Ukraine crisis: Merkel to visit as Russian convoy returns

“We waited long enough. And it was time to move, and this is what we did,” he said.

He said Russia had to act to save perishable goods and that he hoped the Red Cross would help distribute the aid.

“Sometimes it reminded me of the kingdom of crooked mirrors because some members of the Council were not concerned about the fact hundreds of civilians are dying.”

But speaking to the UN Security Council, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused Western powers of distorting reality.

Nato officials have accused Russia of building up troops on its border, saying significant numbers of Russian forces are operating within Ukraine, using artillery.

Nato and the European Union have also criticised what they said was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Ukraine called the Russian convoy a “direct invasion” of Ukraine.

In a phone call, US President Barack Obama and Mrs Merkel said the conflict “has continued to deteriorate” since a Malaysian airliner was downed last month over rebel-held territory, with the loss of all 298 people on board.

As Daniel Sandford reports, Russia says its patience ran out

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The White House and the Ukrainian government both described the deployment of the convoy as a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

According to the Associated Press, journalists could see that about 40 of these returning lorries were empty – but it is unclear whether all of them are, and it also unclear what the convoy delivered.

International monitors based in the border region say that some of the vehicles have now crossed back into Russia, a development confirmed by Russian news agencies.

At least 220 trucks drove into Ukraine on Friday, headed for the rebel-held city of Luhansk, which has been affected by weeks of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.

Four months of fighting in the region have left more than 2,000 people dead. More than 330,000 people have fled flee their homes.

The Russians said they could not wait any longer, owing to the worsening humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, which is held by pro-Russian separatists.

The lorries had already been waiting at the border for a week, while Russia, the Ukrainian government and the Red Cross tried to come to an agreement on their passage.

But Kremlin officials say the vehicles are only carrying generators, food and drink.

Western officials fear the convoy could be part of a military intervention.

After travelling to besieged rebel-held areas, some of the lorries have now begun crossing back into Russia.

More than 100 Russian lorries entered eastern Ukraine on Friday, without permission from Ukraine’s government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to arrive in Ukraine, a day after calling Russia’s decision to send an unauthorised aid convoy there a “dangerous escalation”.

Russians Open Fire in Ukraine, NATO Reports

Several dozen trucks, from a convoy of about 270, crossed the border around noon. Soldiers carrying automatic rifles and wearing camouflage, some bearing the markings of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, cleared the road to let the convoy move past.

There were no signs of Russian military vehicles or any other indications of an armed escort by Russian troops. The United States and its European allies have warned that any crossing of the border by Russian military vehicles, even under the pretext of protecting the aid convoy, would be regarded as an invasion.

The main highway from the border crossing at Izvaryne to Luhansk has seen heavy fighting over the past week, as Ukrainian forces pressed their military campaign against the separatists. The rebel forces have been driven out of a string of towns and villages but are still holding out in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Under the arrangements agreed to by the two countries, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross were to escort the trucks to Luhansk. They decided not to proceed after heavy shelling around the city during the night, Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in Geneva.

He added that Ukrainian forces would allow the convoy to reach Luhansk, because “it is easy to shoot but the consequences would be very destructive.” He said Ukraine would adopt a different approach if it turned out that, after reaching Luhansk, the convoy “has other equipment, not just humanitarian aid.”

“This is a provocation,” said Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s military spokesman. “They expect us to attack the convoy.”

Ukraine has from the start viewed Russia’s aid convoy, which left Moscow on Aug. 12, with deep suspicion, worrying that the vehicles could be carrying weapons or be part of a ruse by Moscow to support the pro-Russian separatists, or possibly an attempt to provoke Ukraine into an ill-advised attack.

Spreading the conspicuously large white aid trucks through Luhansk could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Any respite in Ukraine’s military offensive could allow rebels to dig in further, and indefinitely postpone any attempt to oust them.

The decision to send in the aid trucks in defiance of Kiev suggested an attempt by Mr. Putin to calm nationalist complaints that he has not done enough to prevent a rebel defeat and marked the latest in a long series of surprise moves by the Russian president, a judo practitioner, to put Ukraine and the West off balance.

