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U.S. military may be hunkering down for COVID-19, but shooting war continues in Ukraine

For much of the U.S. military’s 72,000 troops stationed in Europe, these are days of hunkering down in an effort to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Thanks to travel bans imposed by the Pentagon and other precautions, Defender 2020 — the planned massive international exercise that included 20,000 U.S. soldiers who were meant to conduct training across 10 European countries — has been greatly scaled back. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command, estimated only about 40 percent of what was intended will be accomplished. U.S. Army Europe officials, however, anticipate the armored brigade combat team already deployed to Europe will conduct gunnery and other combined training events with Allies as part of a modified Allied Spirit exercise.

“With this decision, we continue to preserve the readiness of our force while maximizing our efforts to advance our alliances and partnerships,” according an email to Military Times from the Army Europe media desk.

Still, most other U.S. training exercises on the continent and around the globe have been scaled back or cancelled.

But all is not quiet in Europe.

Especially on Ukraine’s eastern front, where Russians are attacking Ukraine forces on land, from the air and on the water, Ukraine military officials tell Military Times.

Overall, between March 4 and March 24, there were 10 Russian troops killed and 46 wounded, while Ukraine saw 4 of its troops killed and 24 wounded, according to a Ukraine military PowerPoint presentation obtained by Military Times.

“In general, the enemy continued to use heavy weapons, mortars, and anti-tank missile systems,” according to that presentation. “A total 170 shellings were counted, 84 of which were with forbidden weapons. The intensity of the fire remained quite high.”

In addition, “the enemy used 443 mines.”

The situation in the areas of troops disengagement — near the towns of Stanytsa, Luganska, Zolote and Bogdanivka Petrivske — remains under control of Ukraine military forces, according to the PowerPoint.

But on March 10, and from March 13 to 19, “provocative shellings" were carried out "within the PETRIVSKE area of disengagement,” according to the PowerPoint presentation.

In addition, Russian forces used snipers, anti-tank guided missiles and increased its intensity of UAV use, according to the PowerPoint.

“In particular, the enemy increased air reconnaissance efforts by employing a UAV operational-tactical level” in an area where a Russian motorized infantry battalion is set up, according to the PowerPoint. “In total there were 8 sorties of the ‘Orlan’ type UAVs noted. In the Mariupol direction, the enemy once again used attack UAVs” on Ukrainian military equipment.

A medical vehicle was damaged by a grenade dropped from one of the drones, the presentation added.

On the water, a Ukrainian patrol boat recently repelled Russian naval vessels “using dangerous maneuvers to try to intimidate the Ukrainian vessel in international waters in the Black Sea,” according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.

Officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A two-day tactical Coast Defense Training took place in February at one of the training grounds in the area of the Joint Forces Operation. Photo courtesy the Ukraine Ministry of Defense.
A two-day tactical Coast Defense Training took place in February at one of the training grounds in the area of the Joint Forces Operation. Photo courtesy the Ukraine Ministry of Defense.

Meanwhile, just as the U.S. military is trying to cope with COVID-19 — with more than 300 service members testing positive — Ukraine forces are fighting both a shooting war and the virus.

The Kyiv Post reported that the number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ukraine has reached 356 as of the evening of March 28, according to the health ministry, with the number of deaths rising to nine people, and cases increasing by 45 in the last day.

The U.S provided Ukraine more than $1.2 million in medical and humanitarian aid for the fight against coronavirus, the Embassy of Ukraine in the United States posted on Facebook recently. The assistance will be spent on “the preparation of laboratory systems, the detection of disease, the provision of technical assistance in responding to and raising awareness about the risks of the spread of Covid-19.”

The transfers will start on April 3.

But Ukraine is also turning to China for help.

On March 23, a Ukrainian Air Force transport aircraft delivered a shipment of coronavirus infection tests and kits from China needed for combating the spread of COVID-19.

“This is the first medical cargo from China and several more flights are to come,” according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. “Moreover, International defence cooperation was focused to direct its efforts to review current priorities and to place health and lives of the personnel on the top. The Minister of Defence and his Deputies personally contact their vis-a-vis in partner countries and international organisations in order to swiftly align multinational plans in response to the rapidly emerging new threat.”

In its effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Ukraine’s military is taking steps similar to the U.S. military, which on Friday began planning for a call-up of ready reserve forces to active duty status.

In addition, the Army sent out an email to more than 800,000 former soldiers with specific medical skills to see who might want to return to duty. The response was overwhelming.

In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the world and in Ukraine in particular, the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine similarly reached out to retired military personnel, volunteers and concerned citizens who have relevant experience in the medical field, as well as medical students and interns with a call for joint activities to tackle cases of coronavirus infection.

“All these extensive efforts are being undertaken under conditions that the Armed Forces of Ukraine remain the key element to deter the ongoing Russian aggression and to ensure security in the Black Sea and the Azov area,” according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.

The coronavirus-induced slowdown of U.S. and NATO military operations comes as Ukraine’s new defense minister looks to increase his armed forces’ ability to shoot, move and communicate with NATO.

MOD Andrii Taran’s 2020 objective is “to maximize the ability of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to interoperate with (NATO) as well as expedite technological modernization using the latest technologies and building the thought-out weapon development program,” according to the Ukraine Ministry of Defense.

He also stressed that this can be achieved only with the help and assistance from the NATO strategic partners.

“The ultimate goal of Ukraine is to return all its temporarily occupied territories, stop Russian military aggression and restore international order and peace, crudely violated for the first time since 1945,” according to the Ukraine Ministry of Defense.

“Today nobody but NATO is capable to help Ukraine to achieve this.”

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