MODERATOR: Good afternoon or good morning from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. Today we are very honored to be joined by John Kirby, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and Pentagon Press Secretary.
With that, let’s get started. Assistant Secretary Kirby, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: Thank you, Justin, and it’s great to be with you guys, and I’m really excited to do this. I’ll keep it short because I know we don’t have a lot of time and your questions are important to us as well.
I will just cover quickly three things. One, what we’re seeing in the situation from where we sit here in Washington in terms of Ukraine; obviously, we believe that the Russians have made now a decision to focus their efforts on the Donbas and in the south, the east and the south of Ukraine, and we have seen them now begin to move and to try to refit and resupply units that they had in Kyiv or around Kyiv and in Chernihiv and elsewhere in the north, moved them into Belarus, moved them into Russia, and are beginning to now re-form these units for additional operations in the east and in the south of Ukraine.
We also have seen early indications of a resupply in command and control efforts inside the Donbas, a convoy of vehicles coming down from Russia into north of Izium. We believe that this is an effort to, again, reinforce their firepower, but also to try to make up for some of the logistics and sustainment problems that they had in their previous attempts in the north of Ukraine. So we are beginning to see tangible representations of their reprioritization of the fight in the east and the south. And of course, you don’t need me to tell you this, but the Ukrainians are – continue to bravely defend themselves from this renewed focus in the east and the south by the Russians.
And we’re – and that brings me to number two. We’re going to keep doing everything we can to get the Ukrainians the support that they need to better defend themselves. We are just days away from completing the most recent drawdown authority that President Biden gave us at the Department of Defense. One was for $800 million. The other was for $100 million. So we’re closing in on yet another billion that we’re getting into the hands of the Ukrainians, and we think by the middle of this month both of those packages will be complete. I would remind that the last one, the 100 million, was dedicated solely to Javelin anti-armor tank – anti-armor systems, and we’re very close to completing that shipment as well.
Secretary Austin had a chance on Sunday to say goodbye to a small number of Ukrainian soldiers that were doing some training in the United States; they had been here since the holidays under a long-scheduled professional military education and training program. But we took the advantage while they were here to give them a little bit of training on the Switchblade unmanned aerial system, which I think you’re all familiar with, that is part of that $800 million that the President signed out a couple of weeks ago.
And so, they have now been trained on that system, and they flew back to Ukraine over the weekend. But the Secretary had a chance over a VTC (video teleconference) to thank them and to wish them our very best as they went back to helping defend their country and their citizens. And he also wanted to know how they felt the training went, and he was gratified to hear that they were pleased by what they were trained on, not just in terms of Switchblade but other things.
So we are continuing to try to get the Ukrainians the systems and the weapons that they need and that they’re using most effectively. We’re continuingly to have conversations with them at all levels, all the way from the Secretary down to lower levels at the department, on – many times a week about their needs and doing the best we can to fill them. And it’s not just us. The United States has provided a lot; we’ve provided, just since the Biden administration, more than $2.5 billion worth of security assistance, both weapons and ammunition – millions and tens of millions of rounds of small arms ammunition which the Ukrainians continue to say they really need as well as non-lethal items – body armor, first aid kits, food and fuel, that kind of thing.
And it’s not just us. There’s more than 30 other nations are contributing various amounts of material, some weapons, some not, some a mix. And we are helping coordinate the deliveries into Ukraine of all that material, not just ours but of others at various transshipment sites in the region. And that flow continues. There’s roughly eight to ten flights a day coming into these transshipment sites from all over the world, and that stuff is not sitting around in warehouses. We’re helping get it on pallets and helping it get on trucks and helping it get into Ukraine. Every single day there are things flowing into Ukraine, and so we’re going to stay committed to that. President Biden has said we’re going to do as much as we can as fast as we can, and I can assure you that the Department of Defense is committed to that.
And then lastly, we’re also committed to our NATO Allies, and I think you’ve seen that. I mean, we are doing everything we can to help bolster the defenses on NATO’s eastern flank. Before the invasion we had roughly 80,000 American troops in Europe, based – both permanently based as well as rotationally based, there temporarily. We are now up over 100,000 American troops on the continent – again, a mix of permanent based and some on temporary orders.