While denying that it supports the rebels, despite a steady flow of arms and fighters into eastern Ukraine from Russia, the Kremlin has tied itself to their fate by whipping up a nationalist fervor with vows to protect Russians beyond Russia’s borders.

Luhansk has come under heavy military pressure in recent days from Ukrainian forces. The rebel city’s recapture by Ukraine would deliver a humiliating blow to Mr. Putin, who has faced mounting calls from hard-line nationalists in Russia to intervene decisively to stave off defeat for the Russian-speaking and often ethnically Russian separatists.

The trucks are traveling toward Luhansk, a war-ravaged rebel-held city where the bullet-riddled body of the acting honorary consul for Lithuania, a 39-year-old Ukrainian national named Mykola Zelenets, was found on Thursday. He was kidnapped earlier this month by armed separatists, the Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine, Petras Vaitiekunas, said.

Rather than an invasion, however, the arrival of Russian trucks — only 34 of which Ukrainian officials inspected Thursday evening on the Russian side of the border, and found to contain buckwheat, rice, sugar and water — appeared to be a Russian effort to stall an accelerating offensive by Ukrainian forces against beleaguered pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has suggested it would be reluctant to attack with a convoy interposed.

“They will not add anything to this escalation,” he said, adding that Russia’s decision to move in its aid trucks, many of which appeared half empty to Western journalists allowed to see them earlier this week, only strengthened suspicions that the Kremlin’s humanitarian effort “is a smoke screen for something else.”

In a telephone interview after a meeting with Mr. Poroshenko, the Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas A. Linkevicius, described the Russian move as “a serious escalation” but said Ukraine’s president had made clear there would be “no attack” on the trucks by Ukrainian forces.

“It is important to remember that Russia is purporting to alleviate a humanitarian situation which Russia itself created,” Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “If Russia really wants to ease the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, it could do so today by halting its supply of weapons, equipment, and fighters to its proxies,” she added.

That brought a curt response from a spokeswoman from the Obama administration.

“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement saying in essence that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev. Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for Mr. Putin as saying that he had been informed of the convoy’s movements.

The comments by Mr. Poroshenko suggested that Ukraine would limit its response to verbal protests and not use force against the Russian vehicles, although it was unclear whether volunteer Ukrainian battalions of sometimes shaky discipline would respect calls for restraint.

But Ukraine stepped back from earlier threats to use “all forces available” to halt any Russian vehicles that crossed the frontier without its full accord, and Mr. Poroshenko told the visiting foreign minister of Lithuania, “We will do our best to ensure that this does not lead to more serious consequences.”

In a news briefing, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, condemned the convoy as an “unauthorized entry into Ukraine” and called for the vehicles’ immediate withdrawal. The move into Ukraine, without the Red Cross escorts that had been agreed upon, drew angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, called a “direct invasion.”

Ms. Merkel spoke by telephone with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents on Friday and “expressed her great concern” over Russia’s unilateral decision to move its aid trucks into Ukraine, her spokesman said. She also spoke with President Obama and, according to the White House, both leaders agreed that the arrival of the convoy represented “a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The NATO statements added new pressure on Moscow before a flurry of diplomacy in coming days, including a visit to Kiev on Saturday by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and a scheduled meeting next week between President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and his Russian counterpart, Mr. Putin, in Minsk, Belarus.

A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, also said that the alliance had receive multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in Eastern Ukraine.

The NATO allegations are based on intelligence reports from several alliance members, Western officials said, and the allegation generally echoed Ukrainian claims in recent days of an expanding Russian military involvement in support of pro-Russian rebels who are battling to hold off a Ukrainian offensive.

Mr. Rasmussen did not say how many Russian artillery pieces had moved into Ukraine or where they were located, but one Western official said the number of Russian-operated artillery units was “substantial.”

Russia’s Permanent Mission to NATO, in a statement, accused the alliance of indifference to humanitarian suffering in eastern Ukraine and described its protests over the entry of a Russian aid convoy into Ukraine without Red Cross escorts as “another cynical attempt to cover the crimes of Ukrainian authorities.”

