British troops perform largest parachute drop for decades ‘to show solidarity’ with Ukraine

Hundreds of British paratroopers have jumped into Ukraine, alongside soldiers from the army’s elite Pathfinder unit, for an exercise close to the border with Crimea.

The soldiers, from the UK global response force 16 Air Assault Brigade, are exercising with Ukrainian airborne forces at a time of increased tension in the region.

Sky News received rare access to the Pathfinders as they practised covert insertion techniques.

Pathfinders are trained to parachute behind enemy lines, often jumping from high altitude to glide across borders or opening their chutes below radar. Operating in small teams, they insert into hostile zones days ahead of the main force to secure territory.

They operate in secret and many also serve in the SAS, so one senior Pathfinders Commander spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Our role is to deploy ahead of the main body in order to conduct reconnaissance of likely drop zones, helicopter landing sites and tactical landing zones and then report that information back,” they told us.

“What we’re really there to do is provide that ground truth and a level of detail that you can’t get from anything other than having a man on the ground.”

“We covertly insert, most likely at night, to remain undetected by the enemy.”

“Our selection process (finds) mentally robust individuals that can keep going when situations become difficult but what really sets us apart from normal infantry is our ability to operate at reach.”

The UK operates a separate training mission for Ukrainian forces near Kyiv. Operation Orbital has trained thousands of Ukrainian soldiers since the Russia annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The joint exercise is being seen as a deliberate show of solidarity with Ukraine and a message of strength in a region on the edge. A senior Ukrainian general, Yevhan Moysiuk, said the threat from Russia is growing:

“It’s becoming stronger now that Russia is trying to deploy large battle groups along the Ukraine border on a permanent basis,” General Moysiuk said.

“The main message for Russia is that the UK is our true and reliable partner who help us in our hardship. The UK is ready to stand up to Russian aggression with us.”

Ukraine and Russia are still fighting in the east of the country and unrest continues in neighbouring Belarus after last month’s disputed election.

Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko claims NATO is massing troops on his country’s border.

Although NATO has forcefully denied this, the image of hundreds of British troops parachuting into eastern Ukraine and close to the Crimea border won’t go unnoticed in Minsk or Moscow.

“It’s always in our DNA to deploy anywhere in the world at short notice,” the senior British Commander in Ukraine said.

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“We’re certainly not here to be provocative, that is not our intent at all. But we always take into account everything that might be said or interpreted, and it is a calibrated posture I think.

“It is very much in our interest to maintain the stability of the Black Sea region. We want to be clear but we’re not being provocative.”

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