As Ukraine promises to deny entrance to a convoy of nearly 300 Russian trucks carrying what Russia says are aid to civilians in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, the humanitarian situation is worsening in the region's besieged cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
As the Russian convoy nears the border, Ukrainian and Western officials fear that Moscow is planning to exploit a worsening crisis in east Ukraine by cloaking a military mission in the guise of a humanitarian aid convoy.
Meanwhile, shelling by Ukraine forces and armed conflicts with separtists continue in the east, while a quarter-of-a-million people in Luhansk have been without running water and electricity for two weeks. Landline and cell phone communications are now failing.
Luhansk residents say stores are mainly closed, banks are not functioning and pensions and salaries are going unpaid. Medicines are running low and gas is hard to get.
The picture is not dissimilar in Donetsk, residents contacted by phone say.
Most banks have closed their offices after Kyiv authorities ordered financial institutions in the city to be cut off from the national electronic banking system. ATMS are empty and the city center remains mainly deserted with stores closed. Fuel stocks are running out too.
Some districts in Donetsk, which had a population of about a million before the insurgency began, have intermittent power and running water.
However, much of the public transportation system is still working, although buses have to be re-routed because of artillery damage. And the Internet system is largely working.
Still, criticism is mounting of Kyiv authorities from easterners both in Donetsk and Luhansk - and those who have fled - at the absence of any systematic state humanitarian effort.
“There is no strategy,” said Mykola Volynko, head of the Donbas Independent Miners trade union, for either those who remain in the besieged cities or those living in towns now retaken by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials say they have recaptured about three-quarters of the territory once held by the insurgents.
But municipal authorities are being left to fend for themselves, said Volynko and other political and NGO activists. They have formed a coordinating council to try to get the government of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko to implement a serious aid effort of their own.
On Monday Ukraine’s security services spokesman Col.. Andriy Lysenko warned that Russia has built up forces once again along the border, saying there are now 45,000 soldiers massed along the frontier, much estimate than NATO’s.
Lysenko on Tuesday told reporters that the Russian convoy bears the hallmarks of a military mission and says it includes soldiers, arguing that, “by all the rules international law humanitarian convoys must not be accompanied by military forces.”
Throughout the conflict in the industrial Donbas region, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the insurgency, aiding the rebels with arms and fighters and of supplying the insurgents with the missile they used to shoot down a Malaysian commercial jet, killing all the passengers and crew.
The Kremlin denies it has provided any assistance to the rebels.
Russian officials insist that they aren’t planning to send troops into territory held by separatist insurgents in a bid to save them from defeat from the Ukrainian army. They say civilian suffering requires aid now.
The tragic humanitarian situation that’s unfolding in the region can’t wait,” said Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman.
Speaking on French radio today (Tuesday) French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said “it is necessary to be extremely prudent, because this could be a cover for the Russians to practice a policy of ‘fait accompli.”
Poroshenko on Monday agreed to an “international humanitarian mission for Luhansk under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross with participation of the E.U., Russia, Germany and other partners,” according to Ukraine officials.
Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quoted a Russian Emergencies Ministry spokesman as saying 2,000 tons of supplies - including baby food, medicine and drinking water - left Moscow early Tuesday for the Ukrainian border.
Ukraine government stance
Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said his government is "not considering" allowing the convoy to enter Ukraine.
He said the Russian aid would be loaded onto vehicles provided by the ICRC, which will be responsible for coordinating and delivering international aid to eastern Ukraine.
Still, Ukraine activists in eastern Ukraine say international aid should have been available much earlier in the conflict.
They say if it had already done so the Kremlin would have less of an argument to make about the need for Moscow to send aid.
The United Nation ‘s refugee agency estimates 117,000 easterners are internally displaced having fled the fighting but activists and European diplomats say that number is grossly inaccurate and suspect double that number have been forced to leave the war zone.
“Throughout the conflict refugee numbers have been seriously under-estimated,” a European diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
“There are no real statistics being kept on this by Kyiv authorities and many people who have left their homes, especially the young, don’t try to register with the authorities in the municipalities they are now living in often with friends or relatives,” the diploamt said.
Luhansk, a hardscrabble town deep in mining country, had a pre-insurgency population of 450,000 but city authorities there recently claimed 200,000 have left.
And the Kremlin has made much of a statistic released by Russia’s Federal Migration Service that more than 160,000 Ukrainians have requested residency permits. The U.N. estimates at least 168,000 Ukrainians from the Donbas region have crossed into Russia.
For the displaced remaining in Ukraine “here has to be a humanitarian strategy to help the refugees,” said organized labor leader Volynko.
“People can’t get their pensions and can’t even register at hospitals in the rest of the country because they are told they have to have their medical notes from Donetsk and they are impossible to get,” he said.
He said there is only space for 30,000 in government-run shelters.
In Kyiv, though, there is growing resentment towards refugees from the east with locals saying that while their sons and husbands are fighting and dying in the Donbas, easterners are not pulling their weight in the battle against the separatists.
Classified adverts listing vacant rental accommodation in the capital often now advise easterners will not be considered.
But in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine's fourth largest city populated mainly by Russian-speakers, locals are highly sympathetic to people displaced from Donetsk.
"Some hotels here are offering discounts to people from Donetsk," said Kate, a language student.
She said it was impossible to stay in Donetsk and the city has become more unpredictable and dangerous.
"Gunmen who have been driven out of neighboring towns are making life more. difficult," she said.
VOA's Gabe Joselow contributed to this report from Kyiv.