There has been “a major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO said in a statement. “Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” Mr. Rasmussen added.

NATO officials said that the Russian military had moved artillery units inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces. Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or military hardware into Ukraine, just as it denied any link to the unidentified gunmen who paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea — until President Vladimir V. Putin stated in April that Russian troops were “of course” involved.

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia on Friday escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory.

Russians Open Fire in Ukraine, NATO Reports

Several dozen trucks, from a convoy of about 270, crossed the border around noon. Soldiers carrying automatic rifles and wearing camouflage, some bearing the markings of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, cleared the road to let the convoy move past.

There were no signs of Russian military vehicles or any other indications of an armed escort by Russian troops. The United States and its European allies have warned that any crossing of the border by Russian military vehicles, even under the pretext of protecting the aid convoy, would be regarded as an invasion.

The main highway from the border crossing at Izvaryne to Luhansk has seen heavy fighting over the past week, as Ukrainian forces pressed their military campaign against the separatists. The rebel forces have been driven out of a string of towns and villages but are still holding out in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Under the arrangements agreed to by the two countries, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross were to escort the trucks to Luhansk. They decided not to proceed after heavy shelling around the city during the night, Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in Geneva.

He added that Ukrainian forces would allow the convoy to reach Luhansk, because “it is easy to shoot but the consequences would be very destructive.” He said Ukraine would adopt a different approach if it turned out that, after reaching Luhansk, the convoy “has other equipment, not just humanitarian aid.”

“This is a provocation,” said Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s military spokesman. “They expect us to attack the convoy.”

Ukraine has from the start viewed Russia’s aid convoy, which left Moscow on Aug. 12, with deep suspicion, worrying that the vehicles could be carrying weapons or be part of a ruse by Moscow to support the pro-Russian separatists, or possibly an attempt to provoke Ukraine into an ill-advised attack.

Spreading the conspicuously large white aid trucks through Luhansk could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Any respite in Ukraine’s military offensive could allow rebels to dig in further, and indefinitely postpone any attempt to oust them.

The decision to send in the aid trucks in defiance of Kiev suggested an attempt by Mr. Putin to calm nationalist complaints that he has not done enough to prevent a rebel defeat and marked the latest in a long series of surprise moves by the Russian president, a judo practitioner, to put Ukraine and the West off balance.

While denying that it supports the rebels, despite a steady flow of arms and fighters into eastern Ukraine from Russia, the Kremlin has tied itself to their fate by whipping up a nationalist fervor with vows to protect Russians beyond Russia’s borders.

Luhansk has come under heavy military pressure in recent days from Ukrainian forces. The rebel city’s recapture by Ukraine would deliver a humiliating blow to Mr. Putin, who has faced mounting calls from hard-line nationalists in Russia to intervene decisively to stave off defeat for the Russian-speaking and often ethnically Russian separatists.

The trucks are traveling toward Luhansk, a war-ravaged rebel-held city where the bullet-riddled body of the acting honorary consul for Lithuania, a 39-year-old Ukrainian national named Mykola Zelenets, was found on Thursday. He was kidnapped earlier this month by armed separatists, the Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine, Petras Vaitiekunas, said.

Rather than an invasion, however, the arrival of Russian trucks — only 34 of which Ukrainian officials inspected Thursday evening on the Russian side of the border, and found to contain buckwheat, rice, sugar and water — appeared to be a Russian effort to stall an accelerating offensive by Ukrainian forces against beleaguered pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has suggested it would be reluctant to attack with a convoy interposed.

“They will not add anything to this escalation,” he said, adding that Russia’s decision to move in its aid trucks, many of which appeared half empty to Western journalists allowed to see them earlier this week, only strengthened suspicions that the Kremlin’s humanitarian effort “is a smoke screen for something else.”

In a telephone interview after a meeting with Mr. Poroshenko, the Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas A. Linkevicius, described the Russian move as “a serious escalation” but said Ukraine’s president had made clear there would be “no attack” on the trucks by Ukrainian forces.

