Young Ukrainian cadets lay concealed in the bushes, prepared to test their skills against seasoned troops from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Fake grenades exploded and the sound of gunfire burst from the bushes as the Ukrainians took the fight to the U.S. soldiers, who were eventually forced to retreat from the onslaught.
It’s just an exercise. But for these up-and-coming Ukrainian officers and hundreds of active-duty troops, this year’s U.S. Army Europe-led Rapid Trident has added meaning, given the war that has raged in Ukraine’s east between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists.
“I think it is good training, learning how to fight the terrorists,” said Mykhailo Kutniy, 20, who is in his final year of military school, using the term the government applies to the separatists. “We learn how to make ambush. We learn how to stop the column and destroy the enemy.”
Another cadet, Andriy Shapovalov, said working with foreign militaries is a way to improve his fighting skills, which could come in handy if he deploys to the east next year as a lieutenant. “I know what the enemy will be doing in ambush and I’m prepared,” said Shapovalov, 20. “I think we are going east to help our comrades.”
Roughly 700 Ukrainian troops are taking part in the combat drills at the International Peace Keeping and Security Center in Yavoriv, a sprawling base in western Ukraine that is among the largest training sites in all of Europe. A 200-strong company from the U.S. 173rd Airborne and troops from 13 other nations — about 1,300 troops in all — are also taking part in the exercise, which runs through Sept. 26.
While many of the Ukrainian participants aren’t poised for an immediate deployment east, other troops on base are busy gearing up for war. Waves of Ukrainian forces are rotating through the base for pre-deployment training. They’re out of sight, but the near constant sound of heavy live fire in the distance serves as a reminder that Ukraine is a country at war.