WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. troops will begin training regular Ukrainian military forces later this year in an expansion of their current mission, which so far has been limited to instructing Interior Ministry national guard units, the State Department said on Friday.
"This training is part of our long-running defense cooperation with Ukraine and is taking place at the invitation of the Ukraine government. This additional program brings our total security assistance committed to Ukraine since 2014 to over $244 million," State Department Mark Toner said.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said earlier this month that U.S. officials were discussing expanding the military training to include regular Ukrainian troops under the Defense Ministry.
The training is part of U.S. efforts to strengthen Ukraine's security following Russia's seizure of the Crimea last year and the spread of separatist unrest in eastern, Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine.
Hodges said officials were looking at training army and special operations troops, likely focusing on skills like tactics and combat medicine. He said the expanded training mission did not mean the administration would be providing Ukraine with lethal arms.
The United States has provided Ukrainian forces with non-lethal aid to help them battle Russian-backed rebels, but the administration has resisted providing lethal arms in hopes of preventing an escalation of the conflict.
Some U.S. officials have called for giving Ukraine more sophisticated counter-battery radar to help them fight back against artillery and mortar fire from the rebels.
Toner said he had nothing to announce on any new weapons for Ukraine and that the focus was on providing non-lethal aid.
"There's no plan to change that," he said.
He said the training would begin in western Ukraine near the Polish border later this autumn. The Pentagon said the training offered to regular Ukrainian military troops would be similar to that given to the national guard forces.
U.S. forces in Europe have been training the Ukrainian guard since this spring, focusing on strengthening internal defense capabilities.
(Reporting by David Alexander and Bill Trott; Editing by Bernard Orr)