U.S. Trainers to Ukraine

Around 300 U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv last week to begin training Ukrainian National Guard forces. Part of what is being called Operation Fearless Guardian-2015, the U.S. forces were dispatched under the auspices of the Global Contingency Security Fund, created to provide security sector assistance to partner countries to help them address challenges important to U.S. security interests. The U.S. troops will remain in Ukraine for six months, providing combat and other skills training for Ukraine’s newly created National Guard, which has been directly involved in much of the fighting in southeastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

While Russian officials and commentators have condemned the deployment as provocative, the direct impact will likely remain limited, even deflecting pressure for more direct U.S. involvement, such as providing lethal military assistance to Kyiv. In the longer term though, it is likely the United States will find itself playing a larger role in Ukraine, whether it wants to or not, a development that holds out the most hope for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

The dispatch of U.S. trainers comes during a lull in fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in the country’s east, but with the conflict still very much unresolved. The so-called Minsk-II ceasefire, signed in February, remains tenuously intact, despite reports of continued shelling around and efforts to expand the areas under rebel control in the Donbas. Predictably, Moscow is unhappy about the presence of U.S. troops, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov arguing that their presence would further de-stabilize the situation in Ukraine—presumably meaning that Moscow and the rebels could use it as a pretext for renewing their offensive.

Of course, it is worth keeping in mind that the U.S. forces in Ukraine will not directly participate in combat operations—a step that virtually no one in the United States seriously supports. The U.S. training exercises with the Ukrainian National Guard will also be taking place near Lviv, which is located in far western Ukraine, close to the Polish border and more than 600 miles as the crow flies from the fighting in the Donbas. The likelihood of U.S. forces being directly involved in combat operations is therefore virtually zero.

The number of Ukrainians who will receive training is also small, less than 1,000. While training from experienced, professional U.S. soldiers will no doubt improve the fighting capacity of the Ukrainian National Guard forces, it will hardly change the balance of power on the ground in the Donbas, where the Ukrainian military has suffered repeated setbacks since the start of direct Russian intervention last August.

Still, the U.S. deployment is notable in that it shows Washington is beginning to explore its hard power options even as the Obama Administration continues to insist that there is no military solution in Ukraine. In part, the Obama Administration agreed to dispatch the trainers in response to mounting political pressure to support Kyiv against the rebels and, by association, against Moscow. Despite mounting calls from Congress, the press, and even some high ranking officials (including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter), not to mention Kyiv itself, the White House has steadfastly refused to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine. President Obama and others worry that providing arms to Ukraine could worsen the fighting, particularly because Moscow retains escalation dominance on the ground thanks to its ability to flow weapons and troops practically unimpeded across the Russo-Ukrainian border.

Instead of providing arms, the U.S. has focused on aiding Ukraine’s transition through financial and technical assistance, albeit at a fairly low level. This assistance includes loan guarantees worth $2 billion so far, along with another $355 million or so in direct aid, including non-lethal assistance for the military such as blankets, rations, vehicles, and night vision goggles.

Many Ukrainians remain frustrated that the United States has not played a more visible role in the conflict. Apart from continuing calls for U.S. weaponry, they point out that the total value of U.S. assistance is miniscule compared to what the International Monetary Fund has assessed Ukraine needs, and compared to what Europe has offered. Nor has the United States played much of a role in the search for a diplomatic solution, where the Europeans, especially Germany, have taken the lead. The Minsk-II agreement, like its predecessor from last fall Minsk-I, was negotiated without the direct participation of the United States.

The irony is that a lasting settlement to the conflict is unlikely to be found without more direct involvement on the part of Washington. Russian actions in Ukraine only make sense in the context of Moscow’s fears that the U.S. has, as Russian President Vladimir Putin noted back in 2007, “overstepped its national borders in every way,” using force to pursue its own objectives without regard for the interests of other powers, particularly Russia. Even though it was Ukraine’s efforts to sign an association agreement with the European Union that sparked the current crisis, Moscow’s principal concern has always been, and remains, the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO, thereby coming under the military umbrella of the United States, which remains the central actor in European security affairs.

Much of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine (and beyond) centers on efforts to sow division between the United States and its European allies, as well as among the Europeans themselves. Brussels and Berlin are not in a position to give the Kremlin the guarantees it seeks about the future of the European security order, while their lack of hard power capabilities encourages Moscow to continue pressing its advantage on the ground. Only the United States is in a position to ensure allied unity, and to counter Russian hard power with hard power of its own. If Minsk-II crumbles and the conflict continues escalating, the White House may find itself with little choice but to take on a larger diplomatic role, in addition to finally arming the Ukrainians.

For now, the U.S. is putting boots on the ground in Lviv in part to avoid sending weapons to Kyiv. While a few hundred trainers will not allow the Ukrainian government to win its war with the separatists, their arrival is a sign of the growing pressure Washington faces to act decisively, despite its fears of escalating a conflict that has already created Europe’s worst security crisis since the end of the Cold War. Even if the impact of U.S. trainers in Lviv will be largely symbolic, their presence indicates the degree to which Washington’s desire to remain in the background of the Ukraine crisis is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program