Feb 23, 2022
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby holds Russia-Ukraine Press Conference Transcript
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby held a press conference on February 23, 2022 to address tensions between Russia & Ukraine. Read the transcript here.
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John Kirby: (00:00)
At his direction, Secretary Austin ordered the additional movement of some U.S. forces that are currently stationed in Europe to continue our support for NATO allies and the defense of Eastern flank. These forces comprise of an aviation element and some ground forces. We’ll move within inside the European area of operations to NATO’s Northeastern and Southeastern flanks in the coming days, and we expect them to be in place later this week. They include an infantry battalion task force of approximately 800 personnel. That’ll be moving from Italy to the Baltic Region. It’s a movement of up to eight F-35 strike fighters from Germany to several operating locations along the Eastern flank, a battalion of attack aviation, specifically 20 AH-64 helicopters from Germany, again, to the Baltic Region, and an attack aviation task force, which is 12 AH-64 helicopters, will move from Greece to Poland.
John Kirby: (01:04)
The additional personnel are being repositioned to reassure our NATO allies, deter any potential aggression against NATO member states, and train with host nation forces. And, of course, they’ll continue to report to General Todd Wolters, the Commander of U.S. European Command. These moves are temporary. I want to stress that. They’re temporary in nature and they are part of the more than now 90,000 U.S. troops that are already in Europe that are both there on rotational as well as permanent orders. And, of course, as you know, the U.S. maintains significant numbers of combat capable forces in Europe. Relatedly, U.S. Army Europe and Africa will be kicking off exercise Sabre Strike 22 later this month. The exercise will run through March with approximately 13,000 participants from 13 countries. Saber Strike has been held every two years since 2010. This is the next year for it. It is scheduled during the winter time to help demonstrate the ability to operate and austere conditions.
John Kirby: (02:05)
The Army Fifth Core will provide command and control for the exercise and conducting Sabre Strike now we believe demonstrates that U.S. forces in Europe can simultaneously support ongoing operations and regularly scheduled training without any degradation in support to our NATO allies and partners. Training events like Sabre Strike are planned well in advance, and this one was, and demonstrate that NATO allies and partners are stronger together and through training and interoperability exercises get stronger together. Lastly, I think you may have seen that the Secretary did approve a couple of requests for National Guard support here in the Capitol region. Approved that request yesterday. There was a request that came from the D.C. government, their emergency management agency, as well as the U.S. Capitol Police.
John Kirby: (02:53)
All told, among the two requests, it’s about 700 Guards personnel and about 50 vehicles. They are designed for traffic support in anticipation of potential challenges to traffic here in the D.C. area surrounding some potential protest activity. I want to stress again that it’s a relatively small number here, about 700, and they will be supporting traffic support needs. That’s their goal. That’s their mission. And what that, we’ll take questions. Leda.
John, people are talking about this potential invasion by Russia of a large scale being imminent. Can you talk about what the U.S. has seen today that may be different than what it has seen in recent days, why this has become now imminent? Have you seen Russian troops move into Luhansk and Donetsk? Have you seen them move into that Donbass region and have you seen them move further into Ukraine beyond those two regions?
John Kirby: (04:03)
Okay, lot there. On the Donetsk and Luhansk, as you’ve heard administration officials say before, we do believe that marks the beginning of an invasion. We certainly believe that additional Russian military are moving into that region. Not beyond that region that we have seen, but we can’t confirm with any great specificity the numbers and what the formations are, what the capabilities are, but we certainly believe that that’s happening. As for your larger question, Leda, without speaking to specific timing, because only Mr. Putin knows what the timing is here, what I would tell you is that we continue to see him form his capabilities in such a way that leads us to believe that we are potentially close to some sort of action.
John Kirby: (04:58)
Again, what that action’s going to be and exactly on what to timeline, we can’t be sure. But what we see is that Russian forces continue to assemble closer to the border and put themselves in an advanced stage of readiness to act, to conduct military action in Ukraine, again, at virtually anytime now. We believe that they are ready. I’ll just leave it at that. They’re ready. Jen.
John, there are reports of a chemical plant in Crimea that’s been evacuated. This is the kind of location that was described to us by Secretary Blinken as a possible staged provocation. Are you seeing reports of any sort of preparations either for an attack on a chemical plant? What are you seeing?
