Jul 20, 2022
John Kirby says Russia is planning to annex Ukrainian territory it controls Transcript
John Kirby said the Biden administration has intelligence showing Russia is planning to annex additional Ukrainian territory. Read the transcript here.
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John Kirby: (00:00)
… let you know that we have information today, including from downgraded intelligence that we’re able to share with you about how Russia is laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian territory that it controls, in direct violation of Ukraine sovereignty. We’re seeing ample evidence in the intelligence and in the public domain that Russia intends to try to annex additional Ukrainian territory. Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook. Very similar to the one we saw in 2014. Already, Russia is installing illegitimate proxy officials in the areas of Ukraine. They’re under its control. And we know their next moves.
John Kirby: (00:39)
First, these proxy officials will arrange sham referenda on joining Russia. Then Russia will use those sham referenda as a basis to try to claim annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory. The Russian government is reviewing detailed plans to purportedly annex a number of regions in Ukraine, including Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast. Russia’s attempting to set the conditions on the ground by seeking to establish branches of Russian banks, to establish the ruble as the default currency in these areas, and to sabotage civilian internet access.
John Kirby: (01:18)
Russia’s security services continue to target Ukrainians that they believe to be associated with resistance activities. In Kherson, for example, Russia is taking control of broadcasting towers, establishing loyalist security forces, replacing telecommunications infrastructure, forcing residents to apply for Russian citizenship and issuing Russian passports. Russia’s also installing loyalists in areas of Ukraine that it controls, including a man named Sergei Yeliseyev, a former Russian intelligence officer who has been put in charge of Kherson. Figures like Yeliseyev or Russian bureaucrats with absolutely no connection to Ukraine. No connection. The Kremlin has not disclosed a timeline for the referenda, but Russian proxies in these territories claim they will take place later this year, possibly in conjunction with Russia’s September regional elections.
John Kirby: (02:12)
What are the implications? At the start of the year, Russia told the world that it was not planning to invade Ukraine, and now we’re expected to believe that they’re not going to plan to annex Ukrainian territory. Annexation by force would be a gross violation of the UN charter and we will not allow it to go unchallenged or unpunished. We will continue to provide Ukraine with historic levels of security assistance. Later this week, the administration will announce the next presidential draw down package of weapons and equipment for Ukraine. It’ll be the 16th such draw down to support Ukraine since the president took office. That package will include more HIMARS. That’s highly mobile advanced rocket systems, which the Ukrainians have been using very effectively to make a difference on the battlefield. It’ll also include some additional rounds of multiple launch rocket systems and artillery ammunition.
John Kirby: (03:04)
We’re also going to continue to expose Russian plans, so the world knows that any purported annexation is premeditated, illegal and illegitimate. And we are sanctioning the Russian installed puppets and proxies in areas of Ukraine that are under Russian control. For example, just last month, we sanctioned the illegitimate Russian installed mayor of Melitopol, as well as the chairperson and deputy chairpersons of the so-called government of the DNR.
John Kirby: (03:32)
So what next? If Russia, nevertheless proceeds with their annexation plans, we are going to respond swiftly and severely and in lockstep with our allies and partners. Russia will face additional sanctions and become even more of a global pariah than it is now. We will never recognize any purportedly annexed territories, belonging to Russia. We will support accountability efforts for forced deportations, prosecutions of oppositionists and other gross human rights abuses carried out by Russia. And we would remind Mr. Putin that over time he may prove unable to hold this territory. It’s not a given. The Ukrainian military will work to retake that territory and the Ukrainian people will resist Russian control and seek to drive Russia out as they have been doing the last five months.
John Kirby: (04:19)
Russia already made a grave mistake with its invasions, achieved none of their strategic objectives. When they invaded Ukraine, only four of the 192 other members of the UN took Moscow’s side. The international community, we’re convinced, will continue to stand up for state sovereignty. Any sham efforts to legitimize an illegal land grab will only make things worse for Russia. We’re going to help make sure of that.
John Kirby: (04:45)
And one other item before I start taking some questions today, we announced a series of actions the Biden-Harris administration has taken to expand the toolkit that the US government uses to deter and disrupt hostage takings and wrongful detentions. I think you may have seen this out there. It’ll help bring Americans home. This morning, the president signed an executive order that provides expanded tools to help bring our citizens home. Specifically, it authorizes agencies to impose cost and consequences, including financial sanctions and visa bans on governments and non-state actors and those that provide them with the material support who are involved in hostage takings or wrongful detentions. The State Department is also introducing a new risk indicator to their travel advisories to inform US citizens about the risk of wrongful detention by a foreign government in six countries that have regularly engaged in this practice.
