What is the purpose of the Russian “humanitarian” column still resting on the border (though the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers have now agreed to let it proceed)? The simplest guess is that it was originally some kind of Trojan Horse, bringing weapons and Russian personnel into Ukraine to supplement the flagging fortunes of the separatists. But Western journalists have seen inside some of the wagons in the convoy and they seem to be almost empty.
A follow-up guess might be that it was originally full of weapons but that they were removed when the International Red Cross and Western governments proved unexpectedly tough in insisting on a proper inspection. That would explain the relative emptiness of the lorries. In that case, however, why not postpone sending the convoy to a later time rather than send an empty Trojan Horse on a pointless trip? So maybe the convoy was intended as a diversionary tactic of some kind.
The minimalist version of this theory would have the world and the Ukrainian army concentrating on the humanitarian convoy while a Russian force entered Ukraine at a different point and made a lightning dash towards Donetsk (or some other separatist position). By the time that the world wised up, new facts would have been created on the ground, the separatists would have been given a morale boost, and the destabilization of Ukraine would have proceeded a little further (after a disappointing few months for the separatists and Moscow).
The maximalist version of this theory holds that the humanitarian convoy would actually cross the border but that, once it had done so and was heading for Donetsk, the convoy would be fired on. On this theory the firing would actually come from pro-Russian separatists but it would be blamed on official Ukrainian forces. With luck it might even be fired on by genuine Ukrainian forces. In either case Moscow would then have a pretext for intervention.
Well, as it happens, there was a report from two Western journalists (conveniently enough, one from the Daily Telegraph, another from the Guardian) who witnessed a Russian armored column crossing the border a week ago. Ukrainians claim that an intruding Russian column was largely destroyed by Ukrainian fire around that time; Moscow dismisses this as a “fantasy.” But because of two Western reporters we know that something happened. It looks like a combination of the two theories—namely, that the humanitarian convoy was a diversion to distract attention from a Russian military incursion that was then destroyed by the Ukrainians. If so, it was a major setback for Moscow’s attempts to shore up the faltering separatist war and maybe helps to explain the Kremlin’s apparent willingness to move towards a settlement. Which means that the convoy might have a secondary purpose: It is indeed a Trojan Horse — but one designed to get Greek captives safely out of Troy and back to Hellas.
Consider the situation in eastern Ukraine: Three separatist leaders have recently resigned; separatist morale is collapsing; the Ukrainian army is closing in; yet there are entire separatist units from outside Ukraine (Chechen mercenaries for instance), now trapped in encircled cities. Maybe the plan was that once the Russian humanitarian convoy had arrived and distributed its meager fare, the defeated rebels would quietly board the lorries and be transported safely back to Mother Russia without anyone noticing. That may still happen — but not without anyone noticing.