PENTAGON - The commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe says the United States is planning to train Ukrainian army soldiers after completing the current training of Ukraine’s National Guard troops.
Lt. General Ben Hodges told reporters at the Pentagon Monday the so-called “phase two” of training would begin in late November if the plan is approved.
Currently, slightly more than 300 U.S. troops are training three battalions of Ukrainian Ministry of Interior troops, also known as Ukraine’s National Guardsmen, who do not participate in front-line combat. Hodges says this training should finish by November 15.
The “phase two” efforts will train Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense army troops. Hodges says the training, if approved, would be similar to what U.S. soldiers are teaching Ukraine’s National Guardsmen now, including “basic tactical tasks, a lot of emphasis on combat life-saving and how to survive and operate in a very heavily-contested electronic warfare environment.”
Britain is already training Ukrainian army troops.
“I think the training is a very effective way to help them that doesn’t require necessarily providing weapons,” Hodges told reporters, adding that much of the training U.S. forces provide uses Ukrainian, not American, equipment.
The U.S. has provided non-lethal aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists, but has not to date provided lethal arms.
Hodges says there is clearly potential for another Russian offensive, but nothing that is “imminent or inevitable.”
He explained that Russia’s military would like to have a land bridge from the Russian mainland to the occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which Russia annexed last year, in order to have a cheaper way to resupply Moscow’s 25,000 troops there.
However, Ukraine’s city of Mariupol is “in the way” of completing Russia’s land bridge, and Hodges says Moscow would be taking a big risk if it tried to grab control of the city.
“That would be such a huge fight that it would be impossible for the rebels to do it by themselves, I mean, that would remove any façade of [the claim that] there’s no Russian participation,” he said.
General Joseph Dunford, the nominee to be the next chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services committee last week that Russia poses the greatest security threat to the United States. He also said it would be reasonable to send heavy weapons to Ukraine to help it defend against Russian aggression.
When asked to comment on Dunford’s views, Hodges said the administration was “well served” with people who can offer different views. He said he believes the most important thing is to keep the NATO alliance together and to move forward with a Ukraine plan the alliance agrees on.
“President [Vladimir] Putin’s number one objective is to splinter our great alliance,” Hodges said. “So maintaining the unity of NATO is the paramount concern, in my view.”