John Kirby: (05:34)
This new indicator joins the existing K indicator. So it’s a D indicator, the new one. The K indicator that covers the risk of kidnapping and hostage taking by non-state actors, as well as a range of other existing risk indicators for a country. These actions demonstrate President Biden’s unwavering commitment to bringing home US nationals held hostage and wrongfully detained, and to try to help prevent more Americans and their families from having to go through this kind of terrible ordeal. With that, I’ll take questions.
Speaker 3: (06:02)
Thanks, John. Given what you’ve said about Russian’s annexation plans, what is the US assessment of President Putin’s visit to Iran and why he was willing to take such an unusual and risky trip at this time to meet with the supreme leader?
John Kirby: (06:19)
Well, I’ll let Mr. Putin speak for why he decided to go at this particular time, but I would say three things about this trip. One, it shows the degree to which Mr. Putin and Russia are increasingly isolated. Now they have to turn to Iran for help. Two. It shows the degree to which his own defense industrial base is having a hard time keeping up with his unprovoked war in Ukraine. We already know that in respect to precision guided munitions and advanced systems, tanks, even aircraft, he’s having trouble, particularly with the micro-electronics because of the sanctions and export controls. We already know that even without that, his defense industrial base is challenged because of the rate of operation, the pace of operations in Ukraine. Then the third thing, I think this indicates is the degree to which he has absolutely no intention of stopping the war and sitting down in good faith and negotiate a settlement with Mr. Zelensky. He has every intention, quite the contrary, because now he wants to go by several hundred UAVs to continue to prosecute this illegal war and to continue to kill Ukrainians.
Speaker 3: (07:25)
And what does US know about the meeting that President Putin had in Iran with Turkish leader Erdogan and what it could mean for reinstating Ukrainian grain exports?
John Kirby: (07:38)
I’ll let them speak to their meetings. I don’t know what was on the agenda for that. We are mindful of the talks that have been ongoing between Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine about grain exports. We hope for progress in those talks, but we’re clear-eyed about it. We’re clear-eyed about Russia’s ambitions here. We’re clear-eyed about the fact that there’s basically a blockade in the Black Sea. While we certainly welcome Mr. Erdogan’s leadership in here and the president has thanked him for that leadership, trying to come up with a negotiated solution here to get the grain out.
John Kirby: (08:21)
It’s unfortunate that he even has to have those talks, because there’s a blockade that Russia could stop today. They could take their ships out of the Black Sea. They could let that grain go and alleviate a lot of food security problems, not just in Europe, but in the Middle East and Africa or elsewhere around the world. Again, we’re hopeful that there can be some sort of arrangement to get that grain out of there, but we’re not looking at it through rose-colored glasses in terms of the success that they’ll ultimately be able to achieve. The only thing I’d add to that is, it’s good to see Ukraine at the table in these discussions and that’s as it should be. Ukraine absolutely has to be part of whatever solution is solved and their economy can’t suffer any more than it already has as a result of Russian blockade activity.
Let’s go to the back. Jenny [inaudible 00:09:17].
Speaker 4: (09:16)
Thank you. Yeah. Thank you.
John Kirby: (09:18)
Let me get my pen. I dropped it. Because often when you ask me questions, I have to write them down. Go ahead.
Speaker 4: (09:26)
Don’t be nervous, okay?
John Kirby: (09:30)
No. I am always nervous when you’re called.
Speaker 4: (09:35)
Thank you, John. I have two questions. One Ukraine and one Russia. Ukraine recently announced that diplomatic surveillance with North Korea, and meanwhile, Russia announced that it would send North Korean workers to rebuild Donbas in Ukraine. What is your comment or is it a violation of the UN Security Council sanctions?
John Kirby: (10:08)
I’m not an expert enough on sanctions to know whether these actions are violations of resolutions. But again, it just shows the degree to which Mr. Putin remains isolated. Now he’s got to turn to North Korea. He’s got to turn to Iran here. Rather than just doing the right thing to begin with and ending the war. Eventually there’s going to be reconstruction of Ukraine, but that’s going to be for the Ukrainians to decide Janie, not the Russians, not the North Koreans, not anybody else, but President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. They’re going to get to decide how they reconstruct their country after this war. And obviously, for the president to talk about this, we’re going be there to support them through that process.