“It is important to remember that Russia is purporting to alleviate a humanitarian situation which Russia itself created,” Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “If Russia really wants to ease the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, it could do so today by halting its supply of weapons, equipment, and fighters to its proxies,” she added.

That brought a curt response from a spokeswoman from the Obama administration.

“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement saying in essence that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev. Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for Mr. Putin as saying that he had been informed of the convoy’s movements.

The comments by Mr. Poroshenko suggested that Ukraine would limit its response to verbal protests and not use force against the Russian vehicles, although it was unclear whether volunteer Ukrainian battalions of sometimes shaky discipline would respect calls for restraint.

But Ukraine stepped back from earlier threats to use “all forces available” to halt any Russian vehicles that crossed the frontier without its full accord, and Mr. Poroshenko told the visiting foreign minister of Lithuania, “We will do our best to ensure that this does not lead to more serious consequences.”

In a news briefing, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, condemned the convoy as an “unauthorized entry into Ukraine” and called for the vehicles’ immediate withdrawal. The move into Ukraine, without the Red Cross escorts that had been agreed upon, drew angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, called a “direct invasion.”

Ms. Merkel spoke by telephone with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents on Friday and “expressed her great concern” over Russia’s unilateral decision to move its aid trucks into Ukraine, her spokesman said. She also spoke with President Obama and, according to the White House, both leaders agreed that the arrival of the convoy represented “a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The NATO statements added new pressure on Moscow before a flurry of diplomacy in coming days, including a visit to Kiev on Saturday by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and a scheduled meeting next week between President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and his Russian counterpart, Mr. Putin, in Minsk, Belarus.

A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, also said that the alliance had receive multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in Eastern Ukraine.

The NATO allegations are based on intelligence reports from several alliance members, Western officials said, and the allegation generally echoed Ukrainian claims in recent days of an expanding Russian military involvement in support of pro-Russian rebels who are battling to hold off a Ukrainian offensive.

Mr. Rasmussen did not say how many Russian artillery pieces had moved into Ukraine or where they were located, but one Western official said the number of Russian-operated artillery units was “substantial.”

Russia’s Permanent Mission to NATO, in a statement, accused the alliance of indifference to humanitarian suffering in eastern Ukraine and described its protests over the entry of a Russian aid convoy into Ukraine without Red Cross escorts as “another cynical attempt to cover the crimes of Ukrainian authorities.”

There has been “a major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO said in a statement. “Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” Mr. Rasmussen added.

NATO officials said that the Russian military had moved artillery units inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces. Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or military hardware into Ukraine, just as it denied any link to the unidentified gunmen who paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea — until President Vladimir V. Putin stated in April that Russian troops were “of course” involved.

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia on Friday escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory.

Russian Trucks Cross Border Without Assent of Ukraine

Several dozen trucks, from a convoy of about 270, crossed the border around noon. Soldiers carrying automatic rifles and wearing camouflage, some bearing the markings of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, cleared the road to let the convoy move past.

There were no signs of Russian military vehicles or any other indications of an armed escort by Russian troops. The United States and its European allies have warned that any crossing of the border by Russian military vehicles, even under the pretext of protecting the aid convoy, would be regarded as an invasion.

The main highway from the border crossing at Izvaryne to Luhansk has seen heavy fighting over the past week, as Ukrainian forces pressed their military campaign against the separatists. The rebel forces have been driven out of a string of towns and villages but are still holding out in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Under the arrangements agreed to by the two countries, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross were to escort the trucks to Luhansk. They decided not to proceed after heavy shelling around the city during the night, Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in Geneva.

He added that Ukrainian forces would allow the convoy to reach Luhansk, because “it is easy to shoot but the consequences would be very destructive.” He said Ukraine would adopt a different approach if it turned out that, after reaching Luhansk, the convoy “has other equipment, not just humanitarian aid.”

“This is a provocation,” said Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s military spokesman. “They expect us to attack the convoy.”

