Russia on Friday defied international warnings against its 280-truck convoy barging into eastern Ukraine without the Kiev government's consent, drawing widespread condemnation for its intrusion into the territory of its strife-torn neighbor.
Ukraine's national security chief called Russia's unauthorized entrance a "direct invasion" but said Ukrainian forces would refrain from attacking the trucks to avoid a dangerous escalation of the conflict that has already killed more than 2,000 people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted it was necessary to move the convoy without Ukraine's go-ahead or with its intended escort by the International Committee of the Red Cross, saying Ukrainian authorities had been needlessly delaying the mission for more than a week.
In a telephone call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was due in Kiev on Saturday, the Russian leader blamed what he said was Ukraine's "blatant attempts to hinder" delivery of the relief goods for forcing Moscow's decision.
Putin's willful demonstration of support for Russian-speaking communities in separatist-held areas was cheered in Moscow's state-run media as a triumph over Ukrainian authorities, who were portrayed as pursuing political advantage at the expense of suffering civilians. By doing so, the Kremlin made the Ukrainian government look impotent and created tactical advantages by delivering hundreds of vehicles that could help the surrounded separatist gunmen evacuate or redeploy.
"We are sure that we did the right thing. And we accuse Kiev and its backers of repeatedly putting their political interests, which are anti-Russian in essence, above the basic human values of kindness and compassion," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a statement.
Beyond Moscow, the reaction was harshly critical.
"We call this a direct invasion for the first time under the cynical cover of the Red Cross," Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, told reporters in Kiev. He said, however, that Ukraine would refrain from attacking the Russian trucks.
Ukraine's Western allies condemned what they called a violation of its sovereignty but offered little to enforce demands that Russia recall the convoy and respect international law.
"We very much condemn the flagrant violation to Ukraine's sovereignty," said Ben Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national security advisor. The administration planned to consult the U.N. Security Council on the situation, Rhodes said.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden warned that Russia would "bear additional consequences" for its provocative action, alluding to a White House threat to impose further sanctions on Moscow for its aggression against Ukraine.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the 28-nation alliance was outraged by the Kremlin action in the volatile region where fighting has intensified in recent days.
"We deplore Russia's decision to enter the humanitarian consignment into Ukrainian territory without ICRC's escort or the consent of the Ukrainian authorities," Ashton aide Sebastien Brabant said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the border crossing "a blatant breach of Russia's international commitments" and "a further violation of Ukraine's sovereignty."
A spokeswoman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Oana Lungescu, reiterated alliance reports that Russian troops and artillery have been increasingly active in the separatist-held areas over the last week.
There were conflicting reports on the number of vehicles that entered Ukraine. Russian news media, whose reporters accompanied the column of white-tarped Kamaz vehicles from Moscow, said all 280 vehicles had driven through the separatist-controlled Izvaryno crossing. An observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that has been posted near Izvaryno for weeks said it counted 227 Russian vehicles crossing into Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denounced the convoy's entry for its disregard of the conditions agreed to a week earlier. Kiev said it would allow access if the trucks were escorted by the Red Cross and their cargo inspected by Ukrainian customs authorities before crossing through a government-controlled border post.
Pro-Russia gunmen seized the Izvaryno crossing in April, and much of the delay in getting clearance for the convoy was caused by Moscow's decision to send the column to the separatist-held crossing that has been inaccessible to Ukrainian authorities for months.
Only 35 of the Russian vehicles had been examined by Ukrainian customs workers before the convoy began moving across the border about 11 a.m., the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.
"Neither the Ukrainian side nor the International Committee of the Red Cross knows the content of the trucks. This arouses special concern," the statement said, reflecting government suspicion that Moscow might use the convoy to smuggle in weapons to the beleaguered separatists.
There was also rampant speculation that the trucks, many of which were reportedly less than half full, were sent to evacuate Russian gunmen who have been commanding local separatists.
A Red Cross statement issued via Twitter said the agency was not escorting the convoy because "we've not received sufficient security guarantees from the fighting parties."
Russian news media have alleged that intensified fighting in recent days was aimed at routing the separatists by Sunday, when Ukrainians will celebrate the 23rd anniversary of their independence from the Soviet Union.
Special correspondent Gorst reported from Moscow and staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.