The Pentagon is preparing to send troops to Ukraine to train its nascent national guard on how to operate as a professional security force in the face of escalating violence in the eastern part of the country.
U.S. troops will begin training about 600 Ukrainian guards in western Ukraine next month, military officials said. The international coaching lesson comes just as President Obama said Monday at a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he’d consider providing lethal weapons to the struggling military as a last resort if diplomacy fails.
The Pentagon devised its military-to-military training plan to address what Ukraine sees as a gap in its internal defense operations, said U.S. European Command spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Alana Garas. But some analysts see the personnel investment as a quick-fix approach aimed more at satisfying a Congress urging more U.S. support in the Ukraine than a real solution to Ukraine’s military issues.
“They need to check the ‘We’re training Ukraine’s military’ box,” said Michael Kofman, a Russia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a consultant to the Pentagon. “That way, when they go up to do testimony, and people ask them, ‘Why aren’t you training the Ukraine military?’ they won’t have blank looks on their faces.”
Pentagon officials are under pressure to move forward with that training, analysts say, because the Obama administration is legally required to report to Congress by Feb. 16 on the progress it is making on training and equipping Ukrainian security forces.
That report must contain a detailed list of the defense services and military training the U.S. government expects to provide to Ukraine and a time line for delivery of those services and training, according to the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.
But even though the report is due next week and the military-to-military coaching lesson is slated to begin in western Ukraine in March, Pentagon officials are still undecided on some of the basic elements of their training plan, such as how many troops will go there.
What Pentagon officials do know is they plan on sending soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in northeast Italy to teach Ukrainian security forces how to strengthen their law enforcement capabilities and maintain “rule of law,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Vanessa Hillman.
The Ukrainian government specifically requested that type of training, in part because it will help it move toward reforming its police forces and establishing its national guard, she said.
Now that service is actively fighting pro-Russian rebels near the industrial city of Donetsk in a portion of eastern Ukraine in a tit-for-tat firefight that has turned suburban neighborhoods into a sprawling battlefield.
So to further bolster the growth of the nascent military service, the U.S. government has invested millions of taxpayer dollars on a “do something” approach, said Mr. Kofman.
“We’re doing something to help, but is this going to be decisive for Ukraine in any way? No. It’s not,” he said. “Does it solve any of Ukraine’s real problems? No. Not really. It helps if you have to look at it from the perspective of ‘everything helps.’ But Ukraine’s problems in scale are so large that training 600 men here or there isn’t going to do it.”
Still, there are analysts who say that something is better than nothing.
Any gesture of support from the U.S. government during a time of hostile discord and continuous suffering sends a message of encouragement to the Ukrainian people, said Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
The most important takeaway for them will be that “the hard process of change is worth the effort,” Ms. Marten said.
“Of course U.S. training alone can’t overcome corruption or organizational disarray,” she said. “But anything the U.S. can do to strengthen Ukrainian institutions — including the national guard — is money well spent. U.S.-funded security training programs around the world have been very successful in recent years in raising the technical quality of forces and enhancing their ‘esprit de corps.’”
Ukraine, on the other hand, is still trying to win an uphill battle with limited military assistance from the U.S. government, which irks such lawmakers as Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Following Mr. Obama’s joint press conference with Mrs. Merkel, the Arizona Republican blasted their “more of the same” diplomatic strategy and described it as “doomed to fail” because it doesn’t arm the Ukrainians with the weapons they need to defend their country.
Arming the Ukrainians is the only way to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that his attempts to take control of the eastern part of the country will not be tolerated, Mr. McCain said.
“Defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine will raise the risks and costs Russia must incur to continue its offensive,” he said. “And it will pierce the veneer of the Kremlin’s cynical and false narrative that there are no Russians in Ukraine. As Russian soldiers fail to return home from Ukraine, Putin will be challenged to sustain a war that he has told his people is not happening.”
The U.S. government committed $320 million in 2014 to providing aid to Ukraine and spent another $118 million on non-lethal military assistance.
In January the U.S. military delivered two light-armored trucks and one forklift to the national guard, said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren. This week, military officials plan to deliver to security forces 62 radios and 18 water purification units, he said.