U.S. Troops Arrive in Ukraine to Teach ‘Territorial Defense’
American soldiers will spend six months inside the country
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014, the Pentagon and NATO sent extra troops, tanks and warplanes to the alliance’s eastern borders and stepped up military maneuvers across the frontier. But at least initially, Washington did little to increase direct aid to Kiev’s forces.
Now U.S. Army soldiers will spend six months inside the embattled country training Ukrainian troops in military skills.
Between April 14 and 15, planes carrying 300 paratroopers from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team arrived at Lviv. Four days earlier, a separate convoy of soldiers arrived at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv with truckloads of equipment.
The 173rd’s troops “will train six Ukrainian National Guard companies, with a focus on internal security and territorial defense,” a public affairs official with the Army’s top headquarters for Europe told War Is Boring in an email.
“There will also be some training for headquarters personnel, focusing on the continued professionalization of Ukrainian staff members.”
Kiev is currently battling separatists in the eastern province of Donetsk. While Moscow continues to deny and otherwise downplay its involvement in the insurgency, observers have repeatedly identified Russian arms in rebel arsenals and Russian “volunteers” in their ranks.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian military suffered decades of neglect. Its vehicles rusted in scrapyards, and the 2008 financial crisis halted most training. As a result, Ukraine’s ill-prepared armed forces were wholly unprepared to deal with a Russian invasion.
The Pentagon and the State Department have banded together to help repair Ukraine’s military. The two agencies are paying for this new training program — dubbed Operation Fearless Guardian — out of their jointly administered Global Security Contingency Fund.
In addition to the training courses, “the Ukrainian soldiers will receive non-lethal equipment as a part of the training, such as uniforms, body armor and radios,” the U.S. Army Europe official added.
The equipment is for the training courses specifically, and not for Kiev’s troops fighting in the east. But Washington has already been sending gear to soldiers engaged in the fighting. Less than three months after the loss of Crimea, U.S. “defensive” and “nonlethal” supplies began arriving in Ukraine.
These aid “tranches” included Humvees, body armor, night vision goggles, body armor and radios. The packages also included more basic items — such as clothing and rations — that Ukrainian troops desperately needed.
In 2014, the U.S. sent more than $118 million in equipment to the Ukrainian military.
As the American soldiers arrived in April, Canadian Defense Minister Jason Kenney announced that his country would send 200 troops to join the effort. British forces are also in the country working with Ukrainian forces, but will not be part of the Pentagon-led project.
“We can talk about partnership all day,” First Sgt. Christopher Valverde, a member of the 173rd’s 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, told Army reporters after touching down in Lviv. “But it is at the lowest level, when the soldiers interact together, where real relationships are built and the more beneficial the training becomes.”
On top of Fearless Guardian, American soldiers will partner up with NATO and other European troops for the Pentagon’s annual war game in Ukraine in July. NATO plans to combine the exercise — nicknamed Rapid Trident — with a separate practice session in Romania this year.
“This is the new norm for the 173rd,” Maj. Jose Mendez, one of the brigade’s operations officers, told military journalists covering the unit’s arrival. In April 2014, the paratroopers became the first ground troops to deploy to Eastern Europe in response to the situation in Ukraine.
Despite the ongoing fighting, it’s pretty unlikely NATO forces will get caught up in the violence. Yavoriv is on the opposite side of the country, less than 50 miles from the Polish border.
American commandos and regular troops have already run small, short-term practice sessions with Ukrainian forces. But this new training regimen is bigger and will last longer than any of those previous programs.
Even if the fighting spreads, the training center’s location makes it easy for the soldiers to get out. Yavoriv “is not a difficult place from which to extract them should circumstances become unpredictable,” Kenney told reporters after his remarks.
But Washington’s extra help might be too little, too late.
Ukrainian Pres. Petro Poroshenko has been critical of Washington’s reluctance to send his forces weapons and ammunition — although he’s always thanked the U.S. for the non-lethal aid.
“Blankets and night vision goggles are important,” Poroshenko told a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Sept. 18, 2014. “But one cannot win a war with blankets.”
American legislators are divided about increasing military aid to Ukraine. Despite months of fighting, many of Kiev’s troops still lack skills and equipment — and heavy weapons can’t make up for unskilled troops.
The greater risk is that the weapons might end up in the wrong hands. In Syria, Islamist extremists obtained U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles and other gear after American-supported groups collapsed.
“I assure you that all aid received from the West will be utilized by non-corrupt institutions,” Poroshenko said in an attempt to calm these fears. Depending on how the Pentagon-funded training regimen works out, some lawmakers’ opinions might change.
But at the moment, Washington still prefers to use diplomatic and economic means to pressure Moscow into pulling its support for separatist groups.
“A principal point of pressure that the United States has been applying to Russia for some time now … is the economic pressure,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters at a press conference on April 16. “I’m not an economist, but I understand that those sanctions are having an effect on Russia.”
“My understanding is and my observation is that this is having a real effect on the Russian economy, and at some point the Russian people are going to ask themselves whether these kinds of adventures are worth the price,” Carter added.
In the meantime, Kiev’s troops will have to make do with with the skills they learn from American soldiers and whatever comes in the shipments of non-lethal aid. The war? It will likely continue.