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Ukrainian troops get training in Germany

Matthias von Hein
May 4, 2022

Ukrainian soldiers are receiving weapons training on military bases in Germany. Legal advisers are discussing whether that makes Germany a party to war.

soldiers and armored vehicles during "Allied Spirit 2022" exercise in Hohenfels
Ukrainian soldiers have in the past taken part in training operations like this one at Hohenfels US Army BaseImage: Armin Weigel/dpa/picture alliance

Pressath is a quiet town of 5,000 in Bavaria, southern Germany. It's known for its nature and castles. Recently, however, local media have reported loud bangs that rattle walls and shake the ground.

Fewer than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away is Grafenwöhr, home to the largest US military training area in Europe. Though unconfirmed, people in the area suspect it is where Ukrainian troops are receiving weapons training. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby last week confirmed that such training was taking place in Germany.

"US Army Europe and Africa Command will organize this training in coordination with the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, and we're grateful, of course, for Germany's continued support," he said.

Germany was the only one of three training sites in Europe and outside Ukraine that he would disclose. The training, he added, includes the radar systems, artillery, and armored vehicles that are part of the latest rounds of US security assistance to Ukraine.

The disturbances heard in Pressath are one knock-on effect of the "Zeitenwende," or fundamental change in German foreign policy that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced at the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. His recognition of a new era of security policy were followed by an announcement by German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht that Germany would provide Ukraine with heavier weapons, such as the Gepard anti-aircraft armored vehicle.

At the US-organized meeting of allies and partners last week at the Ramstein US air base in western Germany, she also said that Germany would participate in the training of Ukrainian troops. "We are working with our American friends in training Ukrainian troops on artillery systems on German soil," she said in a statement. "We all know how decisive artillery is in this conflict."

Germany to send weapons to Ukraine

Legal gray zone

In a report this week, the reference and research service of the Bundestag, the German parliament, concluded training on German soil could make Germany a legal party to the war.

"When one starts to consider advising those involved in conflict or providing them with weapons training, one leaves the safety of non-involvement," the report said.

It said that weapons deliveries — regardless of the type of weapon — did not on their own constitute participation.

When asked about these findings on Monday, government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit admitted that the government was "constantly in a difficult situation." But "we are of the opinion that training Ukrainian soldiers on weapons systems in Germany does not mean directly entering the war," he said.

The limits of neutrality

"If a war of aggression already means a violation of international law, you are then no longer bound by international law to remain neutral," Stefan Talmon, a legal scholar, told DW. "That means, basically, you can send weapons and train people on them."

Training others to fight is different from fighting yourself, Talmon added, though that doesn't mean everyone would see it that way.

"Whether that matters to Mr. Putin or not is a completely different question," he said.

Training Ukrainian troops in Germany is also not new. Wolfgang Richter, a former German military officer, told DW that the US has been doing so for a long time — and in plain sight. In December, an article in Stars and Stripes, a US military newspaper, reported on a 10-day training session involving 4,600 soldiers from Eastern Europe at the US army base in Hohenfels, Bavaria.

The participants then included a Ukrainian infantry brigade.

This article was originally written in German.

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