WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials are considering expanding the American military training mission in Ukraine to include army and special operations troops, likely focusing on issues like tactics and combat medicine, a top U.S. Army general said on Monday.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said expanding the mission from training interior ministry guardsmen to training forces under the control of the defense ministry did not mean the administration would provide Ukraine with lethal arms.
“I think those are probably two completely different (things),” Hodges said. “The training we’re doing right now is with them using their own equipment.”
The United States has provided Ukrainian forces with non-lethal aid to help them battle Russian-backed rebels, but the administration has resisted providing lethal arms.
Hodges told Pentagon reporters the United States had given millions of dollars worth of equipment to Ukraine, including armored Humvee military vehicles, helmets, body armor, night-vision goggles and thousands of pounds of medical supplies.
Lightweight counter-mortar radar supplied by the United States had been particularly valuable for the Ukrainians, who have used the system in ways “I don’t think we realized you could do,” Hodges said.
He declined to elaborate how the Ukrainians were using the system, which can locate the source of incoming mortar shells and help direct counter-fire. But he said, “The Russians have gone after that radar in a big way because they see the effect of it.”
Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last year and its support of anti-government rebels has prompted the United States to step up training and other efforts to reassure NATO allies close to Russia. It also has sought to help non-NATO Ukraine while avoiding escalating the conflict.
About 310 members of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, are currently training the second of three battalions of Ukrainian national guardsmen at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center at Yavoriv in western Ukraine near the Polish border.
Training of the third battalion is expected to conclude by Nov. 15, after which the United States and other Western allies could begin training regular Ukrainian military forces, if they can agree on the details and a training program with Kiev.
Hodges said Canada, Lithuania and Britain have helped train Ukrainian troops.
He said no final decision had yet been made on training army forces, but the issue was under review and an answer was likely soon.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Dan Grebler