John Kirby: (11:00)
The goal right now, and we can’t forget what it is right now. I mentioned it in my opening statement. Is to continue to help Ukraine defend itself against this aggression inside their country. Making sure that Mr. Zelensky and the Ukrainian armed forces have what they need to continue to fight back and to reclaim their sovereignty. That’s what matters right now.
[inaudible 00:11:21] then we’ll come back.
Speaker 5: (11:23)
Thank you, Karine. I’d like to ask you sir, a question about some of the comments that the president made when he was in Spain last month. But before that, rewinding to some of your statements moments ago. You said that Russia over time may prove unable to hold the territory that they’re annexing. I’m wondering, what does that mean in terms of the US commitment to Ukraine? Are we talking about backing some sort of military operation for the Ukrainians to take back territory that was taken from them? Or was that a more general statement about diplomatic pressure?
John Kirby: (11:57)
There’s no change to our policy with respect to helping Ukraine defend itself. Now, we help provide them the training that they need in some of these advanced systems and the systems themselves. I would remind you that it’s not just the United States, some 50 other countries. In fact, Secretary Austin is going to be holding yet another iteration of the Ukraine contact group this week. I suspect you’ll see additional international contributions to Ukrainian security assistance. We give that material to them. We give them the training, if they need it. Mr. Zelensky and his chain of command, they determine how they’re going to use it. We have seen over the last, it’s hard to believe, five months, but five months, where the Ukrainians sometimes all in the same day will be on the defensive in some areas and on the offensive in others.
John Kirby: (12:45)
We have seen just in the last week or two, both of that, depending on where you’re at. The Ukrainians, certainly, they have a right, not only to defend themselves, but they absolutely have a right to go on the counter offensive inside their own country against Russian forces. Now, where and when they do that, and how they do that and what systems they use, that’s for them to decide. Our job, again, is to make sure they’ve got the tools and the training to be able to defend themselves.
Speaker 5: (13:11)
[inaudible 00:13:11] question. President Biden announced last month that he was going to be sending two more destroyers to Rota, Spain. I think the number is going from four to six.
John Kirby: (13:20)
Speaker 5: (13:21)
I guess, I’m wondering, why is the president sending these warships to the Mediterranean to defend the Spanish coast there? This is a country that spends about 1% of its GDP on total defense. When there seems to be an increasingly serious threat in the Indo-Pacific from China. Shouldn’t Spain step up? Shouldn’t the Italians or French patrol their own waters so that we can have a free hand on the other side of the world?
John Kirby: (13:47)
This is one of the very few questions I’ll probably ever get that are right down my lane.
Speaker 5: (13:52)
I knew you were coming to that.
John Kirby: (13:56)
I served as a young officer in The Med on a couple of different deployments. A home port is just where the ship stays. It doesn’t mean that the ship is just there to sail in the waters off of Spain. The four destroyers that we have in the Mediterranean right now, they patrol the Mediterranean. And frankly, there are times when they’ll patrol into the North Atlantic. Just having them in Spain is what we call forward deployed. It’s like we have an aircraft carrier and warships in Japan. Forward deployed. We have ships forward deployed into the Middle East based in Bahrain. It shortens the time and distance to get them on station where they might need to be.
John Kirby: (14:43)
It’s this decision by the president to add two destroyers to the four that are there, I think is indicative of what the president has said many times. The security environment in Europe is different now. It has changed. Not is changing, not will change, has changed. We need to meet that. This is just one of many moves that the president spoke to in Madrid and at the G7 that we’re taken to improve our military posture on NATOs Eastern flank. And some of those moves will be permanent in addition to the two ships. It’s going to take a little while for them to get there, to be permanently home based there. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we’re going to put a headquarters forward command element in Poland, first time ever.
John Kirby: (15:23)
We’re going to make more regular, more routine I should say, the rotational deployments of Army land forces throughout the Eastern flank as well. So it’s all part and parcel of a larger effort by the United States to make sure that we are able to meet our Article 5 commitment to our NATO allies, particularly on the Eastern flank.
Speaker 5: (15:45)
So we’re not emphasizing one theater at the expense of another?
John Kirby: (15:46)
No. You have to do both. I’m glad you followed up on that. We already have 60% of the United States Navy either in, or based in the Indo-Pacific. There’s already a robust military capability in that part of the world. We have no intention whatsoever of decreasing that focus and that energy there. You’ve heard Secretary Austin talk about China being the pacing challenge for the United States military and that’s exactly how they’re treating it.
