U.S. paratroopers on Monday began training the first of three Ukrainian national guard units in an operation intended to improve the fighting capabilities of the irregular troops that have been on the front lines of the year-old battle against Russian-backed separatists in the country's east.
Operation Fearless Guardian, as the U.S. mission is called, was inaugurated with a rain-drenched welcoming speech by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and appeals by security officials for imparting the war-fighting skills of which Ukrainian troops are in dire need.
Speaking at the Yavoriv training center near Lviv in western Ukraine, Poroshenko described the war against pro-Russia separatists in the Donbas industrial area 800 miles to the east as "not only a battle for independent Ukraine, it is also a battle for freedom and democracy in Europe and worldwide," Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov noted in his address to the U.S. trainers and the first battalion of national guard volunteers that the Americans have experience in fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that Ukrainian officials hope can be imparted to their own troops.
"The U.S. special task force has experience received in operations worldwide, and we want to use this experience. Wars are won by skills, not weapons," Avakov said.
While the U.S. mission is part of the Pentagon's nonlethal aid to embattled Ukraine, Kremlin officials have made clear they consider the training operation a threat to regional stability, in particular a Feb. 12 peace plan agreed in the Belarus capital of Minsk that has tamped down most fighting in recent weeks.
The presence of foreign military instructors in Ukraine "could destabilize the situation," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is "gravely concerned" by the training plans of the United States, Britain and Canada, ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told Russia Today television.
About 75 British soldiers have been instructing Ukrainian troops in command procedures, tactical intelligence and battlefield first aid. The Canadian government announced last week that it would begin sending 200 troops to the Yavoriv base this summer to train Ukrainians in explosives and de-mining operations, medical aid, military police operations and logistics.
The U.S. operation was delayed a month to give the Feb. 12 peace plan and its shaky cease-fire time to take hold. It was ignored in the first days as the separatists battled fiercely to take the strategic railroad hub of Debaltsevo, then largely held until winter's grip on the region began to relax this month.
The 290 specialists of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived to Yavoriv last week by convoy from their base in Vicenza, Italy, which is the U.S. military's only forward-positioned airborne force in Europe, brigade operations officer Maj. Jose Mendez said in a statement.
"We will be conducting classes on war-fighting functions, as well as training to sustain and increase the professionalism and proficiency of military staffs," Mendez said.
Ukraine's regular army and its defense capabilities deteriorated severely during the nearly 24 years since the republic broke from the Soviet Union, the consequence of deep spending cuts, corruption, political interference and complacency about the risks presented by its militarily superior neighbor, Russia.
The key battles in eastern Ukraine have been fought with volunteer forces, who have been incorporated into a new national guard structure but lack training in combat operations. Three units of about 300 troops each will undergo two-month training sessions at Yavoriv during the U.S. instructors' six-month mission, the Pentagon has said.
Fighting flared in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, after Russian paratroopers descended on Ukraine's Crimea region and took over the parliament and military facilities, including Russia's leased Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol. More than 6,100 have been killed in the yearlong conflict, many of them civilians.