YAVORIV, Ukraine — After watching a series of war games on Ukrainian soil, U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh warned Russia on Friday about testing the resolve of an alliance that stands ready to guard against aggression in the region. "If anyone questions the United States' commitment to security in the Black Sea region, they might want to take a look at what is happening at Rapid Trident 14," said McHugh, who, along with top U.S. uniformed commanders, was in Ukraine to observe the first major exercise in the country since tensions with Russia spilled over earlier this year.
There are 1,300 international troops taking part in the U.S. Army Europe-led Rapid Trident exercise in western Ukraine, including 200 soldiers from the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade. The decision to send U.S. soldiers into Ukraine, which has been in a virtual state of war since Russia's annexation of the country's Crimea peninsula, should also serve as a reassuring signal to allies rattled by unrest in the country, McHugh said.
"The United States', our partner nations', attempt to demonstrate our commitment to a people, a cause, a nation, is offered in different ways," McHugh said. "But none of those ways speaks more clearly, more affirmatively about our commitment than when we send our men and women in uniform to train alongside nations that you're seeing here today."
As the first week of Rapid Trident draws to a close, soldiers from 15 countries have been working on their combat skills, in particular how to deal with unconventional threats in urban environments. Ukraine, as a non-NATO member, doesn't enjoy the collective security guarantee that comes with alliance membership: the NATO bedrock principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. But training partnerships with the U.S. and other allies help prepare Ukrainian troops for the fight in the east, Ukrainian officers said.
"It goes without saying this event is very important. It is the epitome of our security for the future," said Lt. Gen. Anatoliy Pushniakov, land forces commander for the Ukrainian army. "This increases our combat readiness."
Many Ukrainian soldiers who have taken part in past exercises with the U.S. are now fighting on the eastern front, Pushniakov said. This year, young Ukrainian cadets are also taking part in the exercises, as they could soon be fighting, too.
"The exercise is being done in very difficult circumstances," Pushniakov said. "We decided to involve the cadets because they are the future of our armed forces."
Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, conditions in the east have continued to deteriorate as pro-Russian separatists have squared off with Ukrainian forces. American and Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of not only arming and advising separatists but also sending ground forces into Ukraine.
"Bigger nations must never be allowed to bully the small or impose their will at the barrel of a gun or with masked men taking over buildings," McHugh said.
Moscow has repeatedly denied it has forces in the country.
In response to Russian moves in the region, U.S. European Command has increased its presence across eastern Europe in an effort to bolster the military capabilities of allies and re-assure countries fearful of Russian intentions in places like the Baltics.
Still, some NATO partners, such as Poland, have hoped for a larger U.S. military presence. Polish officials have sought the permanent stationing of U.S. combat troops. Instead, U.S. and NATO allies say they intend to increase their presence by deploying rotational forces.
Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said the mix of roughly 30,000 forward-stationed U.S. Army troops in Europe, coupled with more rotational forces, should be enough to carry out an expanded mission on the Continent.
While McHugh and Campbell stopped short of saying that there would be no further drawdaown of soldiers in Europe, they signaled that the current structure is likely to remain in place.
"I feel we have the footprint about right," Campbell said.
Meanwhile, Russia's actions in Ukraine have forced a broad rethink about the nature of European security, officials said.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who serves as head of NATO land command in Izmir, Turkey, said the show of unity at exercises like Rapid Trident should deliver a message of solidarity among allies to Russia.
"Seventy-five years ago Russia invaded this very area," said Hodges, who was among top commanders observing the training in western Ukraine.
"So that threat was there then, and that threat is still here today. So that is why we train. That's why you have to prepare to deter further aggression, and certainly NATO is going to continue to support training efforts that deter that sort of Russian aggression."