Apr 19, 2022
DOD Secretary John Kirby Holds Press Briefing 4/18/22 Transcript
DOD Secretary John Kirby Holds Press Briefing 4/18/22. Read the transcript here.
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John Kirby: (00:00)
… to deepen our cooperation under the US-Philippines Alliance. Both ministers will reiterate their commitment to supporting the security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and to ensuring the alliance remains capable and based on shared values and interests. They’re also scheduled to, of course, discuss the importance of acting in unison to condemn Russian aggression and acting in solidarity with Ukraine. Finally, the Secretary will express his deepest condolences on behalf of the department for the tragic loss of life in the Philippines, in the wake of Tropical Storm Megi. I think it’s more than 100 Filipinos now have lost their lives as a result of that tropical storm. And with that, we’ll take your questions. Bob, I think you’re on the phone.
Yes. Thank you, John. On Ukraine, wondering what signs you might be seeing of an imminent escalation of the Russian offenses in the Donbas based on recent air activity or other indicators that you’re monitoring.
John Kirby: (01:06)
Bob, can you repeat that?
Yeah. What signs you might be seeing of an imminent escalation of the Russian offensive in the Donbas, based on recent airstrike activity or other things that you’re monitoring.
John Kirby: (01:24)
I would say, just kind of reset what we’ve seen over the last couple of days, and hopefully this will get at your question. We have seen the Russians continue to flow in enablers, capabilities that will help them fight in the Donbas going forward. That’s artillery, rotary, aviation, helicopter support, command and control enablers. And we do believe that they have reinforced the number of battalion tactical groups in the east and the south of Ukraine. Now, we can’t say specifically where all these battalions, these tactical groups are going, but we have seen over the last few days, they’ve added now more than 10 to what they already had there in that part of the country. Separate and distinct from that, Bob, we have continued to see the concentration of their airstrikes and artillery in the Donbas and in the south, particularly around and in Mariupol, that’s where the preponderance of their strike activity has gone.
John Kirby: (02:27)
And the fighting in Mariupol, as you guys have all seen, continues. The Ukrainians are still resisting, the city has not fallen to the Russians, but they continue to pound it from the air and through long range fires. So just over the last several days, you can continue to see the Russians are doing what we call shaping. They’re trying to set the conditions for more aggressive, more overt and larger ground maneuvers in the Donbas. But again, I would remind, this is an area of the country that has seen fighting over the last eight years. This is a terrain that both sides understand and know.
John Kirby: (03:07)
And the Ukrainians, it’s not like they ever left the Donbas and only have been racing to get there in the last few days. They have been there throughout this invasion and throughout the last eight years, and they continue you to fight very, very strongly for places in the Donbas. And we have seen indications in just the last few days that the Ukrainians not only have defended bravely, but they have been able to secure certain villages and towns in the Donbas. Travis.
Yeah. I have a question about Ukraine too, and US troops training Ukrainians on the howitzers and the radar systems. We’ve heard that that training could start this week. I’m just wondering if there are additional details, like how many US troops will be involved, where this is going to happen, some essential details like that. Or is this going to be held closely by the Pentagon [inaudible 00:04:01]
John Kirby: (04:03)
So let me back up. It is true that we believe we’ll be able to begin a process of training Ukrainian armed forces on the howitzers that will be shortly heading over. That training will occur outside of Ukraine. It’ll be more of a train the trainers kind of environment, so it’ll be a small number of Ukrainians that will be trained on the howitzers and then they’ll be reintroduced back into their country to train their colleagues. I’m not going to get into the locations. It’ll be outside of Ukraine. I’m going to refrain right now from talking about who’s going to be doing the training and exactly on what timeline.
John Kirby: (04:48)
I think as we get closer to things, we may be able to talk a little bit more about it. But there is a plan now that we are beginning to execute and we think that training can happen in the next several days. Important to remember, Travis, that while this particular system is new to the Ukrainians, they don’t use American howitzers in artillery, they understand how to use artillery and we don’t believe we’ll take very long or require much detailed training to get them up to speed on American howitzers. An artillery piece, so I’ve been told, is not unlike other artillery pieces.