And we have not ruled out, nor will we rule out, the possibility of sending additional troops and capabilities to NATO’s eastern flank if that’s something that our NATO Allies desire and need and want. We are staying open-minded about that. In fact, just a week or so ago we added some additional aircraft, some additional strike fighter aircraft, particularly out of the Marine Corps. They were in Norway for an exercise, and we let some of those Marines go back home and others we kept in the region for that exact purpose, to contribute to NATO air placing efforts. So it’s something we’re looking at every day.
We know that regardless of when and how this war ends, the security environment in Europe has changed – not is changing, has changed. We understand that. And so we’re going to be having active discussions going forward with our allies and partners about what the appropriate American posture needs to look like in Europe for the long term. Right now it’s up over 100,000. Right now it’s a mix of permanent based troops and rotational troops. And we’re going to continue to look at that to make sure it’s right.
But going forward long term, we are willing to have discussions with allies and partners about what the proper U.S. footprint ought to be on the European continent because we know, again, the security environment has changed, and we want to be able to make sure that we can meet that environment in, again, consultation and coordination with our allies and partners.
And so with that, I’ll shut up and we’ll take some questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you very much. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. Our first question was emailed to us from Dmytro Shkurko with the National News Agency of Ukraine. His question is: “Ukrainians value very much military assistance from the U.S. and other NATO Allies. But there is an open question: What is the end goal of the U.S. in Ukraine? Just to let the country survive, or enable it to prevail in this war? And what could the end of this war look like, taking into account that there are clear signs of a Nazi state rising in Russia?”
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: Yeah, those are great questions. I would tell you flat out, and we’ve said this many times, we want Ukraine to win. We want Ukraine to define victory. We want to give Ukraine every chance we can to help them defend themselves against this unprovoked invasion by Russia. That – we’ve been very clear about that. And that is why Secretary Austin speaks so often to Minister Reznikov. That is why we are doing everything we can, as I said in my opening statement, to continue to flow in systems that we know the Ukrainians need and are using very, very effectively on their own. And that is why we’re also working so hard with allies and partners to coordinate the delivery of other things that they have that we don’t have that we know the Ukrainians can use. So we very much want Ukraine to win, and we’ve been very, very open about that.
As for what the end of the war could look like, I don’t know that anybody can know that right now. I could tell you what the United States wants it to look like. We want it to look like a Ukraine that is whole and sovereign and fully respected and has a chance to rebuild, with – obviously, with help from the international community. But we want all of Ukraine’s territory to be respected. We want all of Ukraine’s sovereignty to be observed. And we want to see the Russians no longer inside Ukraine.
But how that – how we get there, I mean, that’s also a question for Mr. Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian Government. We certainly respect his leadership and the leadership of his cabinet as well as his military. And we know that they – that we have to respect their ability to fight this war in the way they see fit, and that we have to respect their ability to define the end of this war in the way they see fit what’s best for the Ukrainian people.
So what victory looks like in terms of practical sense and actual physical outcomes, that is something that Mr. Zelenskyy has to determine, and we respect his ability to do that. We are not – certainly in no position, nor would we think of us being in a position to dictate specific terms of what that victory looks like for Mr. Zelenskyy. What we want to do is do everything we can to give him the ability to make those determinations on his own, and to do so credibly and strongly. Leave it at that.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Iurii Sheiko with Deutsche Welle’s Russian Service. Please go ahead, Iurii.
MODERATOR: Hey, Iurii, we’ve got a garble. Can you try again?
MODERATOR: Yeah. Sorry. Unfortunately, the audio isn’t very good. Maybe you can try dialing in and we’ll get back to you.
Let’s go to Jonas Grönvik in Sweden. Please go ahead, Jonas.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Mr. Kirby. If Sweden would apply for NATO membership, would the U.S. provide any military security guarantees to Sweden during the application process?
