HELP is on the way. Or so Russian state television declared on August 12th, as nearly 300 lorries with food, medicine and generators set off from a base outside Moscow for the besieged city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
Confusion reigns over what the lorries are carrying, and over how they will cross into Ukraine. As The Economistwent to press, the convoy was heading to Rostov, a Russian city close to the border. It is a measure of Ukrainian distrust of Russian machinations that an aid convoy should be widely suspected of being a Trojan horse for invasion.
In March Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, sent columns of troops without insignia into Crimea while claiming only local pro-Russian volunteers were at large. Yet the aid convoy is unlikely to be cover for an invasion. Had Mr Putin decided to invade, he would not have needed a stealth fleet of lorries—he has as many as 45,000 troops on the border. Russia does not have to hide arms in aid lorries to get them to its proxy forces.
Most likely the offer of Russian aid to Luhansk, a city wracked by fighting and left without water or power, is a clever push by Mr Putin to be seen at home to be doing something to protect civilians in the east. Polling by the Levada Centre, a think-tank, shows public support for Russian military intervention in Ukraine dropping from 40% to 26% between June and July, but support for non-military aid remains high. Either the Russian supplies go through, making Mr Putin look the peacemaker, or they are blocked by Ukrainian forces, allowing Russia to appear the nobler party.
Mr Putin has taken advantage of a blind spot within the Ukrainian government and in the West: the mounting civilian death toll of the “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine. On August 13th the UN reckoned that 2,086 people had been killed in the fighting, double the number from just two weeks ago. As Ukrainian forces recapture territory from pro-Russian rebels, their shelling often ends up striking civilian areas.
Yet the convoy carries the risk of escalating tensions rather than bringing relief. Any fight at the border over the passage of the lorries into Ukraine could erupt into a wider clash presaging Mr Putin calling in the troops. After months of Russia’s backing anti-government rebels, suspicions in Kiev are high.
More probably, a break in the fighting to let the lorries in is part of a plan to slow down the pace of the Ukrainian advance, helping to turn the war into a frozen conflict. That would suit Mr Putin fine. But, however deft he may be at controlling the pictures on television, the events on the ground are harder to dictate.