U.S. troops on Wednesday began training Ukrainians how to use the 18 American howitzers that have started to arrive as part of the latest security aid package for the war with Russia, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
The training, at an undisclosed location outside Ukraine, will last approximately one week and include about 50 of that country's troops, who can then return to the war and teach others how to use the 155mm howitzers that are being sent by the Pentagon from Army and Marine Corps inventories.
The artillery pieces could be key to Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be refocusing his invasion forces on the Donbas, a flat region in the east where both sides may rely heavily on the big guns. The shift comes after Ukrainians, equipped with Javelin and Stinger missiles from the West, were able to repel a weeks-long Russian attack on the capital Kyiv.
"The terrain lends itself to the use of artillery -- to long-range fires, as we call it -- and we know that the Russians also believe the same thing because we're seeing them move artillery units into the Donbas as well," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday.
The first of the howitzers began arriving at drop-off points into Ukraine on Tuesday, and more were expected to arrive from the U.S. on Wednesday and Thursday. The aid package will also include 40,000 rounds of 155mm ammo, which will come from existing U.S. stocks in Europe and be delivered within days.
The new equipment marked a shift in the type of weapons the U.S. is sending, a change the Pentagon chalked up to continuous discussions with the Ukrainians on what they need, as well as the shift on the battlefield.
As part of the latest $800 million package approved by President Joe Biden last week, the Pentagon is sending a range of heavy equipment such as N/TPQ-36 Firefinder and AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radar systems to counter artillery and aircraft; 16 Mi-17 helicopters originally slated for Afghanistan; 200 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers; Puma drones; and a mysterious sea-based coastal defense drone.
The aid also included thousands more of the Javelin and Stinger missiles that proved so effective against Russian armor in the weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion, as well as more ammunition, mines, body armor, night-vision optics, protective gear and first-aid kits.
Ukraine also has 20 additional combat aircraft compared to three weeks ago after the U.S. and western allies were able to supply parts for repair and maintenance, the senior defense official said Wednesday during a phone call with reporters.
On Tuesday, Russia began its long-anticipated assault on the Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting with Ukraine since 2014. It withdrew forces from around Kyiv in recent weeks and has been reconstituting its brigades, which in some cases had been badly mauled in the earlier fighting, for an all-out offensive in the east.
The last Ukrainian forces in Mariupol were also still holding out at a steel mill in the southern city on the Sea of Azov despite heavy bombing and surrender orders from the Russians, the official said.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.