WASHINGTON — The U.S. is considering a plan to expand its military training of Ukrainian forces to include army soldiers, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe said on Monday, describing a potential move that risks heightening tensions with Russia.
Moscow already accuses Washington of fomenting anti-Russian sentiment in eastern Europe. The United States rejects the claim and says Russian troops are backing separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine, violating that country's sovereignty.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday that he welcomes the possibility of additional U.S. training, describing it as part of a concerted American response to "the global challenge of the entire free world."
"We truly commend the efforts of the U.S. administration, of the White House and the U.S. House and Senate to train and equip both the Ukrainian National Guard and the Ukrainian military," he said, adding that it is aimed at making the Ukrainian army "more durable" while deterring "Russian-led terrorists."
About 305 U.S. troops are currently in western Ukraine conducting training for Ukraine's Interior Ministry forces, called national guardsmen, who operate checkpoints and perform other military tasks but are not front-line combat troops.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, which is based in Germany, told reporters at the Pentagon that a training program for regular Ukrainian army soldiers is under review.
"It's got to be something that Ukraine and the U.S. and other participating nations would all agree on," Hodges said, adding that it would be similar to the kinds of training now provided to national guardsmen near Lviv, close to the Polish border. Elements could include defense against electronic warfare, including communications intercepts and the kinds of jamming that Russian forces allegedly are conducting in the east of the country.
He said the U.S. trainers also are learning from the Ukrainians.
"None of us have ever been under Russian artillery and rocket fire like the Ukrainians have," he said.
Ukraine has battled Russian-backed separatists in its eastern region since April 2014. Despite an internationally brokered cease-fire in February, sporadic fighting continues and each side regularly accuses the other of shelling its positions.
Hodges said he sees signs that the Russian-supported separatists, benefiting from a steady flow of weapons and supplies from Russia across a porous border, could be preparing to launch another offensive.
"There's nothing that tells us it's imminent or inevitable," he said. "So I wouldn't predict that there will be one, but a lot of the same indicators are in place," including command elements, an electronic warfare capability, air defense weaponry and logistics support that he said has come from Russia.
The U.S. has called on Russia to end its intervention and has imposed increasingly robust economic sanctions on Moscow. It has provided nonlethal aid to the Ukrainians, but so far the White House has not offered any offensive weaponry.
More broadly, Washington has stepped up military exercises in Europe to reassure NATO allies near Russia's borders.
Sen. John McCain has been a vocal critic of the administration's approach, calling it timid and insufficiently supportive of the Ukraine government. A spokeswoman for the Arizona Republican, Julie Tarallo, said Monday that while McCain supports the proposed expansion of U.S. military training in western Ukraine, "he continues to believe that the administration must do more to help the Ukrainians by providing them the weapons they desperately need to defend themselves against Russia's continued aggression."
At a hearing last week, McCain pressed President Barack Obama's nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, on whether he believes the U.S. should provide Ukraine with weapons to defend themselves against Russian artillery, rockets and tanks.
"From a military perspective, I think it's reasonable that we provide that support to the Ukrainians," Dunford replied. "And frankly, without that kind of support, they're not going to be able to protect themselves against Russian aggression."
In his remarks to the AP, Yatsenyuk suggested his government is hopeful that the U.S. will act.
"We expect to get an additional support from the United States," the prime minister said. "We do understand that some NATO allies are a little bit reluctant in the decision to supply defensive weapons to Ukraine. But this is not just about Ukraine. This is about the security of the world."
In his remarks on Monday, Hodges provided few details of the plan to extend U.S. training to the Ukrainian army, but indicated a U.S. decision would have to come soon if the extended training is to begin in late November as proposed.
The Wall Street Journal, which reported the U.S. plan last week, said the Ukrainians have selected mechanized and airborne units that would be part of the expanded training program.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.