The United States is considering plans to train soldiers in the Ukrainian Army in the next few months, in a move that risks heightening tensions with Russia.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said the plan would expand a U.S. training program already under way for National Guard troops working under the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.
About 305 U.S. troops are currently training guardsmen, who operate checkpoints and perform other military tasks but are not front-line combat troops.
Ukraine has deployed some 64,000 soldiers in its eastern conflict zone, including some guardsmen.
"We would begin Ministry of Defense army units [training] starting in November," Hodges said, adding that "the final decision has not been taken."
The training would focus on basic tactical activities, with an emphasis on life-saving techniques and operations in highly contested areas, he said.
Elements could include defense against electronic warfare, including communications intercepts, and the kinds of jamming that Russian forces allegedly are conducting in the east of the country.
"It's a very effective way to help them that doesn't necessarily require weapons," Hodges told Pentagon reporters, adding that the United States is not considering providing Ukraine with lethal arms.
U.S allies in Europe must still agree to the plan, Hodges said. "The unity of NATO is the paramount concern in my view here," he said.
Ukraine has waged a 15-month war against Russian-backed eastern insurgents, in a conflict that has claimed more than 6,500 lives.
"We probably are at a point now where there is a potential for another offensive" from the Russian-backed rebels, Hodges said.
He added that Russia's long-term objective was not necessarily to take control of eastern Ukraine, or to create a land corridor linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in March 2014.
"Russian interests are in keeping Ukraine bubbling, disrupted. Anything they can do to undermine President [Petro] Poroshenko, so that Ukraine could never join the [European Union], that's their interest," he said.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko was confronting a fresh crisis July 13 as a deadly standoff between Interior Ministry units and armed Ukrainian ultranationalists entered a third day in a western enclave near Hungary.
Hodges said 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 counterfire. But he said, "The Russians have gone after that radar in a big way because they see the effect of it."
He said the U.S. trainers also are learning from the Ukrainians.
"None of us have ever been under Russian artillery and rocket fire like the Ukrainians have," he said.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP