Hundreds of elite American paratroopers on Monday began training Ukrainian soldiers in the highest level training mission the United States has yet to undertake in that Eastern European nation.
The Pentagon said that the assignment of 300 “Sky Soldiers” – the proud name for members of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat team – to conduct the training was a significant upgrade from earlier U.S. military exercises with Ukrainians, which previously were undertaken by National Guard units.
“This is certainly an uptick in the training,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The exercise had been denounced by Russia, which said it risked escalating the Ukrainian conflict. The exercises place U.S. and Russian troops 770 miles apart in a country the size of Texas.
“It’s a big country,” Warren said. “We don’t believe we are endangering U.S. soldiers.”
The 173rd Airborne Brigade, an elite airborne infantry unit based on an Italian military base in Vicenza, is the U.S. Army’s main quick-response force in Europe.
The California National Guard has provided more limited military training for Ukraine since 1999, eight years after the former Soviet republic declared independence as the Soviet Union dissolved.
In a ceremony launching the Fearless Guardian exercises on a Ukrainian military base near Lviv in western Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko said Monday that most of the 900 soldiers to undergo three months of training have fought in the country’s eastern region during the almost 14-month conflict that has pitted forces loyal to the central government in Kiev against separatists who’ve received weapons and sometimes manpower from Russia.
“The majority of the participants from the Ukrainian side have endured difficult trials on the front,” Poroshenko said.
At least 6,116 people have died in the war since pro-Russia separatists seized control of government buildings in the Crimea capital of Simferopol in late February last year, according to a report Friday by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Since then, the conflict has spread to cover a 6,800-square-mile swath of eastern Ukraine near the Russian border.
A fragile truce has been in force for almost two months, but it’s repeatedly been broken by sniper fire and bomb blasts along the 770-mile-long front from the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol in the south to Luhansk in the north.
The U.S. paratroopers will train the Ukrainians in counterinsurgency, casualty evacuation, first aid, biological and radiological response and other specialties, Warren said.
Asked whether the exercises are provocative, as Moscow claims, Warren responded: “Really, I would say it’s Russia that’s destabilizing Ukraine. They are the ones that continue to supply lethal weapons. They are the ones that continue to send combatant forces into Ukraine.”
As the U.S. paratroopers arrived in Ukraine last week to prepare for the training, the Kremlin criticized the exercises.
“The participation of instructors and specialists from a third country on the territory Ukraine . . . is far from aiding in the resolution of the conflict,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Friday. “To the contrary, it helps to destabilize the situation.”
The Ukrainians will use their own weapons and ammunition in the exercises, Warren said.