John Kirby: (06:07)
I don’t have any specifics on that claim, but it is of a piece of the kinds of ridiculous claims that we have seen the Russians make in recent days of alleged provocations or assaults and attacks unprovoked on their people. So, again, no knowledge of this particular one, but, again, we’ve been seeing this over now recent days, these claims of whether they’re acts of terror or acts of violence, unprovoked shelling of Russian forces or Russian separatists all again as of a piece of the playbook that we have seen the Russians use time and time again. I have no specific knowledge about this particular report, but, again, it fits perfectly into the Russian disinformation playbook.
Did the U.S. government help protect the Ukrainian government from this denial of service attack, the cyber attack? Did you help them with preparations for how to rebut, to get back online quickly after such an attack?
John Kirby: (07:14)
So, first, I don’t think we’re in a position to attribute these cyber disruptions that you’re talking about. I assume you’re talking about the various websites, the government websites that were taken offline. What I would just tell you broadly speaking, Jen, is that we have provided some cyber resilience training and assistance to the Ukrainians, and I won’t go beyond that in terms of these specific attacks. Again, not in a position right now to attribute them to any one entity. I would just say that, again, this is of a piece of a Russian playbook, which is to disrupt in cyberspace. Let’s see anybody else? [Jenny 00:08:00].
Thank you, John. I have two questions on the Ukraine and [inaudible 00:08:06] Korea. If Russia uses nuclear weapons to invade Ukraine, what would the U.S. do? Secondly, if Russia were to use nuclear weapons in this invasion, what would be the impact on the Korean peninsula? Because there is a fear that North Korea will copy this. Any comment?
John Kirby: (08:37)
Yeah. I’m going to avoid speculating here and getting into hypotheticals, particularly about the potential use of nuclear weapons, Jenny. What we’ve said all along, two things. One, Mr. Putin has a lot of capability at his disposal right now, as I’ve said earlier. They are ready to go. And number two, if he decides to conduct-
John Kirby: (09:02)
… To conduct a full scale invasion here, again, bigger than what we’ve seen in just the last few days. This will be a war of choice. He’ll be doing so with diplomacy and options still left on the table, and it won’t be bloodless. There will be suffering, there will be sacrifice, and all of that must and should be laid at his feet because he’s doing this by choice. How he does this, when he does this, we don’t know for sure. But if he does this, this will be a war of choice and totally unnecessary. And as for the impact on the region, I couldn’t begin to speculate. Nothing’s changed obviously about our commitment to our South Korean allies. And we noted that the South Koreans also came out publicly yesterday with a statement of support for Ukraine. That was certainly noticed by the whole international community. Yeah, in the back there. Abraham.
Yeah, thanks John. A couple parts to this question. You just described a lot of different forces moving to the Eastern flank. Is there any consideration of those forces going under NATO command and why not? Also, there’s the word is temporary is pretty prominent there. Is there a timeframe for temporary? And is there any talk of the NATO Rapid Response, those US forces getting activated?
John Kirby: (10:33)
Okay. Yep. There’s a lot there. Right now they’re going to be under the command of General Walters in his US European command hat. I don’t know of any changes to that at. Temporary, I don’t have an exact timeframe on this. I want to remind you that they were already in Europe. They’re simply repositioning elsewhere in Europe. I don’t have a timeframe on how long that repositioning is going to be, except to say that it’ll be as long as we believe it’s necessary, and the new host nations that will be hosting these units are willing to continue to have them. This will be a constant discussion with each host nation that they end up in about where they go, how long they stay, and what kind of training opportunities they’re going to conduct. This is really all about reassuring allies, and partners, and demonstrating that in tangible ways. I lost your third question. Dang it.
Response Response Force.
John Kirby: (11:34)
Oh, that’s a better question for NATO, Abraham. That’s not a question for the United States. That’ll be up to the NAC to decide, North Atlantic Council to decide, not just the United States unilaterally, of course. What I will tell you is that, as you know, the secretary has put on a shorter alert tether, our contributions to the NRF, the NATO Response Force. They are more ready to go if called upon. While I can’t give you any timing or certainty about whether the NRF is going to be activated, what I can tell you with certainty that if it is, our contributions to the NRF will be ready to go and will contribute fully.
But they’re still in the United States, correct?
John Kirby: (12:17)
Correct. Yeah, Tony.
