US, Ukraine kick off joint military exercises in defiance of indignation from Russia



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YAVORIV, Ukraine — Troops from the United States and Ukraine kicked off joint training exercises Monday intended to help bolster Ukraine's defenses against incursions from Russian-backed separatists in the east.

Speaking under driving rain at a military base in the western region of Lviv, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the country's armed forces needed to be rebuilt from scratch to deter foreign threats.

The exercises, dubbed "Fearless Guardian-2015," sparked an enraged reaction from Russia, which described them as a potential cause of destabilization. Moscow continues to dismiss mounting evidence of its involvement in fomenting and supporting a separatist insurgency in Ukraine that has claimed more than 6,100 lives over the past year.

The 300 U.S. Army paratroopers involved in the training traveled to Ukraine last week and will be working alongside 900 national guardsmen.

"The majority of the participants here from the Ukrainian side have endured difficult trials on the front," Poroshenko said at the inauguration ceremony for the exercises.

Fighting in the east has ebbed substantially since the signing of a February cease-fire deal, but sporadic clashes still break out along the 450-kilometer front line separating government and rebel forces.

The truce deal includes provisions for all "armed formations" to be pulled out of the country. While Kiev interprets that language as being aimed at the Russian forces that Moscow denies are in Ukraine, the Kremlin has argued the United States is implicitly violating the cease-fire deal by stationing its military trainers in the country.

Training for Ukrainian troops is part of a broader package of assistance being provided by the United States. President Barack Obama's administration has said it will provide Ukraine's military with $75 million in nonlethal aid, but has refrained so far from offering lethal equipment, despite calls from Congress to do so.

Last month, Ukraine began receipt of a planned consignment of 230 Humvees from the United States.

National guard units, many of which began as volunteer groupings, have been an important part of Ukrainian forces' fighting against the separatists. Two national guard units, working on weeklong rotations, are holding part of the village of Shyrokyne, currently the most fraught location in the east.

Ukrainian forces in Shyrokyne said Monday that unrest there had subsided since the arrival of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Azov Battalion, which is leading the government's fight for the village, said heavy shelling had stopped, but reported a continuation of small arms fire.

"As of 11 a.m., despite the fact that OSCE observers are working in Shyrokyne, snipers are still targeting Azov positions," the battalion said in a statement.

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