John Kirby: (05:28)
The basic outlines of the system are the same. We’ll just have to get them up to speed on the particulars of our howitzers. These are 155 howitzers. The Ukrainians typically use 152, it’s a different caliber, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be overly laborious to get them up to speed on this. And I think, again, we’ll be able to get this training done, at least the first round of it, in the next several days.
And if I could just follow up, obviously the battlefield is very fluid with Mariupol and what’s happening in Donbas, but is it possible at this point in time to talk at all about how this training and this equipment, like the howitzers and the radars, could influence the battle, or what capabilities it would give Ukrainians?
John Kirby: (06:11)
The artillery is a specific item that the Ukrainians asked for because of the fighting that they expect is going to occur in the Donbas. Again, I want to remind there has been fighting there for eight years, there’s fighting there today. But the terrain lends itself to the use of artillery, to long range fires as we call it. And we know that the Russians also believe the same thing because we’re seeing them move artillery units in to the Donbas as well. And so we want to give the Ukrainians every bit of advantage that we can. They specifically asked for artillery support, and we answered that with this recent drawdown package that was just authorized on the 13th, so that was Wednesday of last week. And it’s 18 howitzers, 40,000 rounds of artillery, 155 artillery, that will go with the howitzers. And look, we’ll continue to talk with them.
John Kirby: (07:06)
It’ll be an iterative conversation. And there may be additional security assistance that comes on top of what we just announced. You didn’t ask this, but I think it’s important to also point out that authorization from the President was on the 13th, the execute order was issued on the 14th, and on the 15th, two days later, the first shipment started arriving in the theater of stuff from that 800 million drawdown package. Now, again, I’m not going to get into the inventory list and exactly what was on that first shipment, but that is unprecedented speed; 48 hours after authorization from the President, first plane was on its way. And there have been subsequent shipments since then, almost a half a dozen as you and I speak here today, have already arrived in the region. Sylvie.
I have two questions. First, the Russians announced that they have bombed a weapons stockage facility where some Western weapons were stocked. Can you confirm that?
John Kirby: (08:10)
No, I know that they struck Lviv, they hit targets in Lviv, and I think they also struck in Kyiv over the last couple of days. We don’t have a clear sense of battle damage assessment about what they were targeting and what they hit at this time. We don’t have any indication that Western aid was targeted and/or hit or destroyed. But again, we’re still working our way through the BDA, as you will, the battle damage assessment, and I just don’t have more for you than that.
Okay. And to follow up on Bob’s question, you said last week that the Russians still had… They were not ready to launch their new battle, that they had still logistic problems. Do you assess that they improved their logistic preparation now and that they could be able to launch?
John Kirby: (09:09)
Yeah. Too soon to tell, Sylvie. I mean, these appear to be chronic difficulties that the Russian military has had in terms of logistics and sustainment, command and control, unit cohesion, operational maneuver, integration of air to ground, all problems that they still suffer from. So it remains to be seen whether they have, quote, fixed these problems and are now ready to execute in a more efficient way in the Donbas. Our assessment is that they are still struggling with a lot of these problems. Also, our assessment is that part of the reason we’re talking about shaping operations in the Donbas is because the Russians are trying to learn from their mistakes. So in the last few days, we have seen them move in, as I said, command and control enablers, aviation support, largely helicopters, moving in our artillery units ahead of what would be massive ground movements by troops, or larger ground movements by troops. So it appears as if they are trying to-
John Kirby: (10:03)
… larger ground movements by troops. So it appears as if they are trying to learn from those mistakes. But again, it remains to be seen whether they’ve actually fixed their problems. We still assess that on many levels and in many ways. They still haven’t figured out logistics and sustainment and they still have command and control problems. But again, it remains to be seen. David.
You say that the Russians are conducting shaping operations. The Secretary of the Ukrainian Security Council was on television in Ukraine this morning, saying that the active phase of the offensive has begun from Kharkiv down to Donbas. Do you agree with that?
John Kirby: (10:44)
I’m certainly in no position to dispute what the Ukrainians are seeing on the ground, David. They’re there. I’ve also said and said repeatedly that there have been active operations going on in the Donbas since the beginning of this invasion, in fact, for the last eight years. So we absolutely have seen, and we’ve acknowledged that we’ve seen offensive and defensive operations by both the Russians and the Ukrainians in just the last several weeks. There’s no question.