Is there much discussion within the Pentagon or within the National Security Council about whether all of Putin’s maneuvers and the force buildup is a grand game of brinksmanship and he’s got no intention of invading, he just wants show his muscle, get the US and NATO to commit to not letting Ukraine into the Alliance. In other words, a game of brinksmanship, bluffing, but not really an intent to invade.
John Kirby: (12:44)
We have seen no indication of that, Tony.
But let me ask you though, is it a group thing here though? You’re all thinking, just assuming he’s going to do this, or have you actually skeptically looked at whether this is just a bunch of BS brinksmanship albeit on a grand scale.
John Kirby: (13:00)
Tony, we’ve been looking at this now for months, and we’ve been talking to allies and partners for months. The secretary was just in Brussels last week meeting with all his counterparts in the Alliance. It’s not just the United States who is deeply concerned about the potential for war in Ukraine now. Other NATO allies feel the same way. We’ve all been looking at this. We all hope that we’re wrong about this. But every indication we have is that he is poised to attack Ukraine again, and this time with what could be significant military force.
John Kirby: (13:41)
We are talking about more than 150,000 troops that he has arrayed against that border. And as I said earlier, we believe that they are now at a state of readiness where they could attack at any time. That’s what we’re seeing. And that’s what we’ve been seeing. We’ve been talking about this very openly now for weeks. We’ve seen sadly, and unfortunately, no indication that he’s willing to deescalate, move those troops back home, and actually get to some serious diplomatic solution. Every indication rather that we see is quite the opposite.
May I ask you a quick China related question? Is there any indication that President Xi has given his tacit or explicit approval to [inaudible 00:14:23] force for an invasion? You recall there was speculation that an invasion wouldn’t happen until the Olympics were over. The Olympics are over now. Any indication that China’s given its wink and nod?
John Kirby: (14:35)
Well, I point you back to the February 4th statement that she and Putin put out, certainly we took as tacit approval for what Mr. Putin is doing. You could point also to concerning comments by the Chinese foreign ministry yesterday that made it clear that they weren’t going to support any, what they called “unlawful unilateral sanctions” against Russia, and then blame the United States for contributing security assistance to Ukraine, somehow blaming us for this issue. No mention, whatsoever, in their statement about the 150,000 plus soldiers and the threats that Mr. Putin has been lobbying against Ukraine now for many weeks, including just yesterday. We wonder, can it really be the Chinese policy now to support separatist movements over the sovereignty of nation states? That’s an interesting twist, isn’t it? Sylvia.
Thank you, John. I would like to go back to the movements of US troops to the [inaudible 00:16:00] States and to the Eastern flank. Is there any consideration of sending more US troops if there is an invasion, and on a permanent basis on this Eastern flank of NATO?
John Kirby: (16:19)
There’s no expectation at this time, Sylvia, that we’re going to move to more permanent basing on NATOs Eastern flank. What we’re talking about now are short term temporary rotational redeployments, if you will. As for your first question, I assume what you’re asking is are we going to send more troops from the United States to NATOs Eastern flank?
John Kirby: (16:46)
I have no such announcements or movements to speak of today. But as I have said repeatedly, we’re going to keep all options on the table. I’m not going to rule out that the Secretary might want to consider that should there be a need. We’re looking at this day by day. And just yesterday, as you saw, we did reposition inside Europe, and there are lots of options available to us to continue to look for ways to reinforce that Eastern flank.
But this will be temporary. You don’t think about changing your posture in case of an invasion?
John Kirby: (17:22)
Right now, we’re focused on reassuring the allies, and we’re going to be in constant contact with them in consultation about what that looks like and how you do that given the current tensions on the continent. It’s too early to tell whether any of this is going to lead to some other longer term posture changes. Certainly, we’re just not at that point right now. Barbara.
You mentioned before that if this conflict breaks out, it would not be bloodless. I assume that’s also somewhat of a caution to Russia that it would not be bloodless for them and their troops. Can you be any more specific as…
… For them and their troops. Can you be any more specific as this is assessed, is the Russian military, to use the expression, really 10 feet tall or do you see some vulnerabilities for them here?
