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Natalia Ojewska and Natalia Drozdiak

Ukrainian Troops Begin EU Training as Bloc Expands Military Role

Ukrainian men and women practiced mine-sweeping in one of the first military exercises offered by the European Union’s new training mission for the country’s armed forces, part of a shift by the bloc to undertake more defense initiatives since Russia launched its war on its borders.

In fields near a small town of Brzeg, in southwestern Poland, a group of soldiers have been receiving instructions for more than a week on de-mining techniques and how to defuse booby traps from international military trainers, including Canadian sappers. They are part of the first contingent of 1,100 troops being trained in different locations across the continent.

“I’m very humbled by this encounter, very humbled and happy to be with Ukrainian soldiers who are being trained here to defend their soil from Russian aggression,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief told reporters Friday during a visit to the base. “This mission is an unprecedented mission from many points of view -- it’s pushing the boundaries of European Union military cooperation.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the EU has made one of its boldest forays into active military support -- a big step for a bloc forged to ensure the bloody conflicts of the Second World War would never take place on the continent again. 

The EU is trying to mount the ambitious €106.7 million ($112 million) mission -- aimed at training 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers -- on top of significant weapons deliveries to Ukraine, economy-crushing sanctions on Russia and billions of euros to bolster Kyiv’s finances.

The training mission, which will also take place in Germany, will for the first time be conducted outside the country and on EU soil, despite the bloc’s treaty stating that military assets for its common security and defense policy be used outside the EU and not within it. And, in another first, the EU is using taxpayer money to refund member states for the weapons they send Ukraine through its European Peace Facility. 

That contrasts with the last time Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014 when the EU primarily imposed sanctions in response. And while North Atlantic Treaty Organization states have offered billions of dollars in weapons, training and other support individually, the military alliance as an organization has held back from offering any lethal support -- in contrast with the EU’s measures -- to avoid escalating the conflict. 

Big Shift

The moves amount to what many see as a “transformational shift” for the EU, said Steven Blockmans, director of research at the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank. 

“The eternal peace project is now involved in reimbursing member states or using EU structures for the lethal aid they’re sending to Ukraine,” Blockmans said, adding that in contrast to NATO, it’s not seen as escalatory because “Russia has simply not taken the EU seriously as a military actor.”

Various training efforts for Ukrainian soldiers have already been underway, including by the US and the UK. The UK has been joined by countries including Canada and Sweden to offer thousands of Ukrainian soldiers basic training over the coming months. The Netherlands and Germany have also jointly trained Ukrainian soldiers on use of the Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers.

Ukraine Should Be Free to Hit Targets in Russia, Latvia Says

The EU’s military assistance mission for Ukraine is led by Vice Admiral Herve Blejean and will provide individual, collective and specialized training for up to 15,000 troops. Despite initial pushback from Poland, the training for around one third of the soldiers will also be conducted in Germany. 

Under the European Peace Facility, member states have already agreed to finance as much as €3.1 billion in weapons deliveries for Ukraine. That’s more than half of the overall roughly €6 billion budget, which is also used to support other countries. Discussions are ongoing about how to raise that ceiling. 

Separately, the EU also agreed earlier this year to establish by 2025 a 5,000-strong force of soldiers that can deploy swiftly for crises. The response force, part of the bloc’s security strategy, was developed before Russia’s invasion.  

Despite the EU’s steps, it’s unclear how much impact these efforts will have on the war in Ukraine. 

While they may not be game-changers, the efforts are slowly and gradually helping build a European defense union, Blockmans said. 

--With assistance from Piotr Skolimowski.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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