John Kirby: (11:10)
And I just said a few minutes ago, we’ve seen that the Ukrainians move against Russian positions in certain towns and villages. And we believe that they’ve been able to re-secure some of those towns and villages in the Donbas. So we’re not disputing that there’s not combat going on in the Donbas. What we’re saying is we still consider what we’re seeing to be a piece of shaping operations, that the Russians are continuing to set the conditions for what they believe will be eventual success on the ground, by putting in more forces, putting in more enablers, putting in more command and control capability for operations yet to come.
Let me try a slightly different way. Do you believe the Russian offensive in the east has begun?
John Kirby: (11:58)
We believe that the Russians are shaping and setting the conditions for future offensive operations. We also see, David, that there is active combat going on right now in the Donbas, as there has been for the last several weeks. Yeah.
There have been some reports that both Russians and Ukrainians have been using cluster munitions. Is that something you guys have seen or can confirm?
John Kirby: (12:19)
We are not in a position to independently verify the use of cluster munitions. I mean, we’ve seen the video of course, the same video that I’m sure you’ve seen and looked at, but without being on the ground, it’s difficult for us to say definitively and independently that we can confirm that. We’re certainly not refuting the images or what others are saying about it. Okay. Janie, I’ll come back to you in a second. Okay.
Mike [inaudible 00:12:43] from the Washington Examiner. Two questions. First, has any US aid not gotten to where it’s supposed to go and secondly, could we get an update on Russia’s military capability?
John Kirby: (12:55)
That second one’s a big one, Mike. So on the first one, just to remind, what we’re doing is helping coordinate the trans shipment of not only US security assistance, but security assistance provided by many other nations, more than 30, getting it into Ukrainian hands, getting it into Ukraine, using ground methods. And that’s, as far as I’m going to go into terms of the details on that. And we’re confident that that material continues to get into Ukraine.
John Kirby: (13:23)
Once it gets into Ukrainian hands, it’s up to the Ukrainian armed forces to decide where it goes, what unit gets it, when, where it’s stored, if it’s stored at all temporarily, that is up to the Ukrainians to decide, not the United States. We’re not putting strings on this stuff and telling them that they have to move this by a certain date, or get it to a certain unit. That, we would not step on their toes in that regard. Our job, get it in the region, get it into Ukraine, and then the Ukrainians use it in the field.
John Kirby: (13:49)
As for Russian military capability, that’s a very big question, so I’ll do the best I can. I mean, we still assess that in general, they have the vast majority of their assembled combat power available to them. From what they assembled over the course of the fall and in the early winter months or weeks, they still have a lot of that amassed combat power available to them. They have suffered losses. They have suffered casualties. They have lost platforms and systems, whether it’s aircraft or tanks or armor personnel carriers. You’ve seen the video yourself. You’ve seen these destroyed Russian platforms on the side of the road, but they still have quite a bit of capability left to them. Now they are concentrating that capability in a smaller geographic area, in the Donbas specifically, but also in the south. And so they are trying, as I answered earlier, they are trying to overcome some of their logistics and sustainment, their interior lines of communication problems, if you will. They won’t have as, as far to go in the Donbas, to reinforce, resupply, refuel their forces in the Donbas because they have a long border with that part of Ukraine. And they are certainly adding combat capability in that part of Ukraine.
John Kirby: (15:05)
It is a smaller again, piece of ground than what they have been trying to operate in over the last three to four weeks along three major lines of access across the entire eastern half of the country. Now they’ve concentrated it and they still have a lot of combat power to use there. It’s also, as I said earlier, terrain they’re comfortable with. They’ve been fighting over the Donbas now for eight years. So their commanders, their troops, there’s a familiarity with the cities and the towns and the terrain, that they didn’t necessarily have when they were trying to come at Kyiv from the north and Chernihiv from the north, and then up from Crimea into the south. So we would expect that they’re going to try again through their own familiarity with the terrain, and the mistakes they made, they’re going to try to overcome that. Okay.
Has there been any big fluctuation within the last week or so, or last short period of time? I know that senior defense official has put the estimation around 80% to 85% in the past couple weeks. Is that around the same now?
John Kirby: (16:16)
You mean of the amount of combat power they still have available?