John Kirby: (18:18)
Clearly, if he chooses war, he chooses violence. Which means he’s deliberately choosing to put lives at danger, soldier’s lives, civilians lives. He’s going to have to bear the responsibility for that. I think, I would hope, that he understands that some of those lives at risk, are going to be his soldier’s lives. He’s going to have to answer to Russian moms and dads about their soldiers that aren’t making it back home alive, or making it back with injuries. He’s going to have to answer for that. As for the 10 feet tall, look, I think getting into qualitative assessments here of militaries is probably not the best exercise for me right now. They have, as we’ve said for a long time, significant combined arms capabilities arrayed against Ukraine right now. They are ready to go right now. Should that be the way that Mr. Putin wants to go. We would obviously like to see that not happen. We would like to see them deescalate. We would like to him make a better choice here, which we still think there’s time to do and deescalate. Move those troops back to Garrison, move them back home, keep them safe and not pursue a war of choice, totally on what is his whim.
As we sit here today, are there still active functioning channels of US, Russian military to military communications? Are you able to … Is the secretary, the chairman, are you able to pick up the phone and will your counterparts talk to you?
John Kirby: (20:26)
Well, I would point to conversations that we’ve read out in just recent days. The secretary spoke with Minister Shoygush, just a few days ago. Chairman Milley-
Talking about right now?
John Kirby: (20:37)
I know I’m getting there. Chairman Milley has had many conversations with General Gerasimov, his counterpart. We have seen indication that those lines of communication, between those two leaders are closed. I don’t have any additional phone conversations to talk about today or to announce, but we have seen no indication that there won’t be that communication should it be necessary? [Courtney 00:21:02]?
How about more of like a tactical line of communication? I don’t know if deconfliction is the right term to use here because there’s not a US military component to this.
John Kirby: (21:11)
They’re not going to theoretically be flying over the same skies.
John Kirby: (21:15)
What about something that might de like deconflict, tactically on the ground once Russia moves in? It seems that we keep hearing about the US military moving more and more assets into that region. Is it appropriate for General Milley to be the one calling General Gerasimov when we’re talking about like potentially very quick tactical moves on the ground?
John Kirby: (21:35)
I don’t think we’re at a point right now where that’s needed, right? Because there hasn’t been a large scale invasion yet of Ukraine, and hopefully there won’t be Courtney. Hopefully there won’t be any need for that kind of communication, but you get to a really good point, which is the potential, if he decides to go in big in Ukraine. That puts Russian military forces right up against the eastern flank of NATO, his Western flank. That’s an eastern flank, by the way, that we’re going to continue to reinforce and make more ready. You do get into a potential there for miscalculation and miscommunication. We’re just not there yet that we can speak to specific deconfliction mechanisms and hopefully there won’t be a need for that. It does raise a larger issue, your question does of the potential for miscalculation here-
Given the fact that this isn’t … Again, I know we talk about deconfliction, I think a lot of this think of Syria.
John Kirby: (22:34)
This is a very different situation and there’s not US military component inside the potential invasion area, right?
John Kirby: (22:39)
Would it be more appropriate for DOD or General Milley or state? Who would be the one who would be responsible for establishing that mechanism?
John Kirby: (22:49)
Yeah, again, we’re not at that point right now, Courtney, so it’s difficult to answer that question and I’m not dodging it. It’s just, we are aren’t at that point right now. I mean, I’d rather not speculate about who would be in communications with whom, and again, as my answer to Barb, there’s no indication that we’ve gotten that there still isn’t the ability at the strategic level for leaders to talk. Jim?
To build on Sylvie’s question, you talked about the F35s and I guess 32 Apaches, well, it’s not just an aircraft and a pilot, how many people are associated with those moves?
John Kirby: (23:29)
Yeah. All told if you, if you added up, the infantry, the battalion that we talked about, that’s about 800. Then, there’s about another 200 crew pilots, maintenance that would go with those aircraft elements that we talked about. All told, the President’s announcement yesterday, equates to about a thousand people. Again, I want to stress two things. They’re being repositioned inside Europe. They’re not coming from the states, and two, these are temporary moves.
If I could just build on Courtney’s question, doesn’t General Walters, in his NATO hat, can’t he speak to Gerasimov?
John Kirby: (24:07)
I would suspect yes, a sec here, he certainly could. I know of no reason why he wouldn’t be able to do that. General Gerasimov is the Chief of Defense, so he is more appropriately General Milley’s counterpart, but I can’t imagine that there would be a reason why, if General Walters wanted to speak to him that he couldn’t, in his NATO hat. Yeah.
