WASHINGTON, DC -- The U.S. military will soon begin training Ukrainian military forces, according to the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who recently visited Ukraine, said forces from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade are training Ukraine's National Guard forces at a training base in western Ukraine and will soon begin training Ukraine's regular military.
"The transition was underway to train defense units, regular military units," he told a small group of reporters on Wednesday.
"The National Guard finishes training within a week or two and then it'll be their formal military's that's being trained."
Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Army's top commander in Europe, told reporters in mid-July that U.S. officials were considering expanding training from the Ukrainian National Guard, which is under the Ministry of Interior, to include regular Ukrainian army and special operations forces, which is under the Ministry of Defense.
A week later, the State Department said the training would go forward, but then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters in mid-August that there was a plan, but "we have not yet made a decision on whether we will move forward with that."
The move is seen as an expansion in U.S. military aid to Ukrainian forces, who faced an invasion by Russian troops into Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Since then, they have battled with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Reed said most of the National Guardsmen had come out of the east and had extensive experience fighting the separatists.
The Obama administration has provided the outmatched-Ukrainian forces with more than $200 million in non-lethal military assistance and joined European allies in sanctioning Moscow but has been reluctant to fulfill requests for advanced lethal aid out of concern it would provoke further Russian aggression.
Reed said he supported providing Ukrainian forces with lethal aid and outlined three steps to enable that.
One step that should be explored, he said, is taking Ukrainian forces outside the country and training them on the provided weapon systems, "so they're ready."
"Second is the possibility of transferring some of these systems from other countries into Ukraine, which doesn't raise quite the visibility of the transfer," he said.
"And then there's the possibility of taking some of our systems and beginning to ... deploy them to training areas particularly so that they can train on them and have them ready to move into areas of conflict," he said.
"I hope that these are being thought about," he said.
He also said Ukraine has an extensive military industrial base that could be used to produce the weapons, but that would take time and financing.
But Reed also said that while lethal aid is still necessary, it is a little less urgent in light of a new development.
Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine are now fully under Russia's "command and control" — meaning that Russia could now control the levels of violence in eastern Ukraine and has recently been doing so, in accordance with a ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk.
Instead, Moscow is waging a sophisticated political and information warfare campaign to destabilize Ukraine, because it's less costly to their forces and gains less international criticism, Reed said.
Now, he said, "They're trying through a very clever information campaign to destabilize the government ... and hope that their surrogates are able to gain power and control."
For example, he said the Minsk agreement calls for municipal elections in October, but separatists are planning their own elections a week ahead, which would degrade the central government's authority.
"That's something we have to be worried about, it's only about seven weeks out or so, and the European Community and the United States have to be prepared for it," he said.
But, Reed warned, the current lull in fighting "doesn't relieve us of the possibility" of providing lethal aid and that the Russians "could shift back."
The U.S. should continue training Ukraine's military forces and help the country take government and economic reforms.
Reed said Ukraine has already begun reforms of its police force, which was notorious for corruption.
Eight hundred traffic police in Kiev have been fired and replaced.
Forty percent of them are now women, he said.
"The next big step is economic reform and the anti-corruption efforts," he said.
Reed said Ukraine has to reform their state prosecutors and judges, who are "noticeably unenthusiastic about pursuing corruption."
"They understand they're in a race to build a new efficient, economy that's transparent versus the pressure they're receiving from the Russians and also popular pressure," he said.
Source: The Hill