RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now a look at the way the U.S. is trying to walk a fine line in Ukraine's standoff with Russia. While the United States is now sending heavy armor to NATO countries in the region, it is giving Ukraine only nonlethal military aid. As part of that, the U.S. army has started training Ukrainian soldiers to fight Russian-backed rebels. NPR's Corey Flintoff has our report.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: First, you need to know how bad things were for the Ukrainian army when separatist militias and their Russian allies began the fight in eastern Ukraine. Miroslav Gai volunteered for the army last winter. I met him in Kiev, and this is how he described its state of readiness.
MIROSLAV GAI: Army give me just my weapon and a uniform and bring me with my friends to Slovyansk and say, OK, fight.
FLINTOFF: Gai saw many of his friends killed around the eastern city of Slovyansk and says he wouldn't have survived without food and warm clothing provided by volunteers. He now runs a volunteer foundation that helps supply the soldiers. The Ukrainian military says it's doing everything it can to make its army combat ready. That's happening on a sprawling base and firing range near the Polish border. I'm here to watch about 300 American paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade working with Ukrainian national guardsmen.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We cannot shoot yet. We cannot shoot yet.
FLINTOFF: Practice ranges on all sides of us are crackling with weapons fire, everything from hand grenades to heavy machine guns.
CAPTAIN STEVEN MODUGNO: Part of what we really want to do here is just to help these guys in terms of survivability, in terms of flexibility, I would say.
FLINTOFF: Captain Steven Modugno says the Americans were surprised to find that most of their initial trainees already had combat experience in the war in eastern Ukraine. Two of the Ukrainian soldiers in the first group, he says, were actually decorated war heroes from their service in the East. What started as basic infantry training quickly got more complex when the trainees started asking questions like this.
MODUGNO: When we know that there's a potentially hostile drone monitoring us, how do we react? And we said we need to confirm we can teach you this. The State Department went to the Ukrainian government, said can we teach them this? They negotiated again and they said yes, you can.
FLINTOFF: Right now the troops are honing their shooting skills and defensive maneuvers. Soldiers from one platoon practice dropping to one knee and forming a circle with their rifles bristling out while others give first aid to a wounded comrade. They range from raw recruits to seasoned men in their 30s, most of them wearing mismatched uniforms and body armor. This Ukrainian soldier goes by the nickname Crimea and asks not to be identified because he still has family there. He was in the Ukrainian army in Crimea when the Russians took over, but says he refused an offer to defect to the Russian side.
CRIMEA: (Through interpreter) We can learn something from the American Army and share experience of fighting in the east against the Russian regular army because Americans haven't fought them and we're fighting them now.
FLINTOFF: That's why the brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Brown, says this mission is as much of a learning experience for the Americans as it is for the Ukrainians. He says the interaction among the troops could be the most valuable result.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL ROBERT BROWN: There's a lot of bonds that are forming now and a lot of lessons learned both on our side and on their side, and you don't know what those relationships will mean in the future.
FLINTOFF: Both U.S. and NATO officials have been warning that the future may hold increasing confrontations with Russia. Brown acknowledges that this is a relatively small training exercise that will reach about 750 Ukrainian troops. But he says there'll be a multiplier effect when these national guardsmen go back to teach their comrades what they've learned. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.
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