U.S. and Ukrainian troops have begun joint training exercises in western Ukraine in a bid to strengthen government forces that are fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said at the exercise's inauguration ceremony on April 20 that Ukraine's armed forces must be rebuilt from scratch to deter foreign threats.
The U.S. Army announced last week that 300 U.S. paratroopers would train 900 members of a National Guard reserve unit that brings volunteers and pro-government militia under Kyiv's control.
The exercises are 1,000 kilometers from fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has criticized the exercises, saying they would destabilize a shaky peace process and were a “first step” toward the possible delivery of U.S. weapons to Ukraine.
President Barack Obama’s administration has refrained from sending lethal military equipment to Ukraine but has provided Kyiv with $75 million in nonlethal aid.
Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said 300 members of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, would train a total of 900 guardsmen in three rotations over six months.
The training is taking place at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center at Yavoriv in western Ukraine near the Polish border.
Warren said the training included everything from medical care and casualty evacuation to how to shoot and move as part of a small military unit.
Warren rejected Russia's suggestions the U.S. action was destabilizing.
"I would say it's Russia that is destabilizing Ukraine," Warren said. "They are the ones who are continuing to supply lethal weapons. They are continuing to send Russian forces, combat forces, into Ukraine."
Last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the "participation of instructors or specialists from third countries on Ukrainian territory, where the domestic Ukrainian conflict is unresolved ... could destabilize the situation."
Warren played down those concerns.
He said the mission was suitable for national guardsmen and included defensive and civil-military operations such as handling improvised explosive devices.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later on April 20 about the crisis and offered an additional $17.7 million in aid for essentials like food, shelter and water.
Biden and Poroshenko also welcomed efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe to seek a permanent cease-fire in areas still rocked by fighting.
Both called on Russia to abide by earlier agreements and stop moving troops along the Russia-Ukraine border.
Based on reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, Hotnews.ro, and TASS