John Kirby: (16:17)
Take a look at the budget that we just submitted for 23, and you’ll see chapter and verse how the United States military is really trying to make sure they’re investing in the kinds of capabilities that we’re going to need in the Indo-Pacific to face that pacing challenge. Look, the United States military is a global power, and you have to be focused on all kinds of different regions and face all kinds of different threats. The president was just in the Middle East, because that too is an important area for our national security interests. We can do more than one.
Speaker 5: (16:50)
Thank you, sir.
Speaker 6: (16:52)
Thank you, Karine. Quick question, just to sort of follow up on what you said about US responding to any sort of annexation attempts. What kind of options are available to the US if you were to respond?
John Kirby: (17:04)
Yeah. I talked about that a little bit in the … we certainly will have additional sanctions. We could employ, we could strengthen the ones that are already in place. We can further try to make it harder. Squeeze Mr. Putin’s ability to wage war. Waging war is an expensive business. Thanks to all the international pressure he’s already facing inflation of up to 20%. His imports have fallen by 40%. The Russian stock market fell by about 30% recently. I mean, this has not been without costs and we can raise those costs on him.
Speaker 6: (17:45)
Would you be expecting to do any of that in the next few months?
John Kirby: (17:48)
I don’t have anything to announce today. We wanted to make it clear today what we’re seeing. And we’ve already, as I said in my opening statement, started to sanction some of these so-called officials. I don’t have any new announcements to make today, but we just wanted to make very plain for the American people, what we’re seeing and make it very plain to Mr. Putin, that nobody’s fooled by it. We know he is just dusting off the old playbook from 2014, and we’re going to be watching this closely.
John Kirby: (18:19)
Last point, and it’s important. I know I say it all the time, but it’s not just the United States. The international community is wise to this as well. And we fully expect that our allies and partners will participate in any additional pressure put on Mr. Putin.
Yeah. Hi, John. I’m wonder if you could change topics a bit here. You’ve long talked about how climate change is a national security issue for the country. I’m wondering if you view this as a national emergency, and if you believe that executive actions that will be announced are enough of a message to send to the world that the US is indeed serious about climate change.
John Kirby: (19:00)
I’m not going to get ahead of any announcements on specific actions with respect to climate. But let me take a step back. The Pentagon has noted not just in this administration, but even the previous one, that climate change is a national security issue. Geez, Jeff, I mean, not only does it affect our infrastructure … and you’re already starting to see military bases like Norfolk Naval Base having to invest millions of dollars to try to improve their infrastructure because of rising sea levels. It has an impact on our infrastructure. It has an impact on our readiness, because … and you’re seeing it now, even in the wildfires where so many national guardsmen are being called out and God love them for that, but those are important tasks and missions, but it takes away from other tasks and missions, whether it comes to defending the United States.
John Kirby: (20:00)
There’s an impact on our own readiness, just because our troops, our sailors, our Marines, our airmen, our coast guardsmen are being called out to respond to natural disasters, which are getting worse because of climate change. Then lastly, it’s a driver of actual missions, because climate change creates instability, which creates insecurity in some places. You can end up … The fighting in Syria started really, as a result of a drought. It can actually drive military missions and force the military to become involved in places and at times where they wouldn’t have had to otherwise. Again, I don’t want to get [inaudible 00:20:41] the president or any decisions he may or may not make, but the president believes that this is a very important issue for our own national security and we’re going to treat it that way.
Speaker 8: (20:53)
Back to Iran and Russia, and if I may, one quick one on the executive order from today. Jake Sullivan said last week that Iran was preparing to train Russian forces to use armed drones in Ukraine starting this month. Does the US have an indication that those training sessions have started or that Iran has actually given those drones to Russia?
John Kirby: (21:12)
We don’t have any indications that the sale has actually occurred. Therefore, we wouldn’t have any indications that there’s been training done on them. I don’t want us to get lost in the details here. I mean, I know it’s important, obviously we wouldn’t have talked about it if it wasn’t, but it is an indication of how much more desperate Mr. Putin’s becoming in terms of his own defense industrial base and the degree to which he wants to continue to prosecute this war.
John Kirby: (21:38)
Now, a lot of it’s going to depend on how many does he buy, what kind of capabilities they have, but the Iranians have a domestic production capability of drones, and those drones have lethal capabilities. We’ve seen that for ourselves in the attacks that they have perpetrated in Iraq and in Syria against our own troops and against our own facilities there. We’re watching this closely and we’re taking it seriously.
