Paratroopers from the United States have begun training soldiers with the Ukrainian National Guard. A fragile ceasefire between Kyiv's forces and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine appears to be holding.
Joint training exercises began Monday for some 300 American paratroopers working with about 900 members of Ukraine's newly re-formed National Guard.
"This is not only a war for the independence of Ukraine, but also a war for freedom and democracy in Europe and the whole world," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told the assembled troops of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade in a ceremony to launch the operation, dubbed "Fearless Guardian."
The US soldiers arrived at the Yavoriv military base in the Lviv region last week. They are due to train the National Guard members over the next six months.
"They are going to teach us all they know, from individual preparation to more difficult things such as shooting, communication between units and planning operations," Oleksandr Poroniuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian army said, according to the AFP news agency.
The United States has already pledged some 70 million euros ($75 million) worth of non-lethal military aid to Kyiv - equipment such as armored vehicles, bullet-proof vests and night-vision goggles. British service personnel are also training government forces in Ukraine, and Canada has pledged up to 200 military instructors. The presence of Western soldiers on Ukrainian soil has been harshly criticized by Russia and the separatists, who have argued it could put the country's peace process in jeopardy. Last week, Russia warned the move by the US troops could "destabilize" Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies accuse Russia of fuelling the insurgency in the east by supplying troops and weapons to the separatists, but Moscow has repeatedly denied this.
A ceasefire was brokered by Germany and France, along with Russia and Ukraine, in February, but the situation has remained tense with several reports of breaches. According to the United Nations, more than 6,000 people have been killed in fighting between the pro-Russia separatists and forces loyal to the government in Kyiv during the past year. More than a million people have been displaced.
The beginning of the US training mission comes as there were reports of violence subsiding in one of the conflict's recent flashpoints, the coastal village of Shyrokyne near Mariupol. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had managed to broker a truce there on Monday, OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier told news agency AFP.
"There is a good chance for peace at this moment and we need to invest as much as we can in this. But there is always a risk of relapse in this conflict," Zannier said.
se/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)