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Sgt. Kevin Crosby of the 173rd Airborne Brigade gives a thumbs up after showing Romanian soldiers cordon-and-search tactics at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Sgt. Kevin Crosby of the 173rd Airborne Brigade gives a thumbs up after showing Romanian soldiers cordon-and-search tactics at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Sgt. Kevin Crosby of the 173rd Airborne Brigade gives a thumbs up after showing Romanian soldiers cordon-and-search tactics at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Sgt. Kevin Crosby of the 173rd Airborne Brigade gives a thumbs up after showing Romanian soldiers cordon-and-search tactics at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A Ukrainian army cadet ambushes American soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
A Ukrainian army cadet ambushes American soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
British soldiers keep alert during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. About 1,300 troops are taking part in the exercise, which comes during a time of war for Ukraine.
British soldiers keep alert during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. About 1,300 troops are taking part in the exercise, which comes during a time of war for Ukraine. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Sgt. 1st Class Josh Ward of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center discusses with British soldiers things done right and wrong during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Sgt. 1st Class Josh Ward of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center discusses with British soldiers things done right and wrong during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Lithuanian soldiers look for danger during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Lithuanian soldiers look for danger during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Soldiers from Azerbaijan make their way through tall brush as they go through patrol training during Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. The exercise runs through Sept. 26.
Soldiers from Azerbaijan make their way through tall brush as they go through patrol training during Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. The exercise runs through Sept. 26. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Pfc. Chaen McBean of the 173rd Airborne Brigade plays a member of the opposing force during patrol training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Pfc. Chaen McBean of the 173rd Airborne Brigade plays a member of the opposing force during patrol training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Staff Sgt. Byron Prohovich of the 173rd Airborne Brigade talks to soldiers from Azerbaijan after instructing them in patrol tactics at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Staff Sgt. Byron Prohovich of the 173rd Airborne Brigade talks to soldiers from Azerbaijan after instructing them in patrol tactics at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Romanian soldiers patrol a road during Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. The U.S., Ukraine and 13 other nations are taking part in the exercise.
Romanian soldiers patrol a road during Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. The U.S., Ukraine and 13 other nations are taking part in the exercise. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Ukrainian army Maj. Maksym Klunnyk instructs173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers and Ukrainian army cadets during traffic control training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Ukrainian army Maj. Maksym Klunnyk instructs173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers and Ukrainian army cadets during traffic control training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Pfc. Luis Carrera of the 173rd Airborne Brigade takes notes during traffic control training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Pfc. Luis Carrera of the 173rd Airborne Brigade takes notes during traffic control training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade react to an ambush at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade react to an ambush at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Ukrainian army cadet Mykhailo Kutniy was among those portraying an opposing force that ambushed American soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine.
Ukrainian army cadet Mykhailo Kutniy was among those portraying an opposing force that ambushed American soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Staff Sgt. Julio Ortiz, right, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, gives Romanian soldiers pointers on room-clearing during cordon-and-search training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Staff Sgt. Julio Ortiz, right, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, gives Romanian soldiers pointers on room-clearing during cordon-and-search training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Ukrainian army cadets sit on their helmets during a break at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. In the background are soldiers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Ukrainian army cadets sit on their helmets during a break at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. In the background are soldiers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Georgian soldiers practice a drill during cordon-and-search training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Georgian soldiers practice a drill during cordon-and-search training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Lt. Beka Metreveli, a Georgian platoon leader, watches as fellow soldiers go through training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
Lt. Beka Metreveli, a Georgian platoon leader, watches as fellow soldiers go through training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A Romanian soldier patrols a road during training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
A Romanian soldier patrols a road during training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A Lithuanian army platoon leader radios during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
A Lithuanian army platoon leader radios during convoy training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
British soldiers carry a "wounded" comrade during training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, as Sgt. 1st Class Josh Ward of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center watches.
British soldiers carry a "wounded" comrade during training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, as Sgt. 1st Class Josh Ward of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center watches. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A British soldiers guards the perimeter during training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.
A British soldiers guards the perimeter during training at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Weapons and gear of 173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers sit in the sand at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Fifteen counties are taking part in the exercise that lasts until Sept. 26.
Weapons and gear of 173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers sit in the sand at Exercise Rapid Trident near Yavoriv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. Fifteen counties are taking part in the exercise that lasts until Sept. 26. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

YAVORIV, Ukraine — 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.

In March, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, and since then pro-Russian militants have been waging an insurgency in the country’s east. Ukrainian, U.S. and NATO officials have accused Russia of sending tanks and soldiers into the country, a move that has brought relations between the West and Moscow to a post-Cold War low. At the moment, a fragile cease-fire is in place, but outbreaks of violence continue, threatening to reignite the larger conflict.

Army 1st Lt. Jacob Wijnberg, a platoon leader with the 173rd, had come into the Army expecting to deploy to Afghanistan. But since Russia’s moves in Ukraine, he has been leading troops through a series of training missions in Poland, part of an effort to reassure wary NATO allies on or near Russia’s borders.

“It’s not the mission you expected, but it’s been pretty fulfilling,” Wijnberg said. “You’re helping to carry out a part of American foreign policy and strategy, which is great.”

While the conflict in Ukraine’s east isn’t the main focus of Rapid Trident, some troops say the exercise is a way to show solidarity with an ally. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but it is an alliance partner. NATO has a similar relationship with another former Soviet republic, Georgia, which has the status of “aspirant.” Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, ostensibly to protect minorities in a breakaway region.

“It was only about six years ago that Russian tanks rolled into Georgia,” said Lt. Beka Metreveli, a Georgian platoon leader. “So we’ve experienced the same thing. We’ve always been close with Ukraine, and we’re showing support to our brothers.”

The feeling runs both ways: “The Georgians for us are like brothers. They support us with their soul, and they, along with the other countries, send a message — we are with you,” said Ukrainian Maj. Maksym Klunnyk, who serves as a trainer in the army.

For the U.S., such exercises are key to building ties and ensuring that NATO members and nonalliance partners can operate together on the battlefield. The focus is on a range of tactics, such as countering roadside bombs, fighting through ambushes and urban warfare.

Sgt. 1st Class Brett Coffman, a trainer and mentor from the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Grafenwöhr, Germany, who is observing the drills, said one area of focus is getting some units unaccustomed to frequent training to become more assertive in the field.

”I’m pushing them to react faster,” Coffman said during a convoy exercise. “Sometimes, they’re not as aggressive, and the reaction time is slower.”

During one convoy run, a team of Lithuanians got the message. When confronted by the enemy, the soldiers unloaded their weapons and dismounted from their trucks to push the enemy back rather than staying in their vehicles.

Still, there were areas for improvement. When the ambush hit, the trucks came to a halt and jammed up together.

“That’s not good. You throw a grenade and there will be a lot of casualties,” Staff Sgt. Travis Stackman, a mentor from the JMRC, told the Lithuanians.

During the opening week of the exercise, troops are working on skills that will later be applied in a large field exercise. Sometimes the tips are a little unconventional.

Klunnyk, the Ukrainian instructor, gave a team of U.S. soldiers a lesson on securing an outpost in a contested area, based on tactics Ukrainian troops use in the east.

Among the tips: Befriend the wild dogs and feed them well. They’re a cheap, early warning system for approaching threats, Klunnyk said.

“In the eastern part, our guys use these techniques, and believe me they work.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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