SYDNEY (AP) - The Obama administration is cautiously hopeful diplomacy can ease tensions between Ukraine and Russia over Moscow's insistence on sending humanitarian aid to pro-Russian areas of eastern Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday, amid concerns that such deliveries could be used as cover for an invasion.
Speaking in Australia, Kerry said a series of meetings to be held in Europe this week between officials from the international Red Cross, Germany, Ukraine and potentially Russia could provide a formula under which assistance can be delivered without fear it is cover for direct Russian military intervention.
The comments came as a convoy of 280 Russian trucks headed for eastern Ukraine, a day after agreement was ostensibly reached on an international relief mission. But the international Red Cross, which is due to coordinate the operation, said it had no information on what the trucks were carrying or where they were going, raising fears in Ukraine and the West about the true intentions of the convoy.
Kerry did not give details of the meetings but said he hoped they could not only clear up the aid delivery, but also expedite the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over east Ukraine and facilitate talks between the Kiev government of pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko and legitimate pro-Russian Ukrainians.
"Our hope is that in the next days and weeks we can find a way for President Poroshenko and Ukraine to be able to work with the Russians, provide the humanitarian assistance necessary in the east, facilitate the thoroughness of the investigation, begin to bring the separatists, to the degree that they are Ukrainian, into the political process," Kerry said. "Those who are not Ukrainian need to leave the country."
"Our hope is that that can happen through the diplomatic process, but we have all learned that we need to be cautious and strong and at the same time in our responses and be clear about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable," he told a news conference with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their Australian counterparts at the conclusion of annual U.S.-Australian strategic talks known as AUSMIN.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop echoed Kerry's call and repeated a warning that Russia should not use humanitarian aid deliveries to disguise a military intervention. If Moscow is serious about easing the plight of civilians in eastern Ukraine, she said it should stop arming and supplying the rebels with weapons and personnel.
"There is a humanitarian situation in Ukraine that is serious and likely to worsen, but if Russia were concerned about the situation, the first step would be to stop the flow of fighters and weapons into eastern Ukraine," she said. "Any intervention into Ukraine by Russia under the guise of a humanitarian crisis would be seen as the transparent artifice that it is."
Thirty-eight Australians perished in the crash of the Malaysian plane, which the U.S. and others have said was caused by a missile fired from an area controlled by the pro-Russian separatists. Bishop said Australia would not rest until justice was done for its citizens and those of other countries who died.