US begins combat training in Ukraine

US begins combat training in Ukraine
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Approximately 300 U.S. paratroopers will begin training Ukrainian forces for the battle against Russian-trained separatists, the Pentagon said Monday.

The soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, will train three groups of about 300 Ukrainian National Guardsmen over the next six months at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv in western Ukraine. 

Although the training is meant to focus on "defensive and civil military operations," it will also include "combat" training for small units on how to move, shoot and communicate, the Pentagon said Monday. 

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U.S. troops will also train Ukrainian forces on how to evade drone attacks. Other training will include medical, casualty evacuation, counterinsurgency and counter roadside bomb training. 

Western officials say more than 5,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the year since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Although the U.S. has sent small numbers of military trainers to Ukraine in the past several months, the new deployment marks an increase in the support at a time when Russia is continuing to support the separatists.

"We know there is a sizable force of Russian trainers and advisers and potentially even some Russian combat forces inside of Ukraine," said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren.

U.S. officials emphasized that the training is taking place far from the front-lines of the fighting between Ukrainian forces and the Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"It's a big country. We are confining our training to the Yavoriv training complex ... so we don't believe there's any significant danger to American troops, or any real danger at all to American troops that are on the ground there," Warren said.

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Russian officials have criticized the U.S. training as provocative. The Pentagon fired back at that charge on Monday.  

"It's Russia that's destabilizing Ukraine. They are the ones who are continuing to supply lethal weapons. They are continuing to send Russian combat forces into Ukraine," Warren said. 

"So I think really it's the Russians who are destabilizing the situation in Ukraine," he said.