Ukraine has from the start viewed Russia’s aid convoy, which left Moscow on Aug. 12, with deep suspicion, worrying that the vehicles could be carrying weapons or be part of a ruse by Moscow to support the pro-Russian separatists, or possibly an attempt to provoke Ukraine into an ill-advised attack.

Spreading the conspicuously large white aid trucks through Luhansk could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Any respite in Ukraine’s military offensive could allow rebels to dig in further, and indefinitely postpone any attempt to oust them.

The decision to send in the aid trucks in defiance of Kiev suggested an attempt by Mr. Putin to calm nationalist complaints that he has not done enough to prevent a rebel defeat and marked the latest in a long series of surprise moves by the Russian president, a judo practitioner, to put Ukraine and the West off balance.

While denying that it supports the rebels, despite a steady flow of arms and fighters into eastern Ukraine from Russia, the Kremlin has tied itself to their fate by whipping up a nationalist fervor with vows to protect Russians beyond Russia’s borders.

Luhansk has come under heavy military pressure in recent days from Ukrainian forces. The rebel city’s recapture by Ukraine would deliver a humiliating blow to Mr. Putin, who has faced mounting calls from hard-line nationalists in Russia to intervene decisively to stave off defeat for the Russian-speaking and often ethnically Russian separatists.

The trucks are traveling toward Luhansk, a war-ravaged rebel-held city where the bullet-riddled body of the acting honorary consul for Lithuania, a 39-year-old Ukrainian national named Mykola Zelenets, was found on Thursday. He was kidnapped earlier this month by armed separatists, the Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine, Petras Vaitiekunas, said.

Rather than an invasion, however, the arrival of Russian trucks — only 34 of which Ukrainian officials inspected Thursday evening on the Russian side of the border, and found to contain buckwheat, rice, sugar and water — appeared to be a Russian effort to stall an accelerating offensive by Ukrainian forces against beleaguered pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has suggested it would be reluctant to attack with a convoy interposed.

“They will not add anything to this escalation,” he said, adding that Russia’s decision to move in its aid trucks, many of which appeared half empty to Western journalists allowed to see them earlier this week, only strengthened suspicions that the Kremlin’s humanitarian effort “is a smoke screen for something else.”

In a telephone interview after a meeting with Mr. Poroshenko, the Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas A. Linkevicius, described the Russian move as “a serious escalation” but said Ukraine’s president had made clear there would be “no attack” on the trucks by Ukrainian forces.

“It is important to remember that Russia is purporting to alleviate a humanitarian situation which Russia itself created,” Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “If Russia really wants to ease the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, it could do so today by halting its supply of weapons, equipment, and fighters to its proxies,” she added.

That brought a curt response from a spokeswoman from the Obama administration.

“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement saying in essence that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev. Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for Mr. Putin as saying that he had been informed of the convoy’s movements.

The comments by Mr. Poroshenko suggested that Ukraine would limit its response to verbal protests and not use force against the Russian vehicles, although it was unclear whether volunteer Ukrainian battalions of sometimes shaky discipline would respect calls for restraint.

But Ukraine stepped back from earlier threats to use “all forces available” to halt any Russian vehicles that crossed the frontier without its full accord, and Mr. Poroshenko told the visiting foreign minister of Lithuania, “We will do our best to ensure that this does not lead to more serious consequences.”

In a news briefing, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, condemned the convoy as an “unauthorized entry into Ukraine” and called for the vehicles’ immediate withdrawal. The move into Ukraine, without the Red Cross escorts that had been agreed upon, drew angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, called a “direct invasion.”

Ms. Merkel spoke by telephone with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents on Friday and “expressed her great concern” over Russia’s unilateral decision to move its aid trucks into Ukraine, her spokesman said. She also spoke with President Obama and, according to the White House, both leaders agreed that the arrival of the convoy represented “a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But the NATO statements added new pressure on Moscow before a flurry of diplomacy in coming days, including a visit to Kiev on Saturday by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and a scheduled meeting next week between President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and his Russian counterpart, Mr. Putin, in Minsk, Belarus.

