The U.S. Army has delayed sending U.S. troops to western Ukraine on a training exercise to avoid giving Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse to have Moscow-backed rebels violate a tentative ceasefire, the U.S. Army commander in Europe said Tuesday.
Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said plans were set to have a U.S. armored brigade in Europe by the end of the year with 1,000 vehicles, including 220 M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and self-propelled 155mm howitzers.
"I believe the start of training (in Ukraine) has been delayed to try to provide more space" to diplomatic efforts aimed at shoring up the ceasefire agreed to last month in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, said Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR).
The training was due to begin March 24 but was being put off until at least next month "to make sure this doesn't derail" the Minsk agreements, Hodges said at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters. "The U.S. government wants to see a diplomatic solution."
A battalion of troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based at Vicenza, Italy, had been scheduled to begin training on March 24 with Ukrainian Ministry of Interior troops near Lviv, in western Ukraine near the Polish border. Hodges said the training would now begin sometime in April.
The 173rd troops planned to train the Ministry of Interior troops – similar to a National Guard – on route clearance, counter-battery fire and especially on electronic warfare, Hodges said. "They get jammed all the time" by Russian equipment supplied to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, Hodges said.
Hodges did not take a position on supplying so-called "lethal" weapons to the Ukrainian forces. "There's a legitimate concern if you provide weapons" that tensions in the region would rise, Hodges said, while acknowledging that Putin had no qualms about supplying arms to eastern Ukraine.
"These are not rebels standing behind trees taking potshots" but were instead a well-equipped force, Hodges said.
However, Hodges said that concerns over whether Ukrainian troops would need extensive training before being able to use sophisticated American weapons were exaggerated. Such concerns on the capabilities of the Ukrainians were "completely out the window," Hodges said.
New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearings last month that he was "inclined" to back sending weapons to the Ukrainians.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has taken a similar position, but Hodges said "I just don't believe the focus should be on weapons. I just think it's more important that we get a strategy" to counter Putin. "Providing weapons is not a strategy," he said.
NATO allies including Germany were opposed to arming Ukraine and favored continuing economic sanctions on Russia.
Hodges said the difficulty for the NATO allies was in discerning the next move by Putin although his overall objectives were clear. Putin has set out on a strategy to create instability on Russia's borders in the Baltic states and Poland, and "split our (NATO) alliance" on a response, Hodges said.
"He does not care what the world thinks about him" as he pursues his goals, Hodges said of Putin. "Clearly, he does not care about international opinion."
Hodges noted Moscow's announcement Monday that Putin had ordered Russia's Northern Fleet to "full alert in a snap combat readiness exercise" in the Arctic as another effort to unsettle the West.
Russian state media said the snap exercise would involve 38,000 troops, 41 ships, 15 submarines and 110 aircraft.
While holding off on the Ukraine training exercise, NATO was going ahead with the month-long Exercise Saber Junction 15 training exercise beginning April 1 for 4,700 troops from 17 nations at the Army's Hohenfels Training Area in southeastern Germany, Hodges said.
Participating countries included Albania, Armenia, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, and the United States.
Hodges said the plan to have a U.S. armored brigade combat team backed by 1,000 vehicles in Europe by the end of the year was on track although basing had yet to be decided. The plan was to leave the vehicles in Europe permanently while rotating troops to operate them.
Hodges said he had proposed a basing option to U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the NATO and European Command commander, but did not disclose his proposal.
Hodges said the whole brigade could be based in Germany, or could be split up among the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. "They all offered to host the entire thing," Hodges said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com