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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainian Force Readies for Gulf

APA soldier wearing a protective suit and a gas mask during exercises Friday in Kalyniv.
KALYNIV, Ukraine -- Shielded by airtight suits and gas masks, a Ukrainian anti-chemical weapons unit prepared to head to the Persian Gulf, where it would stand by to help neutralize the effects of a potential Iraqi offensive against neighboring countries.

During a 40-minute demonstration by the 531-man volunteer anti-chemical weapons force Friday, its deputy commander, Lieutenant General Valery Frolov, described its ability to help save civilians and decontaminate areas where chemical, bacteriological or nuclear weapons might be used.

Ukraine's 19th Army Battalion has trained for four months and is "ready to launch into action wherever and whenever the order comes," Frolov said.

That could be soon. The battalion is awaiting parliament's go-ahead before leaving its base in this sleepy village some 620 kilometers west of Kiev for Kuwait. Officials have said the decision could come as early as next week.

Some of Frolov's troops have been UN peacekeepers, but none of them -- most are in their 20s -- has ever conducted a real decontamination operation or seen combat. Most have never been in a desert.

But wartime dangers and extreme conditions haven't dampened their dedication to their mission.

"There's no talk of going or not going, they're in high spirits," said Field Commander Yury Onysiuk, 29.

Yet no one denies that the mission is risky.

"Only fools aren't scared," said Oleksandr Shubarov, 27. "I volunteered because I wanted to help, we know what Chernobyl was like."

The force's Chernobyl experience -- some 25 of its members were involved in the cleanup after the deadly 1986 nuclear accident in Ukraine -- qualify it to assist in potential nuclear cleanup. And many of the chemicals they expect to face were developed by the Soviet Union.

"We know what we're up against," Shubarov said.

President Leonid Kuchma offered last month to deploy the force at Washington's request -- part of a bid by Kiev to mend ties badly frayed by U.S. suspicion that Kuchma approved the sale of radar systems to Iraq in 2000.

Ukraine's government says it cannot fund the mission, which officials estimate could cost up to $1 million a month, and the United States is expected to help fund the force if it gets a green light from parliament.

"If Ukraine seeks U.S. assistance, we're ready to help," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Pat Guy said by telephone from Kiev.

Each soldier would receive a monthly salary of $600 to $1,000 if they don't participate in decontamination work and double that if they do, the army said in a statement. Either way, it's several times the average wage in Ukraine.

If the battalion goes to the Gulf, its members will have to sweat for their pay. The sweltering heat and sand storms British and American troops endure while training in Kuwait contrast starkly with the freezing temperatures and snowstorms the Ukrainians have trained in.

But soldiers downplayed concerns about the desert heat.

"We're prepared for all climates," said lab technician Mykola Ilnytskyi, 26, who wore a rubber-coated suit that he conceded was "quite hot."

Asked where he preferred to deploy his force, Frolov replied, "Florida."