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U.S. mulls training frontline Ukrainian troops

A Ukrainian separatist stands near a burnt Ukrainian army tank on the outskirts of Donetsk. EPA/IGOR KOVALENKO

The United States could begin training regular Ukrainian Army troops starting as soon as November, according to Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe.

“The final decision has not been made on that yet,” Hodges told reporters Monday. “The training plan is being reviewed now…I expect it will look similar to what we’re doing now: basic tactical tasks, a lot of emphasis on combat life-saving and how to survive and operate in a heavily contested electronic warfare environment.”

Currently, around 300 American troops, members of the 173 Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy, are helping train Ukrainian Ministry of Interior troops in the western part of the country. The soldiers, known colloquially as the Ukrainian national guard, is a rear echelon force that helps protect supply lines away from the front. Phase II, Hodges said, would involve training the forces that have been closest to fighting with separatists in eastern Ukraine—the regular Army.

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While the United States is currently only training national guard units, other countries, including the United Kingdom, are helping train regular Ukrainian soldiers, according to Hodges. Additionally, Special Operation Command Europe sent a detachment of special operations troops to western Ukraine late last year to help train 600 Ukrainian soldiers the basics of combat medicine.

“Medical training is the ultimate in non-lethal aid,” Hodges said. “A lot of Ukrainians are saying that if they had this stuff a year ago a lot of their friends would still be alive.”

Although there has been discussion about sending lethal aid to Ukraine, currently the U.S. is only shipping non-lethal equipment like body armor, night vision devices and counter-artillery radar sets to Ukrainian forces.

Hodges also added that 15 wounded Ukrainian troops would be coming to the United States for continuing medical care after sustaining wounds at the front. Like the thousands of wounded Americans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan before them, Hodges said, the Ukrainians would receive care at Landstuhl medical center in Germany before coming to hospitals in the United States—like Walter Reed.

“There’s still shooting, still casualties everyday,” Hodges said. “I think Ukrainian sources would tell you that they lose four to five soldiers each day.”

Even though fighting is near-constant in eastern Ukraine, the separatists and government forces have somewhat solidified their font lines–one of the last remnants of the Minsk cease-fire agreements that were supposed to suspend hostilities when they were implemented in February.

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While Hodges thinks a renewed separatist offensive, backed by Russian troops and equipment, is unlikely, he hasn’t it ruled it out. While Hodges believes an unfettered land route to resupply Russian forces in Crimea would be a strategic victory he doesn’t think Russian President Vladimir Putin sees it necessary to commit the large amount of forces required for such a grab. Instead, Hodges said, Putin is content with keeping Ukraine “bubbling” in a state of constant unrest.

When asked how much warning the U.S. would have if Putin did try and attack, Hodges answer was blunt.

“The amount of indicators or warning that we’d have is not sufficient to let us know well ahead of time,” Hodges said. “[The Russians] have demonstrated an ability to move very quickly.

The nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, called Russia the greatest threat to U.S. national security during his confirmation hearing last Thursday, calling Russia’s behavior “nothing short of alarming.”