John Kirby: (16:20)
Look, I don’t want to get into percentages and specific data here on their combat power from the podium. I would just say that we still believe they have the vast majority of their combat power available to them, even with the losses. They had taken time, months to assemble combined arms capability outside of Ukraine, aviation, armor, artillery, infantry, special operations, airborne. They assembled a lot and they still have a majority of that available to them, even with the losses that they’ve sustained in the last few weeks. Go ahead. Go ahead.
Speaker 1: (16:57)
Just following up on what Ms. Brest was getting at. Could you update us a little bit, if you have any visibility into the mix of troops available, are they calling on special forces that they used in Syria? Are they calling up new recruits? What the mix is there terms of [crosstalk 00:17:22].
John Kirby: (17:21)
Yeah, we don’t have a perfect sense of their manpower. We know that they have tried to recruit foreign fighters out of Syria. They claim they were going to get 16,000. We don’t have a number to tell you, that they got that many, but we know that they have actively tried to recruit foreign fighters out of Syria.
John Kirby: (17:41)
We’ve seen indications that they have tried to reinforce their troop levels from other parts of Russia, as well as countries outside of Russia and outside of Ukraine. We know that they are refitting and resupplying and trying to put back into the fight some battalion tactical groups that were in the north, that they have evacuated now or retreated out of Ukraine into Belarus and into Russia. We still believe that there’s a not insignificant number of battalion tactical groups that they’re trying to refit, to come back in.
John Kirby: (18:17)
And we know that just in the last few days, they have added to their battalion tactical groups in the east and in the south. Again, we don’t know exactly where all these units are or when they were reintroduced, but we know they have added to their force levels in the east and in the south.
Speaker 1: (18:33)
And just one other, the bombardment of Lviv, is that any sort of, could we read that as an indication that they have ambitions to go farther west? I mean, it’s only 40 miles from the Polish border.
John Kirby: (18:47)
Yeah. They’ve struck targets near Lviv before. I wouldn’t call it a bombardment. We noted at least one airstrike in Lviv over the last couple of days. Again, I can’t get inside the Russian mindset here and tell you what exactly they believed they were striking and with what intent. As I told Sylvie, we’re still trying to assess it ourselves as best we can. We’re not there on the ground, so we don’t know perfectly what they hit or, or what the intent was, but clearly they struck out at Lviv, and they struck out in Kyiv over the course of the weekend. But most, and I think this is important to remember, most of their airstrike activity and artillery strikes are happening in the east and in the south, specifically, Mariupol.
John Kirby: (19:35)
Two questions on two different subjects, if I may. Just to go back on Russia for a minute. You mentioned that you believe they are still having logistics, sustainment, and command and control issues, even as they put these enablers in forward positions. Is there-
John Kirby: (19:53)
We don’t believe they have overcome all of their challenges in those regards.
Can you offer any indicators or evidence that lead you to that conclusion?
John Kirby: (20:03)
… indicators or evidence that leads you to that conclusion?
John Kirby: (20:04)
I think one indicator is that they’ve named this new general, Dvornikov to take overall command of their forces in Ukraine. They didn’t have a single overall operational commander before. We believe that part of that is because they want to to improve command and control, and to try to get more efficient in their logistics and sustainment capabilities.
They still haven’t gotten there?
John Kirby: (20:33)
Again, our assessment is that they still have significant challenges when it comes to command and control and logistics and sustainment.
Does that matter if in fact that there’re just devastated areas with artillery and long-range air strikes?
John Kirby: (20:48)
I think it does. And you don’t have to look any further than what happened in Chernihiv, and Kiev, and down in the south to see that it does absolutely matter. Logistics and sustainment, command and control, unit cohesion, operational maneuver, air to ground integration, all that still matters. The air strikes alone were not enough to help them take Kiev.
Can I ask you about the peculiar situation at Green Village in Syria. First, CENTCOM puts out a statement saying of course, that Green Village where US troops are located in northeastern Syria came under direct fire attack, presumably rockets and mortars. Several days go by, we then are told that there’s a statement if you go on their website that says no that was wrong. That explosives were deliberately in place at Green Village where US troops are. It seems very odd that the military, CENTCOM was not transparent on this matter to let people know that US troops were victimized by what they assessed to be deliberately in-placed explosives. Can you tell us what the situation is right now? How are you investigating this? Is there really video that people say there is? Some person seen on video running around the base. What do you think happened there? And why was it so strangely handled?
