American military instructors are training Ukrainian forces.
The training program is dubbed "Fearless Guardian," according to Reuters, and is focused on defensive skills. The U.S. isn't alone -- British, Canadian and Polish instructors have taken Ukrainian forces under their wings as well, said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.
"The issue of Ukraine's independence is particularly powerful for Poland," Farnsworth said. "Historically, it has great reason to fear Russian incursions into the region."
A relatively large number of Ukrainian-Canadians and Ukrainian-Americans also make the issue important to Canada and United States, Farnsworth said.
Though this training is more hands-on involvement than the U.S. previously provided, it's mostly a way to maintain the status quo, said Mayia Shulga, associate professor of political science at Lone Star College-CyFair.
"I would not call this an escalation, but rather a very clear sign of continuation of a stalemated conflict, without a well-worked-out strategic plan," Shulga said. "So far, neither Russia nor the U.S. have indicated willingness to back down from getting involved in Ukraine, but they also have not committed to an open confrontation or escalation. The situation is open-ended enough as to allow all sides to remain entangled, without necessarily committing to a particular course of action."The training buys time while the U.S. considers a more committed course of action, and also appeases defense companies that have lobbied for contracts in Ukraine, Shulga added.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to deny the existence of Russian troops in Ukraine. Farnsworth stressed that this flies in the face of satellite images, captured Russian officers, and other indicators of a Russian military presence.
"The issue, I think, from Putin's perspective, is that Russia does not want Ukraine to become the next Poland -- a western-oriented, economically successful NATO country," Farnsworth said. "The current situation will keep Ukrainians focused enough on the east that they won't be able to make all that much progress in terms of treaties and other agreements with the west."
Though much has been made of tensions between Russia and the U.S., characterizing the conflict in such terms is an over-simplification.
"It has become popular for media and commentators to call this geopolitical stand-off on Ukraine’s territory a proxy war between Russia and the West, or Russia and the U.S.," Shulga said. "In the end, to call this conflict a proxy war would mean that we settle on a recognition that great powers, such as the U.S. and Russia, have all along instigated territorial instability in Ukraine in order to work out their competing geopolitical interests by means other than diplomacy. Here we mean the U.S. interest in NATO expansion and Russia’s opposition to NATO’s presence too close to Russia’s borders. I think the term 'proxy war' is useful to an extent, but it does not allow us to capture the full complexity of what is taking place."
Though Russia could bring more power to bear in Ukraine, leaving the area in a state of tension may be all the larger nation requires.
"If the primary goal for Russia is a weak Ukraine that is struggling to operate, the Russians may very well say mission accomplished with the status quo," Farnsworth said.
Meanwhile, the Russian military continues to cause unrest in the region as it amasses troops and weaponry near the Ukrainian border, according to Reuters.
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