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: Look, I don’t want to get ahead on hypotheticals here, sir. Obviously, a decision to join NATO is a sovereign decision, and it’s between that nation’s government and the Alliance. And the United States would respect, and must respect, those sovereign decisions and of course the Alliance decisions that go along with it in that conversation. And I don’t want to speculate about security assistance proposals that we – that aren’t before us at this time. So I think you can understand, we want to be respectful of Sweden’s decision-making here and don’t want to, in an inappropriate way, influence that decision-making one way or the other.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you for that. We have a QUESTION from the chat from Marek Świerczyński with Polytika Insight in Poland. His – he’s got a question here about weapons systems: “What is the current status of the U.S. Patriot System deployments in NATO eastern flank countries? And can it become heel-to-toe rotational and during permanent or whatever term applies?” And then he also asks: “Poland is currently said to have been transferring its T‑72 tanks to Ukraine with no formal confirmation given. Are there any talks with DOD about potentially gap-filling those with whatever U.S. armor capability is available apart from an already-announced Abrams procurement?”
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: Yeah. So on the Patriots, I want to be careful here about our own operation security, so I’m going to refrain from talking about their locations and all the details about their operational status. I would just tell you we have – we, the United States, have – we have several Patriot batteries in Europe. I think – we’ve already been very open and public about two that we have now sent into Poland. We are comfortable with the operational capability of these air defense systems. They are very reliable and very effective air defense systems, and we remain comfortable in their ability to do the job that they are intended to do.
And I think as for how long and heel-to-toe, I mean, these are decisions that we make in consultation with host nations and not unilaterally. So again, it depends on the battery, it depends on how long a battery has been deployed, about whether or not we have to get it back home for a refit. So each one is different, but the presence of them anywhere in Europe is always done in close consultation with the host nation.
And again, I don’t want to get ahead of individual decisions on individual batteries. We have several. We are comfortable with their operational capability and their effectiveness. And they are – as we have proven, can be moved around, and we certainly would want to maintain that flexibility as we look at ways of bolstering NATO’s eastern flank. But I have no decisions with respect to potential redeployments inside Europe or outside Europe at this time.
On the tanks, I’m not going to speak for another nation. I would say the same thing I said earlier: The provision of security assistance to Ukraine, whether that be large systems like armored vehicles or whether that’s small systems like small arms ammunition – and again, I don’t know if I mentioned this, but tens of millions of rounds, we and our allies – tens of millions of rounds – have provided to Ukrainian armed forces in terms of small arms ammunition. And that is something they routinely tell us they really need, and it is having a – it’s not – it doesn’t grab the headlines that tanks and airplanes and Javelin missiles grab, but it is very vital to the fight and we are contributing to that.
As for the reports about Poland, I would let the Poles speak for themselves on this. Again, these are sovereign nation-state decisions, and it’s not for the United States to speak for another nation and what they have decided that they are willing – or unwilling; it depends on the issue – to give to Ukraine. It’s for them to speak to, and I’m certainly not going to get ahead of any one nation in terms of what they’re willing to provide. And I think – the only thing I’d add to that is I think you all know that the Poles are interested, that they are purchasing M1 Abrams tanks, and that was an issue for discussion when Secretary Austin was in Poland recently, talking to the defense minister about their participation in that program. We’re excited about it. We know that the Poles are excited about it. It’s a terrific armored capability, and we look forward to working with them going forward on future deliveries of the Abrams tank. And I think I’ll leave it at that.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. The next question comes to us from Naomi O’Leary. Please go ahead with your question. I’ve opened your mic.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Naomi O’Leary, Irish Times. Could I ask your assessment, please? Could you tell us anything you can about your expectations for the readiness of the Russian side for the fresh assault that’s being talked about? It seems that ambitions in Kyiv really fell short, and there’s been warnings of a very terrible advance. But is the capacity really there to take more territory? Thanks very much.
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: Well, look, I think that it’s important to remember, namely, that the Ukrainians clearly get a vote here, and they are – they have been fighting over the Donbas now, as you know, for eight years. They continue to fight over that part of Ukraine. President Zelenskyy has made it very clear that there is no inch of Ukrainian territory that he is willing to give up, and the Ukrainians are in fact very bravely, as we speak, defending their territory in the Donbas region.
