Joint US-Ukrainian military maneuvers have begun in Western Ukraine. DW correspondent Hayina Stadnyk talked with soldiers about their first impressions at the Yavoriv military training area.
Anton Kovalchuk is from the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. For more than eight he has served in the US Army. But, like most of his colleagues, this is the first time that he has been to the military training area at Yavoriv, in Lviv province. Joint US-Ukrainian military maneuvers have been taking place here since Monday.
He says that one important reason for his being here is his knowledge of the Ukrainian language. "At the moment, translating is one of my main responsibilities. We have only been here for a few days, but I can see that the Ukrainians are interested in establishing closer contacts.
We also talk about the situation in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainians' fighting experience in the region is important to my colleagues in every respect," says Kowalchuk. Several men that are originally from Ukraine serve alongside him in the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. They are all tied to maneuvers in Yavoriv, which are scheduled to continue until November.
No problems in everyday life
The American military expert Andriy Gordiychuk says that there are no problems between the US and Ukrainian forces, neither in daily life, nor in terms of communication. "In fact, I am pleasantly surprised by the foreign language skills of the Ukrainian soldiers."
The maneuvers themselves haven't really gotten started, therefore it is too early to say anything about the quality of the Ukrainian soldiers' training.
Participating in the military exercises on the Ukrainian side are soldiers from the National Guard, a group that has been on the front lines fighting pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. "We will exchange information about the individual training of fighters, the handling of weapons, camouflage, and protective measures."
Language classes and electronic translating devices
Some 900 members of the Ukrainian National Guard are scheduled to be trained during the course of "Fearless Guardian 2015" joint maneuvers. Above all, commanders are supposed to learn how to effectively run information operations, how to cooperate with local populations, and how to combat propaganda.
Beyond that, dealing with artillery fire, tactical reconnaissance, the defense of checkpoints, and the neutralization of enemy sabotage teams, as well as the clearing of mines, the blocking and neutralizing the enemy, and administration of first-aid are among the most important aspects of the maneuvers.
Exercises are divided into three stages, lasting eight weeks each, explains Lt. General Mykola Balan, commander of the Ukrainian Nation Guard. "Regular units will be trained first; namely, the 'Cheetahs,' and the 'Jaguars.' The volunteer units, now part of the National Guard, are next up," he adds.
According to Balan, the Americans have taken over the costs of the joint operations. It is important for them that soldiers who have already fought in Eastern Ukraine participate in the exercises. "Almost 80 percent of the soldiers now here at Yavoriv have served on the front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk," says Balan.
National Guard training methods outdated
"We are together all day, from morning sports until evening activities," says Vadim Perepichka, commander of a sub-unit of the Ukrainian Jaguar troops.
"We eat in the same mess hall, the Americans like Ukrainian food, especially our traditional soup, borscht. When the weather is good we play volleyball and football in our free time."
105 men from the Jaguar troop are under Perepichka's command, all of whom served for up to a year in Eastern Ukraine. He hopes that American training methods will be used from here on – from his point of view, the methods still used today by the National Guard are outdated.
A chance to modernize the army
"These exercises were organized less because of the war in the East, and more because of the necessity of building a new army," explained Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at the commencement of maneuvers.
Just six months ago the exercises would have been impossible, due to widespread corruption in the Ukrainian military as well as rampant espionage conducted on behalf of the Russian federal security service, FSB.
"At the time international partners didn't trust us, but now things have changed, we cleaned up the army and now one can give them weapons and defense technologies," says Poroshenko.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that communications systems supplied by the Americans for the joint operations will remain with the National Guard when exercises are concluded. These systems consist of 30 mobile radio stations and a number of portable individual radio systems, as well as hundreds of night vision devices, protective clothing, helmets, bulletproof vests, and clothing for more than 700 soldiers. "But a war isn't won with weapons, rather with ability, that's why training is our priority," says Avakov. According to the minister, experts contend that eight weeks of training is an optimal time frame for an exchange of experiences.