YAVORIV, Ukraine - US paratroopers Monday began training Ukrainian government forces who will fight pro-Russian separatists in the east, angering Moscow as the deadly conflict rumbles on in the ex-Soviet country.
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko welcomed troops from the US 173rd Airborne Brigade in a rain-soaked ceremony at a military base in Yavoriv, western Ukraine, to launch Operation Fearless Guardian.
"We are the eyewitnesses and direct participants in forming the new Ukrainian military, which like the phoenix is rising again after years of decline," Poroshenko told the assembled troops.
"This is not only a war for the independence of Ukraine, but also a war for freedom and democracy in Europe and the whole world." Officials said some 300 US troops will train 900 members of Ukraine's National Guard, which is deployed in the east where heavy artillery fire can still be heard despite a February ceasefire.
The United Nations says more than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the past year and more than a million civilians have been displaced.
US Army Major Michael Weisman told AFP the mission would provide training in individual and medical skills and defence manoeuvres with the kind of weapons already used by the Ukrainian forces such as AK-47 assault rifles.
As the US brigade arrived in Ukraine last week from its base in Italy, Russia warned the move could "destabilise" Ukraine and said it was a step towards the United States arming Ukraine.
The United States is one of Ukraine's biggest backers in a conflict that has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Washington has sent $75 million (S$101 million) worth of non-lethal military aid to Kiev, but has so far held off from supplying arms.
US troops have trained with Ukrainian forces in the past, but it is the first time Washington has trained members of Ukraine's recently re-formed National Guard.
"They are going to teach us all they know, from individual preparation to more difficult things such as shooting, communication between units and planning operations," said Oleksandr Poroniuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian army.
Britain has also deployed personnel to Ukraine to train government forces, in a mission that ministers said would involve up to 75 trainers at a time. Canada announced last week it would also send 200 trainers in the summer.
"It is the first time that joint exercises of such scale and content have been carried out in Ukraine," Poroshenko said.
"I am sure that the exercises we are launching here today will be effective in reinforcing and stabilising the situation."
Alleged Russian arms deliveries
Kiev and the West have said there is mounting evidence Russia is arming separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine and is sending troops to fight alongside them. Russia, however, has repeatedly denied this.
On Monday Ukrainian army spokesman Adriy Lysenko said shelling in the east eased on Sunday, but intelligence services had detected scores of vehicles bringing arms into eastern Ukraine from Russia over recent days.
Moscow accuses the United States of backing the uprising that preceded the ousting of Ukraine's former pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych in February last year. Moscow subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula.
France and Germany brokered a ceasefire agreement in February but European OSCE observers in eastern Ukraine say exchanges of artillery fire have continued over recent weeks.
On Monday however, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said monitors had brokered a truce in one flashpoint village, Shyrokyne, near the strategic government-held city of Mariupol.
"This truce seems to be holding," Zannier told AFP during a visit to Lithuania.
"There is a good chance for peace at this moment and we need to invest as much as we can in this. But there is always a risk of relapse in the conflict."