MOSCOW, Russia — A Russian humanitarian convoy that boosted tensions to unprecedented levels between Russia and Ukraine crossed uneventfully back into Russia on Saturday, having reportedly delivered its cargo to a war-torn rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine and neutralized fears it was a clandestine military invasion.
Ukrainian officials had decried the convoy of more than 220 trucks — which on Friday crossed a rebel-controlled border point without approval from Kyiv or the International Committee of the Red Cross — as a “direct invasion” of their country.
Ukraine’s Western allies had likewise warned Moscow against unilaterally deploying the caravan of white tractor-trailers, suggesting the move was aimed at resupplying rebels and thereby infringed on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
But Saturday’s delivery to the besieged city of Luhansk — currently in the throws of what Moscow has cast as a “humanitarian crisis” amid heavy shelling — seemingly ended as quickly as it began, without any of the provocations critics feared would serve as a pretext for Russian military involvement.
Russian state television reported that local rebels helped unload food, medical supplies and other goods. But Ukrainian officials say the contents of the convoy are still unknown to them.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council told reporters on Saturday that Ukrainian officials were not allowed to inspect the trucks on their way out, while also accusing cars belonging to the convoy of smuggling out goods from two Ukrainian factories that produce military hardware.
But he offered no further information. Moscow, meanwhile, rushed to broadcast its “satisfaction” with the mission, even hailing the Red Cross —which said fighting on Friday was too heavy for the convoy to cross the border — as a “responsible partner.”
“We were guided exclusively by the goal of helping needy civilians,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “We are receiving numerous messages of thanks from Luhansk residents for such a generous attitude on the part of Russia.”
The apparent success of the mission may serve as a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, which some observers suggest has been looking for ways to back down from its standoff with the West while still offering token support for eastern Ukrainians to appease widespread nationalist sentiments at home.
The convoy had been stalled near the border for nearly two weeks as negotiations dragged on with both Ukrainian authorities and the Red Cross.
But having grown frustrated, Moscow defiantly deployed the trucks amid blanket state-run media coverage of the worsening humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine and a barrage of criticism from the West.
In a separate statement on Saturday, the foreign ministry railed against what it portrayed as the “hysteria that broke out in a number of capitals” over the convoy, and rejected claims that it acted without Ukrainian approval.
Adding to the showmanship was Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister and leading conservative hawk, who slammed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s criticism of the convoy by apparently suggesting the official was unmoved by the plight of Ukrainians under fire.
"Ban Ki-moon is concerned that humanitarian convoy is heading to Lugansk," Rogozin wrote on Twitter Saturday. "I wonder why Ban isn't concerned that Lugansk hasn't seen this humanitarian convoy so far."
Tensions remain high, with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen having accused Russia on Friday of providing artillery support for rebels on both sides of the border.
That charge was one of the most direct accusations yet of Moscow’s alleged role in the fighting, which erupted in April after suspiciously well-armed gunmen seized an array of administrative buildings across eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected claims it’s supporting the rebels, even though the separatist leadership was until recently comprised of Muscovites with ties to Russia’s security and elite establishment.
Nevertheless, the convoy drama represents a pattern of brinksmanship whose intensity appears to fluctuate, with tensions periodically rising and falling amid various pointed statements and attempts at diplomacy.
For example, while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko decried Russia’s deployment of the convoy on Friday, he also pledged his military would not retaliate for fear of aggravating the conflict.
And next week, Poroshenko is set to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in their second face-to-face meeting since Poroshenko's election in May.
The convoy’s return to Russia also coincided with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Kyiv on Saturday, in an apparent bid to extend her support for Ukraine.
Some experts believe the crisis in Ukraine — which began after pro-European protesters toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych in February and grew worse after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula a month later — is entering a new phase of stagnation.
According to Alexey Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, “both sides are starting to treat the confrontation between Russia and the West as something routine.”
“Politicians and the public are bracing themselves for just permanently living with it,” he wrote in the center’s Eurasia Outlook blog on Thursday.