk.

Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels has intensified around Lugansk — once home to nearly 420,000 mostly Russian-speakers — that thousands have fled due to a dire lack of food, water and medicine.

– ‘Designed as a tripwire’ –

Alexander Konovalov, head of the Strategic Analysis Institute, said Poroshenko had hoped to enter next week’s showdown talks with a stronger hand.

“Ukrainian authorities no doubt were planning to announce that Lugansk and Donetsk were completely free of separatists and the (military) operation over,” Konovalov told AFP.

“Russia, naturally, wants to prevent that.”

But the sending of the lorries was also seen as a sign that the pro-Russian rebels need assistance.

“The entry of Russia’s humanitarian convoy into Ukraine without Kiev’s approval is designed to serve as a tripwire to deter further Ukrainian advances in Lugansk, as local militants suffer setbacks,” said analyst Alexander Kliment at Eurasia Group.

“Any Ukrainian attack on or near the convoy would risk a Russian military response that Kiev hopes to avoid,” he added.

Konovalov said Russian leaders now find themselves between “a hammer and an anvil” — weighed down by its promise not to abandon the separatists and the spike in tensions this has caused with the West.

Moscow officially backs the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population to defend themselves against what it says is an ultranationalist and fascist government in Kiev.

It denies providing the rebels with weapons and supplies — the reason the West says it imposed the first serious set of economic sanctions on Russia at the end of July.

While Moscow has put a brave face, slapping bans on EU and US food imports in reply, the Russian economy is likely to feel the pinch of sanctions.

– ‘On a razor blade’ –

Konovalov said Putin was unlikely to change tack in order to avoid appearing weak at home.

“This is balancing on a very dangerous razor blade as it risks unleashing a real war in the centre of Europe,” he added.

Independent analyst Maria Lipman said Russia’s decision to send in aid trucks unilaterally shows current negotiations between Moscow, Kiev and the West are not going well for the Kremlin.

Above all, Russia does not want Ukraine to stabilise and shift into a Western orbit, she said, and “military action in Ukraine helps achieve that goal”, giving Moscow a “lever” to influence Kiev.

Putin and Poroshenko will attend a gathering of the Russian-led Customs Union and EU officials to discuss problems linked to Ukraine signing an EU trade deal. It is not clear if they will hold one-on-one talks.

“The situation is very risky and dangerous,” said Lipman. “The risk of direct clashes between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers has increased sharply.”

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Centre for Political Information, a Moscow-based consultancy, said the dispatch of the convoy would provide a credible excuse for cancelling the meeting should the two presidents realise they will be unable to come to any meaningful agreement towards ending the conflict.

“If there is something to talk about, then no convoy will get in the way,” he said.