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Rapid Trident 20 exercise kicks off in Ukraine with fewer US troops than last year

The U.S. has slashed the number of troops participating in an annual multinational training with Ukraine by more than half compared to last year.

More than 4,000 troops from nine participating countries will participate in the U.S. Army Europe-led Exercise Rapid Trident 20 taking place Sept. 16-25 at the International Peacekeeping Security Centre near Yavoriv, Ukraine. Rapid Trident 20 will include a brigade-level command post exercise and limited platoon-level tactical training. The exercise aims to enhance security cooperation and coordination between the U.S., Ukraine, and other partner nations.

While this year’s exercise has hundreds more troops in total than the 3,700 that conducted Rapid Trident 19, the number of U.S. participants is less than half of the 375 U.S. Army soldiers and civilians who participated last year. Approximately 175 U.S. Army military and civilian personnel are supporting Rapid Trident 20, including 160 Illinois National Guard soldiers from the Task Force Illini, 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The members of Task Force Illini are currently deployed to western Ukraine to support the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U). They will continue to support the Ukrainian military’s training center in Yavoriv by providing observer coach/trainer services to Ukrainians and assisting with operations planning before returning to Illinois in spring 2021.

The National Guard has a long-standing training partnership with Ukraine that dates back to 1993, when the inaugural State Partnership Program assigned the California National Guard to develop closer military ties with the post-Soviet state. The Rapid Trident exercises have been a key part of that partnership for more than twenty years.

Additionally, Rapid Trident and other similar multinational efforts in Ukraine have become more important since the ouster of pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych in late 2013 and the subsequent outbreak of hybrid war with Russia in 2014. According to February 2020 UN estimates, more than 13,000 people, including approximately 3,350 civilians, 4,100 Ukrainian military personnel, and 5,650 Russia-backed fighters/Russian forces have died in the stalemated ground war in the country’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia also openly occupies Crimea, which it seized by a surprise infiltration at the war’s start.

The war with Russia spurred the Ukrainian government to seek closer defense cooperation with the U.S. and NATO militaries. U.S. European Command partnered with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense in 2015 to establish the JMTG-U and the training center in Yavoriv in order to facilitate the Ukrainian Ground Forces' transition from Soviet-style tactics and doctrine to NATO-aligned methods of fighting.

Ukraine has also sought NATO and EU membership as part of their post-Yanukovych turn to the West. While the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who won election over incumbent Petro Poroshenko in mid-2019, has thrown the latter into doubt, NATO integration has continued. In June of this year, NATO formally upgraded Ukraine’s standing with the alliance to Enhanced Opportunities Partner, joining Georgia, Sweden, Finland, Jordan, and Australia. The new status signals the alliance’s commitment to collaborating with Ukraine to counter the rising Russian threat in the region, and some analysts believe full NATO membership could result from a prolonged relationship as close partners. NATO and Ukrainian cooperation to counter Russia also aligns with the U.S. Army’s new doctrinal focus on large-scale combat operations.

The 10-day training exercise traditionally takes place in the summer and was originally slated for July. In March, U.S. Army Europe and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense decided to suspend this year’s Rapid Trident due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts and restrictions. They resumed planning in July before rescheduling the exercise to mid-September.

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