But your question really gets to capacity for the Russians. With the caveat that we don’t have perfect visibility into Russian planning or intentions or their movements on any given day, I would just say a couple of big, broad things. We still assess that the Russians have the vast majority of the combat power that they assembled over the course of the fall and into the winter before they invaded – they amassed more than 120 battalion tactical groups, literally dozens and dozens of combat aircraft, more than a thousand tanks. They had assembled a vast array of military capability to prepare for this invasion, and we still assess that, in general, they still have the vast majority of that available to them. So they have an awful lot of firepower.
Now, you’re right; they didn’t achieve their strategic objectives in Kyiv. They didn’t achieve their objectives around Chernihiv and elsewhere in the north. And even in the south, where they achieved some early success, the Ukrainians pushed them back and they have not – they have kind of stalled in the south. And so now they’re going to reprioritize in the east and the south, too, but mostly to the east in the Donbas. And we see already early signs that they are shifting some of that amassed power. They’re concentrated now on the Donbas. And you heard Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley last week, I think, said it better than I can, that because now they are going to take that incredible amount of combat power that they still have available to them and concentrate it now in a smaller geographic region – the Donbas and in the south – there is a potential for the fighting to get much more intense and perhaps even prolonged.
In the past, they had been dividing their forces on three main lines of axis: the north, east, and the south. Now they’re concentrating almost everything on the east. And so it remains to be seen how successful they will actually be. We just don’t know. But there is the potential for the fighting to get much more intense because it is in a more confined area, and because the Russians now will be able to take – instead of spreading their forces out, concentrating them now. So we all – we have to be prepared for this to be fairly prolonged and potentially even more bloody. We don’t say that with any cheer at all, of course.
But again, I want to go back to what I said before: The Ukrainians have been fighting for eight years over this part of their country, they continue to fight even as you and I speak, and they are clearly willing to keep that fight up in the face of a more concentrated Russian effort to try to occupy that territory. And that is why the United States is doing everything we can to accelerate and to expand the kinds of security assistance we are providing the Ukrainians. I talked about the nearly 1 billion that we’re getting ready to finish out here in provisions by the middle of this month, but I didn’t – I neglected to talk about the speed with which we’re getting it there because we know time is of the essence here as the Russians concentrate and reprioritize the east.
And that is why that last $100 million was devoted to one thing and one thing only, and that was Javelin anti-armor systems because we know in a confined space like that against armored vehicles that we know the Russians are going to try to apply, those Javelin anti-armor systems can be very, very deadly effective. And so a whole $100 million was designed just for that system.
And I would tell you that President Biden has made it very clear we’re going to continue to look for ways to assist them, and with an eye, I would add – that assistance will be done with an eye towards what’s going on in the Donbas and the focus of the Russians on that – on the east. As you look at what we do in the future, I’d ask you to look at it with an eye towards that, that we are focused on that immediate treat and the fight that is immediately before the Ukrainians, and we are mindful of the time.
It takes – it has taken, in some of these shipments, some of these major packages – in fact, the last two – from the time the President signs out an authority, like on that $800 million package, to the time some of that stuff actually gets into Ukrainian hands, we have shortened that down to between four to six days, which I’ve been – I was in the Navy for 30 years; I’ve been at the Pentagon for almost 15 straight; I can tell you that that is an unprecedented speed of getting stuff literally from the time President Biden signs it out into the Ukrainians’ hands. Now, that doesn’t go for every shipment, but we have been able to reach that level of speed. And I can assure you that we are focused on speed going forward as well.
MODERATOR: Great. We have time for one final question, and that will go to Harold Hyman with CNEWS in France. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Am I unmuted?
MODERATOR: Yes. We can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Yes. I was wondering about what is going on in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov since the assault, the naval assault, on Odessa never really happened but is always about to happen, and there is some NATO naval presence – Romanian, Bulgarian, Turkish. So what is the movement around there? It seems sort of ominously quiet.