John Kirby: (22:18)
There’s an awful lot there. Let’s just start with the basics Barb, it is still under investigation. And as we learn more, we want to share what we can. We’re not able to always share everything, but we try to share what we can. As they dug into it more, they realized that the first reports, no shock… Try this again using my native language. First reports are usually wrong, and in this case it was. It wasn’t a result of indirect fire. They now believe that it was the deliberate placement of a couple of charges on the actual facility. They’re still looking at this, still investigating it, I would refer you to CENTCOM to speak to how that investigation is going and what the progress is. I don’t have an update for you from the podium today.
John Kirby: (23:10)
So, we’ll see what they learn going forward. But that’s the going assumption right now. It was the deliberate placement of a couple charges. I don’t know anything about video surveillance and whether it was caught on video or not. Again, I’d refer you to them to speak to that. And we don’t know, certainly not at our level, have a sense of who placed these charges. How many were there? What was the motivation? What was behind this? What was the intention? We just don’t know that right now.
Speaker 2: (23:41)
Can I follow up quickly on that? [crosstalk 00:23:44].
Well, there was four individuals, four US service members who were treated for traumatic brain injury. What I have been told today is that they either are or have been returned to duty, or I’m sorry, either will be soon or they have been returned to duty status. But there’ll be obviously because we take TBI so seriously.
I mean, there’ll be follow ups and they’ll continue to be evaluated by medical personnel because as you know, TBI can sometimes take a while to manifest itself. So we’re taking that very seriously, but my understanding is that they’ve either have been returned to duty or they will be very, very soon. Yes, in the back there. Janee, I’ll get to you in a second. I want to get I want to get through Russia Ukraine stuff. Go ahead.
Speaker 3: (24:34)
Yes. So, a follow up in Syria. Placing charges or explosive devices is not a typical [inaudible 00:24:40] of Iranian-backed militias. Are you concerned that there are some insider kind of threat to the US base over there?
John Kirby: (24:51)
Well, clearly, there’s a concern about some sort of insider threat. If the going assumption is now that they were deliberate placement of charges inside Green Village, of course, that’s a concern.
Speaker 3: (25:01)
And then who is with the US forces down there in that base?
John Kirby: (25:06)
I’d refer you to CENTCOM. I don’t have a lay down of everybody that’s at Green Village. I just don’t have that for you today.
Speaker 3: (25:12)
On Ukraine, we have heard from this building several times that Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the security architecture fundamentally in Europe. After all these failures of the Russian military, is this still the assessment? And do you think that Russia is still a big threat to the European security?
John Kirby: (25:35)
We continue to believe that the European security environment has changed and will stay changed as a result of Mr. Putin’s willingness to conduct an unprovoked invasion of a neighboring state. There are failures notwithstanding, that war is still ongoing. And we’re still sending security assistance, even as you and I are talking here today to Ukraine to help defend themselves.
John Kirby: (26:01)
So of course, we assess that the security environment is changed, not has changed, not will change, is changed. And so, we’re going to continue to have conversations here inside the department and with allies and partners about what those changes portend for our posture going forward.
John Kirby: (26:16)
I don’t have any answers for you today. We haven’t made any decisions. We’re not going to make any decisions without full consultation with allies and partners. But we are absolutely operating under that assumption. Kelly.
You mentioned it within Sylvie’s question, that Russia is learning from its failed efforts in the north, but also saying that they’re still having these command-and-control issues. So, are they learning from what happened in the north? What are we seeing? What are you assessing?
John Kirby: (26:40)
I think we believe that they are trying to learn from past mistakes. And you can see that in just the way they are conducting the shaping operations. They’re conducting themselves in ways that we didn’t see them around Kiev, for instance. So, it appears as if they’re trying to learn.
John Kirby: (26:56)
Now whether they will be successful in doing that, whether we can say they have learned, I don’t think we’re ready to say that right now. I think it’s too soon to know.
And one more if I may on cyber attacks. I wanted to ask you if you’re seeing any military systems being targeted command and control? And how is the US going to respond if the US and NATO are hit by cyber attacks?
