US paratroopers launched a training mission Monday for Ukrainian government forces who will fight pro-Russian separatists in the east, angering Moscow as the deadly conflict rumbles on.
President Petro Poroshenko welcomed troops from the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade for Operation Fearless Guardian in a rain-soaked ceremony at a military base in Yavoriv, western Ukraine.
"We are the eyewitnesses and direct participants in forming the new Ukrainian military, which like the phoenix is returning after a long time," Poroshenko told the assembled troops.
Officials said some 300 U.S. troops will train 900 members of Ukraine's National Guard, which is deployed in the east where heavy arms fire continues despite a February ceasefire.
U.S. Army Maj. Michael Weisman told AFP the mission would provide training in individual and medical skills and defense maneuvers, with the kind of weapons already in use by the Ukrainian forces such as AK-47 assault rifles.
As the U.S. troops arrived in Ukraine last week, Russia warned the move could "destabilize" the ex-Soviet country, where the conflict has killed more than 6,000 people in the past year.
The United States is one of Ukraine's biggest backers in a conflict that has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Poroshenko called the exercises the first of their kind and "one of the biggest and most important demonstrations of solidarity" between his pro-Western government and its U.S. allies.
"The circumstances under which these exercises are being held are also unique," he added, referring to the conflict in the east.
Washington has sent $75 million, about 70 million euros, worth of non-lethal military aid to Kiev, but has so far held off from supplying weapons.
"We are not providing weapons," Weisman told AFP. "What we are merely doing is getting them better with theirs."
Kiev and the West have cited growing evidence that Russia is arming separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine and sending troops to fight alongside them, but Russia has repeatedly denied this.
Moscow accuses the United States of backing the uprising that preceded the ousting of former pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych in February last year. Moscow subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula.
U.S. troops have trained with Ukrainian forces in the past, but it is the first time Washington has trained members of Ukraine's recently re-formed National Guard.
The troops "are going to teach us all they know, from individual preparation to more difficult things such as shooting, communication between units and planning operations," said Oleksandr Poroniuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian army.
Ukraine had asked the United States to send the training mission, according to an article published by the U.S. Army on April 11.
"This training will help them defend their borders and their sovereignty," it quoted brigade planning officer Capt. Ashish Patel as saying.
A ground convoy drove from the U.S. brigade's base in northern Italy to the Ukrainian military zone in Yavoriv near the Polish border, with vehicles and equipment.
Both countries stressed the equipment was for use by the U.S. brigade in the training and is not to be issued to Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian army spokesman Andriy Lysenko said last week the training will also include "how to give first aid, react to shelling and find out the positions of militants."
Britain has also deployed personnel to Ukraine to train government forces, in a mission that could reportedly involve up to 75 trainers at a time. Canada announced last week it would also send 200 trainers in the summer.