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: Yeah, that’s a great question, sir. So just let me – broadly speaking, the Russians have nearly two dozen ships in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov if you combine in all. It changes from day to day, but that’s about what they’ve got there, about 20 or so. In the Sea of Azov, they’ve got – it looks like they’ve got five right now, a mix of minesweepers and surface combatants. We believe that much of the activity in the Sea of Azov has been and continues to be a focus on supporting their efforts in the south, particularly their efforts to try to take Mariupol. You saw a week or so ago the Ukrainians literally sank one of their LSTs at the pier in Berdiansk. That LST, that amphibious landing ship, was designed to resupply. It was full of supplies for Russian troops; the Ukrainians sank it pierside. And we believe their efforts in the Sea of Azov continue to be of that mind, to try to support forces ashore.
In the Black Sea proper, most of their ships that are at sea are in the northern Black Sea, roughly south of Odessa but kind of scattered all around. They’re not all like grouped together. We also believe that these ships are also there to support Russian efforts on the ground, but it’s not direct support the way you see it in the Sea of Azov. They have been using these ships to launch cruise missiles into the Donbas region, and we suspect that that will continue as well, so long-range fires, largely from the sea.
We have not seen, and frankly never did see, a concerted effort by the Russian Navy to make an amphibious assault on Odessa. You might recall early on they made an amphibious assault near Berdiansk, just to the southwest of Berdiansk on an unoccupied stretch of beach because they wanted to make sure that they weren’t opposed. They used four amphibious ships to do that, several hundred naval infantry that they used to then move on Berdiansk and then beyond.
We have not seen that same level of effort or intention south of Odessa, and we’re not exactly sure why that is. But there’s some – some analysts here believe that part of it is because they – because of – they’re worried about mines, sea mines off Odessa. They have blockaded Odessa from an economic perspective, but they haven’t moved on it militarily, we think because of the mines; also because we believe that was one of the reasons they wanted to take Mykolaiv was to assault Odessa both from the sea and from the – and from shore. And they weren’t able – the Russians were never able to take Mykolaiv. We thought that one of the things they were going to try to do was take Mykolaiv and then make a left turn, head down to Odessa along the coast, and have them – and have that meet up with an amphibious assault, which again they never took Mykolaiv, and so we think that that stymied some of their interest and ability to want to think about an amphibious assault on Odessa.
And then lastly, and we’ve said this before, I mean, one thing that may be at play here is just keep posing a threat to Odessa. And you’ve seen that Odessa has in fact come under some missile strikes in recent days. Maybe – maybe; again, we don’t know for sure – but maybe this is an effort to pin Ukrainian forces down in the south near Odessa so that they cannot come – or the Ukrainians wouldn’t feel comfortable letting them lead to come to the assistance of Ukrainian forces further to the east, either in Mariupol or up in the Donbas.
So it could be – could be – a feint, an ability to try to portend and to proffer that there’s going to be some sort of amphibious assault or military activity on Odessa, again, just to pin the Ukrainians down. We’re not 100 percent sure, but we haven’t seen anything in the northern Black Sea that gives us a sense that there is some sort of imminent amphibious assault in the offing for Odessa right now.
That was a long answer. I don’t know if that scratched your itch.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, sir. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today. Thanks to all the reporters on the line for your questions, and thank you, Assistant Secretary Kirby, for joining us.
Before we close the call, I’d like to see if Assistant Secretary Kirby has any final remarks for this group.
REAR ADMIRAL KIRBY: No. Thanks very much, Justin, and I really appreciate doing this. I hope I can do I don’t again in the future. Assuming that there’s interest in it, I would very much like to do it. When I served at the State Department, I enjoyed doing these calls, and so I got to tell you, it’s a little bit like coming home and I miss it. And if I can do it again, I’d be happy to do it. And I thought the questions were terrific, and I wish – I only wish I had more time to spend with you.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, we’d absolutely love to have you back, sir.
Very shortly we’ll be sending the audio recording of this briefing to all the participating journalists, and then we will provide a transcript as soon as it becomes available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call.