The military could make a decision soon on whether U.S. forces will start training additional Ukrainians to combat Russian-backed separatists later this year, the commanding general of U.S. Army Europe said Monday.
More than 300 U.S. soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team are currently stationed in Ukraine training national guard troops under the Ministry of the Interior, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said. U.S. forces are currently training the second battalion of three planned groups of national guardsmen and will complete that first phase of training by mid-November. The training largely focuses on combat life saving techniques and electronic warfare, he said.
Gen. Hodges said the Army is considering beginning to train members of the Ukrainian Army in November once it has wrapped up training of national guardsmen, saying that training is an effective way to help Ukrainians defend themselves without providing them the weapons or lethal aid many in Congress have called for.
“I think we are probably getting close to a time where a decision would need to be made if the training is to start in November, which is the plan,” Gen. Hodges told reporters at the Pentagon.
In early 2014, fighters backed by Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a peninsula in Ukraine. Countries around the world imposed sanctions on Russia to publicly condemn the seizing of Ukrainian sovereign territory by force.
Gen. Hodges said aggression from Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine has stayed at a steady level, with “several hundred” firing incidents from rockets to small arms fire just a couple weeks ago.
“They’re still shooting, there are still casualties every day,” Gen. Hodges said.
Russia still has the command and control resources, electronic warfare capability and air defense systems in place to launch another major attack on Ukraine, though Gen. Hodges said nothing is imminent.
“We probably are at a point now where there’s a potential for another offensive or a resumption, the indicators are there that we saw before previous, but there’s nothing that tells us that it’s imminent or inevitable,” he said. “So I wouldn’t predict that there will be one, but a lot of the same indicators are in place.”
“The indicators we have are not sufficient to know well ahead of time what they’re about to do,” he said. “They have demonstrated an ability to move very quickly.”
When asked about a potential attack on Mariupol, Ukraine, Gen. Hodges said that while the city would be a strategic victory for Russia, allowing the country to arm separatists in Crimea by land instead of by water, it’s unlikely to be a target because it would blow Russia’s desire to appear uninvolved in the conflict out of the water and also require Russian President Vladimir Putin to govern more of the Ukraine.
“I’m reluctant to say they probably will attack there because to what end? It would completely expose their involvement, and now they would own a much bigger problem in terms of humanitarian problems and infrastructure,” he said.
The talks to provide training to more Ukrainian forces are unrelated to discussions about whether or not to provide lethal weapons to those fighting the Russian-backed separatists, Gen. Hodges said.
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