Speaker 8: (22:02)
And on the executive order from today. How quickly might we see sanctions on people or countries that the US considers responsible for detaining Americans wrongfully, right now? And how might this impact or play into the cases of Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan?
John Kirby: (22:16)
I don’t want to get ahead of any decision space here. That’s not my role today. These are additional tools that this EO gives us, including the ability to levy additional sanctions. Again, I’m not going to preview anything or get ahead. Last thing I’d say on this is that the president remains laser focused on these cases and in constant touch with his national security team and with our special presidential envoy for hostage affairs on all these cases, including of course, Mr. Whelan and Mrs. Griner.
[inaudible 00:22:48] in the front.
Thank you, Karine. On the Iran nuclear deal talks, John, just wanted to get your view on this. Wendy Sherman said last week, it’s in Iran’s best interest to make a deal. They would get sanctions relief. They would improve their economy and sell their oil again, and the world needs their oil so they can get a good price for it. I’m asking, is the White House viewing sanctions relief for Iran as a way to bring down gas prices?
John Kirby: (23:15)
The administration is looking at a return to the JCPOA, the Iran deal, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That’s the goal. You heard the president talk about this on the trip. No problem in the Middle East, none, gets easier to solve if Iran has a nuclear weapon. That’s the goal of the Iran deal. Now, look, there’s a deal on the table. The onus is on Iran now to decide whether they’re going to take that deal. If they take that deal, yes, sanctions relief will be a part of it as it was before. Before the previous administration pulled out of it. But the goal, the objective, the purpose, is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
So how should we understand her statement then? Because the president’s whole strategy when he was on his Middle East tour was to counter Iran, but her language makes it seem like maybe they’re not so bad if they bring down gas prices, which has been hurting the president in polls, obviously.
John Kirby: (24:12)
Well, look, I mean, there’s obviously a potentially tangential benefit should they sign into the deal and actually stop spinning their centrifuges and come into compliance and allow themselves to be back inside the most rigid inspection regime ever in an arms control agreement, which would include, potentially, sanctions relief, which would include obviously, some economic breathing space for them to do things potentially on the oil market.
John Kirby: (24:40)
But again, Jackie, that’s not the purpose here. The purpose is to try to prevent them from having a nuclear weapons capability. That’s the goal. That’s what it’s all about.
One last question. On this statement from around, they can produce a nuclear bomb if they want to, they haven’t made that decision. It comes after Biden and the Israeli prime minister publicly disagreed on the best way to counter Iran. How concerning is it that Putin’s meeting with Iran right after Iran said that they can build a bomb if they want to?
John Kirby: (25:12)
Again, I’ll let those leaders speak for the timing of this visit. What we’re focused on is making sure Ukraine can continue to defend itself. And obviously, it looks like, potentially, they’re going to have to learn to defend themselves from these Iranian drones. As you saw on the trip in the Middle East, the president’s focused on an integrated, more stable, more secure Middle East, and you can’t get there, you can’t have that as an outcome, if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. They’re closer to it today than they were five years ago. The president understands that sense of urgency, which is why he wanted his team to negotiate this deal, and now the negotiations are complete. So we’re close. Iran just has to agree to accept that deal, come back into compliance. That won’t solve all the problems. Not at all.
John Kirby: (25:57)
It’ll solve, if they come back into compliance, and submit to the inspections, and a reduction in their stockpiles, it’ll certainly help solve the more urgent problem now of their burgeoning nuclear capability. But it won’t necessarily solve their developing ballistic missile capability, which continues to improve. It won’t necessarily solve their support for terrorist networks in the region. It won’t solve the threats to maritime security in the Gulf that we continue to see out of Iran. It potentially couldn’t … won’t solve all problems in Yemen, although we’re glad for this cease fire. We’re still going to have to stay focused on all those other issues, which is again, why the president’s trip was so important.
Speaker 10: (26:46)
Thank you, Karine. John, first on the Russian annex, and then if I could ask a China question. On the Russia annexation comments that you’re making, can you talk a little bit more about what specifically is new in the downgraded intelligence that you brought up? I mean, the administration has been warning about sham elections and about referendums since the spring. Kherson has been named in the past as possibly a place this could happen. What are you saying that is new in the last few weeks that you did not know before?
John Kirby: (27:19)
I have to be somewhat careful in answering the question, because we’re talking about some classified intelligence. I would point you to some of the specificity in my opening comments about-