A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, also said that the alliance had receive multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in Eastern Ukraine.

The NATO allegations are based on intelligence reports from several alliance members, Western officials said, and the allegation generally echoed Ukrainian claims in recent days of an expanding Russian military involvement in support of pro-Russian rebels who are battling to hold off a Ukrainian offensive.

Mr. Rasmussen did say how many Russian artillery pieces had been moved into Ukraine or where they were located, but one Western official said the number of Russian-operated artillery units was “substantial.”

Russia’s Permanent Mission to NATO, in a statement, accused the alliance of indifference to humanitarian suffering in eastern Ukraine and described its protests over the entry of a Russian aid convoy into Ukraine without Red Cross escorts as “another cynical attempt to cover the crimes of Ukrainian authorities.”

There has been a “major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO said in a statement. “Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” Mr. Rasmussen added.

NATO officials said that the Russian military had moved artillery units inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and was using them to fire at Ukrainian forces. Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or military hardware into Ukraine, just as it denied any link to the unidentified gunmen who paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea — until President Vladimir V. Putin stated in April that Russian troops were “of course” involved.

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia on Friday escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine crisis: Russian convoy prompts Western anger

Four months of fighting in eastern Ukraine have left more than 2,000 people dead and caused more than 330,000 people to flee their homes.

Reporters at the scene saw rebel fighters in front of the convoy as it crossed the border near the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.

Foreign journalists were allowed to look into the Russian lorries earlier this week, and found they contained humanitarian supplies such as baby food and cereals.

His Ukrainian counterpart at the UN, Oleksandr Pavlichenko, said border guards had begun inspecting of some of the lorries on Thursday afternoon, but the Russians had decided to go ahead without waiting for them all to be cleared.

He also lambasted Lithuania’s UN for “torpedoing all productive, constructive initiatives we’ve had in the Security Council”, in particular Russia’s proposal calling for a ceasefire.

Mr Churkin rebuffed Nato’s accusations of military support for the Ukrainian separatist forces, saying the body had no proof – adding there were no Russian troops or artillery on Ukrainian soil.

“We regret if some Ukrainian officials are trying to stir the situation and create some political crisis, which is there but not for the reason of the Russian humanitarian convoy moving to the people in need,” he said

Ahead of the UN Security Council meeting, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said they had lost patience with Ukraine’s chain of command and that Russia had had to act to save perishable goods and he hoped the ICRC would help now distribute the aid.

In other reactions to the convoy:

All this, taken with what Nato describes as the transfer of “large quantities of advanced weapons” to separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, suggests a concerted effort by Moscow to prop up the defences of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia has consistently denied such charges but Russian armour has been seen crossing into Ukraine and marshalled near the border.

Indeed Nato goes further, insisting that Russian artillery is being used against Ukrainian forces, with the fire coming both from across the border in Russia, and from within Ukraine itself. Western military sources speak of “substantial” Russian military deployments inside Ukraine with battalion-size elements on the ground.

Nato’s condemnation of the entry of Russia’s aid convoy into Ukraine marks a significant hardening of its tone. The statement speaks of “a major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces”.

In a strong statement, Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday’s developments were “even more worrying as they coincide with a major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces”.

Meanwhile, Lithuania – a fierce critic of Russia’s actions in Ukraine – has said its honorary consul in Luhansk has been murdered “by terrorists”, a term routinely used by Ukraine for pro-Russian separatists.

The UN is to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the convoy’s entry, which Ukraine has described as an “invasion”.

The first trucks have now reached the besieged rebel-held city of Luhansk.

But Russia said further delays were unacceptable – and also denied that its troops and artillery were in Ukraine.

The European Union and the US called for them to be withdrawn, calling it a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Nato said it would deepen the crisis.

Russia’s decision to send more than 100 aid lorries into war-torn eastern Ukraine without permission has been widely condemned in the West.

