In his wide-ranging remarks to the members of the Russian State Duma in Yalta on August 14, President Vladimir Putin only mentioned Ukraine briefly. Russia, he said, would do all it can to bring an end to the bloodletting there. Even as Putin was talking, the Russian humanitarian convoy was slowly making its way from Moscow to the Ukrainian border.

Meanwhile, at Yalta, an interesting exchange followed. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Deputy Speaker of the Russian parliament, who spoke after Putin, ostensibly criticized the president' "softness." The last tsar, Zhirinovsky said, when faced with a crisis in the Balkans, did not bother about sending humanitarian relief to the Serbs, but extended military aid to them. "This was a mistake," Zhirinovsky quickly added. Putin, responding to this fake rebuke, said that he proposed to learn from others' mistakes rather than to make some of his own.

In the West all last week, the Russian aid convoy was a subject of intense speculation. It was alternatively seen as a modern version of the Trojan horse, delivering weapons to the beleaguered rebels, or a spearhead of the Russian military invasion force. Both suppositions, however, were wide off the mark, based on misreading the Kremlin's logic. There are other, less conspicuous ways, of sending supplies across the border, and more effective forms of engaging an enemy.

By sending the convoy, Vladimir Putin sought to switch the international attention from the fighting in Eastern Ukraine to the human suffering there, and to present Russia as the one country that cared about the people of Donbass. Putin was also clearly responding to the calls in Russia—parodied by Zhirinovsky—to "do something" in the face of the Kievan forces' continuing assault on the rebel strongholds. That "something," however, in Putin's view, did not have to be reckless and leading to catastrophic consequences—just as the Russian emperor's fateful moves in 1914.

Russia, of course, may yet intervene in force—if, for example, the Ukrainian government's efforts to restore Donbass to its control result in a massive loss of civilian life, way above the dozen or so people who are reported killed on a daily basis now. Absent that, Moscow's strategy will focus on helping the rebels to fight Kiev's forces to a standstill—and negotiating a ceasefire making the rebels a party to an agreement.

The sudden departure recently of the top rebel leaders in both Donetsk and Lugansk suggests that Moscow seeks to field a more authentic and presentable group for eventual future talks. While Kiev is desperate to achieve a full military victory almost at any cost, Moscow is reaching out with humanitarian aid, confusing and confounding its opponents. At the foreign ministers' meeting in Berlin on Sunday, a measure of progress was achieved on the issue of the Russian humanitarian aid to Donbass. As to the war there, it still continues.

  • Dmitri Trenin