Rapid Trident exercise takes place in Ukraine, a country at war
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.”