The U.S. Defense Department has dismissed as “ridiculous” and “propaganda” comments by a Russian military official that American troops are training Ukrainian soldiers in the conflict zone in Ukraine’s east.
“There’s no credence to it whatsoever,” said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, responding Thursday to the allegations. “It’s another example of Russia at the highest levels issuing propaganda.”
A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Major General Igor Konashenkov, made the allegation earlier Thursday, after U.S. Army and Ukrainian National Guard troops had kicked off joint training exercises earlier in the week in Yavoriv, in Ukraine's western Lviv region — more than 1,000 kilometers from the fighting in the country's east.
According to Konashenkov, U.S. soldiers are training their Ukrainian counterparts in Ukraine’s east in urban combat.
"What's of public concern is that American soldiers are teaching Ukrainian National Guard troops [how to conduct] assault operations in urban environments," he said, as quoted by Russian news agencies.
"Only this is not happening in the Lviv region on the Yavoriv training ground, as shown by Ukrainian TV channels, but directly in the combat zone in the areas of Mariupol, Severodonetsk, Artemivsk and Volnovakha," Konashenkov said, referring to cities and towns in Ukraine's restive Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
U.S. assertion disputed
Konashenkov also took issue with a statement made Wednesday by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who charged that Russia has built up air-defense systems inside eastern Ukraine and has been involved in the training of pro-Russian separatists in the area, in violation of a European-brokered truce signed in February in Minsk, Belarus.
Harf said the increasingly complex nature of rebel training exercises, including the use of Russian unmanned aerial vehicles, left "no doubt" of Russian involvement.
Konashenkov said Harf's statement was "striking in its incompetence."
But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in response to a reporter's question Thursday, said there had been "a substantial Russian buildup" along the Ukrainian border, as well as inside eastern Ukraine.
"During the last months, the Russian have increased their supplies," he said. "They have provided the separatists with well over 1,000 pieces of heavy equipment, advanced weapons systems, advanced air defenses, tanks, artillery. In addition they have organized very advanced training, and they have also drones and other advanced equipment in eastern Ukraine.
"What we see both in eastern Ukraine and on the border to eastern Ukraine gives reason for great concern. Russia is violating the Minsk agreements. It is undermining and violating the cease-fire, and it provides the separatists with the capacity to launch a new, big offensive with very little warning time."
Effort to ‘shift the focus’
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the claim about U.S. involvement in urban assault training was nothing more than an effort to divert attention from Russian violations of the Minsk truce.
"This is a ridiculous attempt to shift the focus away from what is actually happening in eastern Ukraine," she said. "Russia continues to supply lethal weapons, training, and command-and-control support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, in blatant violation of Moscow's Minsk commitments and Ukraine's sovereignty.”
Commenting on the exercises in Yavoriv, western Ukraine, Lainez said that the Pentagon has been open about them.
“We have been transparent about our soldiers — they are in Yavoriv, far from the east. At Ukraine's invitation, our soldiers are training Ukraine's National Guard at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, where we've trained with allies and partners for years,” she said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, also said that the U.S. training of Ukrainian National Guard units was fully transparent and defensive in nature, and was being done at the invitation of the Ukrainian government, according to a senior State Department official.
The official also said Kerry told Lavrov that Russia must withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine.
Denial of involvement by Moscow
Kyiv and many western governments have accused Russia of supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine with military personnel and weapons, a charge Moscow denies.
The year-old conflict has claimed more than 6,100 lives, according to United Nations estimates.
The exercises in Ukraine's western Lviv region involve 300 U.S. Army paratroopers and some 900 Ukrainian guardsmen. Dubbed operation "Fearless Guardian-2015," the drills aim to "establish a professional force that protects and defends Ukraine's people ... [and its] sovereignty," the Pentagon has said.
The paratroopers are from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy. The training, which according to the Pentagon is mainly focused on weapons handling, first aid and casualty evacuation, is to last six months.
VOA’s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon and Pam Dockins from the State Department.