The BBC’s David Stern: “Red cross officials say Moscow decided to move forward without them”

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Ukraine crisis: Lithuania envoy killed in Luhansk

At the UN, he added, “the Lithuanian delegation starts working, and of course we know the division of labour – the US and UK are not far behind”.

He said Lithuania had amended a Russian proposal calling for a ceasefire while the aid was distributed in Luhansk. He said the Lithuanian delegation “sent in amendments where they dropped the reference to Russia and included a reference to the European Union, and then dropped the reference to a ceasefire”.

He scorned “the indefatigable delegation of Lithuania, which is always torpedoing all productive, constructive initiatives we’ve had in the Security Council”.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, lambasted the Lithuanian delegation on Friday.

The Ukraine crisis has heightened tensions between Russia and the three Baltic republics – including Lithuania – which used to be Soviet republics governed from Moscow.

The UN Security Council is holding an emergency session at Lithuania’s request to discuss the issue.

Mr Linkevicius described the entry of the Russian aid convoy into eastern Ukraine as “a blatant violation of international law”, echoing Ukraine’s condemnation of the move.

Lithuania is among the most vociferous EU member states in its criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. The EU and US accuse Russia of fomenting the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

There has been no comment from the rebels yet on the Lithuanian diplomat’s death.

The news came amid reports that some Russian aid lorries had reached Luhansk without any permission from Ukraine.

Ukraine routinely calls the pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk “terrorists”.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted with “deep sorrow” that “Mr Mykola Zelenec kidnapped & brutally killed by terrorists there”.

Lithuania says its honorary consul in the rebel-held city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine has been murdered by “terrorists” there.

Serbia Says It Won’t Impose Sanctions on Russia

“In the interest of Serbia, we need to maintain friendly relations with Russia,” he said.

“It is Serbia’s strategic goal to become a member of the European Union,” Vucic told reporters. “At the same time, Serbia did not and will not introduce sanctions against the Russian Federation.”

Although Serbian officials had said they respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and are against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they told the West that imposing sanctions against Russia would be disastrous for its economy, especially because its energy sector is almost entirely in Gazprom’s hands.

“We welcome the attention the Serbian government pays to this issue and we appreciate the constructive approach as announced by Prime Minister Vucic,” the European Commission said in a statement.

The EU said Friday it welcomes that “Serbia will not increase the state support for its exports to Russia.”

Vucic said his government will accept EU’s demands not to additionally subsidize those exports to Russia, but will not prevent Serbian companies from making new deals. Serbian officials have said that they hope to increase the food and agricultural exports to Russia from the current $170 million (128 million euros) a year to $300 million (226 million euros).

The EU has warned candidate countries to refrain from exploiting the Russian ban.

Serbia, a traditional Russian Slavic ally which is seeking EU membership, is hoping to capitalize on Russia’s ban by increasing its food exports and replacing some Western goods on the Russian market.

After the U.S. and the EU slapped sanctions on Russian state banks and major industries last month over the crisis in Ukraine, Russia responded with a wide-ranging ban on food products imported from those countries.

Despite pressure from the European Union, Serbia will not impose sanctions against Russia or curb its food exports to that country, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said Friday.

Russia Moves Artillery Units Into Ukraine, NATO Says

“These developments are even more worrying as they coincide with a major escalation in Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” the statement continued, adding: “We have also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, NATO is observing an alarming buildup of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine.”

“I condemn the entry of a Russian so-called humanitarian convoy into Ukrainian territory without the consent of the Ukrainian authorities and without any involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Mr. Rasmussen’s statement said.

NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, criticized the Russian moves in a statement issued in Brussels on Friday.

“Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” she added.

Since mid-August NATO has received multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian forces, “including Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in Eastern Ukraine,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO.

The Russian move represents a significant escalation of the Kremlin’s involvement in the fighting there and comes as a convoy of Russian trucks with humanitarian provisions has crossed into Ukrainian territory without Kiev’s permission.

The West has long accused Russia of supporting the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, but this is the first time it has said it had evidence of the direct involvement of the Russian military.

WASHINGTON — The Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and is using them to fire at Ukrainian forces, NATO officials said on Friday.