John Kirby: (27:19)
So you’re asking if we have suffered any cyber attacks as a result of… The DOD cyber infrastructure gets assaulted in cyberspace every single day by a plethora of different actors out there. It’s something that we have to be cognizant of every single day and work on our resiliency every single day.
John Kirby: (27:43)
Do I have any information about a specific cyber attack based on… from Russia or Russia state actors as a result of Ukraine? No, I’m not. Yeah, in the back.
Speaker 4: (27:55)
President Zelensky said over the weekend, he fears Russia using nuclear weapons. But Ukraine’s head of the military intelligence, he says that he thinks Putin is bluffing. What’s the US assessment on that possibility that Putin were to use nuclear weapons?
John Kirby: (28:09)
I would just say, two things. One, we noted with concern, as we said, at the time, when Mr. Putin began to use escalatory rhetoric with respect to nuclear weapons at the very outset of this war. It certainly got our attention. Number two, and we said at the time, that that kind of rhetoric coming from a nuclear power, clearly not constructive, and warranted us taking it seriously.
John Kirby: (28:38)
Number two, and I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again, because I’m not going to talk about the details of our strategic deterrent. But the Secretary remain… We’re watching every single day. We monitored it best weekend. He remains confident in our strategic deterrent posture, and our ability to defend the homeland as well as our allies and partners from a strategic deterrence perspective. And that’s really where I’m going to leave it. Jared from Al-Monitor?
Hi, John, my question has been asked, thank you.
John Kirby: (29:07)
The last question, Janee.
Thanks, John. On North Korea, and I’ll ask a question after that follow up. North Korea test fired on new tactical guided weapons yesterday. What is the US reaction on this?
John Kirby: (29:25)
We’re still analyzing these launches, Janee. I don’t have a lot of detail for you today. Obviously, we’re still trying to assess what exactly happened here.
How does the Pentagon evaluate North Korea’s nuclear warhead and size? We need to strike the United States main land.
John Kirby: (29:46)
I think what I would say Janee is North Korea continues to pursue a ballistic missile program and nuclear capabilities, that-
John Kirby: (30:03)
… and nuclear capabilities that, at least we think, they believe will help intimidate and threaten our allies and partners in the region, and that includes the rest of the Korean Peninsula. Many of these capabilities, some of the ones that they’ve tested, are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. We continue to call on North Korea to cease these provocations, and we consider them provocations, and to be willing to sit down in good faith and have a diplomatic discussion about how we denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, which remains our goal.
John Kirby: (30:46)
In the meantime, we have significant security commitments on the peninsula as well as in the region. I mean, the Republic of Korea is a treaty ally, so is Japan, so is the Philippines, who we’re meeting with today. We have significant treaty obligations and we take those obligations seriously. You just saw I think today it kicked off a command post exercise that is a semi-annual one. It’s a command post, no live fire, no live movement of forces, but it’s a semi-annual command post training event that we just kicked off today. That’s I think a tangible representation of how seriously we take our responsibilities there, and we’re going to continue to do that going forward.
John Kirby: (31:28)
The other thing, the last thing I’ll say, is we have said repeatedly that we’re willing to sit down with Pyongyang, no preconditions, to begin to have discussions about the denuclearization of the peninsula, and, today, rather than showing any willingness to sit down in good faith and negotiate and talk and use diplomacy, the North continues to conduct tests. Now, again, on this latest one, we’re still analyzing it. I just don’t have any more detail.
You know that the North Korea didn’t want to come up and talking with the United States. How can you make it, North Korea’s denuclearizations, Korean Peninsula?
John Kirby: (32:06)
We still believe here’s at the Department of Defense that the best way to pursue the denuclearization of the peninsula is through diplomacy, and the Biden administration has made it clear. We’re willing to sit down without preconditions to try to affect that outcome, and Pyongyang has answered only with more tests.
If the diploma does not work [crosstalk 00:32:25]?
John Kirby: (32:25)
I’m not going to talk about hypotheticals. We believe diplomacy is the best path forward here. In the meantime, we have serious security commitments to our South Korean allies, and we’re meeting those. We’re we’re making them tangible. We’re making them real. This command post exercise that just ticked off today is a good example of that.
John Kirby: (32:42)
Okay. Thanks everybody. Got to go.