Hundreds of U.S. paratroopers have arrived in Ukraine to train its forces fighting pro-Russian rebels in the east, the U.S. Army confirmed Friday, a move Moscow warned could "destabilize" the war-torn former Soviet country.
"Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade have been arriving over the last week," Donald Wrenn, a U.S. Army spokesman, told AFP.
"We will have about 300 soldiers from the brigade on the ground providing the training that will last over the next six months."
The move raised heckles in Moscow, which accuses the United States of backing the protests that brought down Ukraine's Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych last year.
"The participation of instructors and experts from third countries on Ukrainian territory ... of course, does not help to resolve the conflict," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, quoted by Russian news agencies.
"On the contrary, it can seriously destabilize the situation," he said.
Following Yanukovych's ouster and Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, a pro-Russia uprising in east Ukraine sparked a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people over the past year, according to the United Nations.
The West accuses Russia of arming the separatists, who have taken control of much of eastern Ukraine, a charge that Moscow denies. It has also denied U.S. claims that Russia sent troops to fight alongside the separatists.
Fighting between the separatists and Ukrainian troops is rumbling on in the east despite a February ceasefire agreement.
The U.S. troops will train the National Guard of Ukraine, a reservist force that was reformed in 2014 to bring volunteers and militia under government control.
"We will be conducting classes on war-fighting functions, as well as training to sustain and increase the professionalism and proficiency of military staffs," Maj. Jose Mendez, operations officer for the brigade, was quoted as saying on the U.S. Army site.
Ukraine had asked the United States to send the training mission, dubbed Operation Fearless Guardian, an article published by the U.S. Army on Saturday said.
"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 all the way from the brigade's base in northern Italy to the Ukrainian military zone in Yavoriv, near the Polish border, with vehicles and equipment for the training mission.
The Army stressed the equipment was for use by the U.S. brigade in the training and not to be issued to Ukrainian forces.
Fifty paratroopers traveled with that 25-vehicle convoy, which arrived on April 10, while further troops arrived on Tuesday and Wednesday, the U.S. Army website said.
Ukraine's defense ministry said in a statement that the training would begin with a ceremony on Monday.
Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov had earlier said the U.S. brigade would train about 900 Ukrainian National Guard troops in six months of training followed by joint war games.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade has already trained with Ukrainian forces elsewhere in Europe, as well as within Ukraine in the multinational Rapid Trident field training exercises in September.
Britain is also deploying some 75 troops to Ukraine to train government forces there, while Canada announced Tuesday that it will also send 200 trainers.
President Barack Obama has come under pressure from lawmakers and military officials to send weapons to help the Ukrainian forces defend themselves, but has so far held back.
Some of his European allies, including Germany, have warned that sending arms would escalate the bloodshed.
European OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine have denounced numerous violations of the ceasefire, including heavy arms fire between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian forces.
Among the latest casualties were six soldiers killed and a journalist who was injured by a mine during a flare-up of fighting, the Ukrainian army said Tuesday.