Speaker 1: (24:30)
John, based on and given the fact that Russians have brought a variety of capabilities to the area, including cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, do you still think that the arms provided by the United States would help Ukrainian to defend themselves against all these capabilities? Because-
John Kirby: (24:51)
We are providing again, lethal and nonlethal assistance to Ukraine. They’ve expressed their gratitude for that assistance. I would remind you that … Well, a couple of things, 650 million, just this year alone, and we’re still in discussions with them about what kind of support they might need going forward. We’re in constant consultation with them about their needs and what we can provide. It’s not just us. That’s my second point. Other nations are as well, stepping up to provide both lethal and non lethal assistance to Ukraine. Let me go to the phones here. I haven’t done that yet. Let’s see. Mike Brass, Washington Examiner.
Thanks for taking my question, Mr. Kirby. A little bit out of left field, but the 90 day period, that General Michael Garrett had to look into the Syria strike from 2019 expires this weekend. Would you tell or take the question?
John Kirby: (25:53)
You know, what you broke up there. Mike, can you just repeat the last part of your question?
Yeah so the 90 day for his investigation, into the 2019 Syria strike expires this weekend, could you provide any update or take the question?
John Kirby: (26:08)
I know that he’s wrapping that up, Mike. I don’t have a specific timeline of when that’s going to be turned in and reviewed. I will take the question and we’ll see if he can and get you a better answer. Tom?
Hi, John, good afternoon, I have two questions, one on Ukraine and one on the guard deployment, which would you like first?
John Kirby: (26:28)
You can decide Tom.
The guard deployment is the easier one perhaps. There’s been reports from, and complaints, and concerns by the District of Columbia government and capital police that they don’t have the ability to remove trucks, tow trucks in other words, remove any trucks that impede traffic situations. Is there any Defense Department assets that could be made available to help them in this situation?
John Kirby: (26:49)
I don’t really know Tom. I mean, the request that we got, was for some personnel and 50 vehicles to help with traffic flow. There’s been no request of the department for tow truck capability and-
John Kirby: (27:03)
… quest of the department for tow truck capability and frankly, I’m not sure that we have a lot of that, to be honest with you.
That’s what I was telling you, yeah.
John Kirby: (27:09)
I honestly don’t know how many tow trucks we own, but I don’t think it’s very many. So, again, we’re focused on meeting the requirements that they laid forth for help, again, it was roughly 700 guardsmen in and 50 vehicles. What’s your second question?
On Ukraine, you’ve talked a lot and others have talked about what the Russian’s doing is out of their playbook. In other words, everything they’re doing is doing their playbook.
John Kirby: (27:31)
Yet, the massive development of the forces on the border, the type of overall attack that’s being projected possibly for Ukraine, that’s not the blunderbuss approach they usually have taken, if you look at Georgia and the [inaudible 00:27:47] and other areas. What playbook are they emulating for this possible attack on Ukraine?
John Kirby: (27:51)
When we talk about the playbook, as you will, we’re talking about the preparatory moves that we have seen them do in the past and 2014 is a great example of that. And when we look at the pre-textual things they were doing, it seems to me like they haven’t updated their playbook in a long time, because it’s the same stuff. It’s claiming that they’re the victims, creating false events or not even creating events, but simply, claiming that things happened that never did to paint themselves as the victims.
John Kirby: (28:22)
As if Ukraine, which has never attacked anybody is all of a sudden going to spuriously attack Russia and threaten their national security when there’s 150,000+ troops along the border. I mean, it is ridiculous, but that is exactly the kind of place we’ve seen them run, the preparatory plays. Now, to your point, and it’s a fair one, what we’ve seen them array along that border, more than 150,000 troops and significant, as I said, combined arms capabilities. That is something we haven’t seen them do before.
Where do you think they’ve gotten that tactic from? That strategy from, since they’ve never employed it in their past adventurisms?
John Kirby: (29:00)
That is a great question for Vladimir Putin. I mean, I’m not trying to dodge the question.
He doesn’t like my Russian accent.
John Kirby: (29:07)
I’m not trying to dodge the question, but we don’t know. I mean, we can’t possibly get inside his head to figure out why he’s doing it the way he’s doing it. And, again, Tom, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it doesn’t have to be this way. He can make another choice. Of all the options he has available to him, the one he still has is diplomacy if he chooses and we just haven’t seen an indication to do that. Mike?
Hey John, two questions. First off, any idea whether or not Russia’s also used the Wagner Group mercenaries as part of this invasion force, or is it strictly main line Russian army troops?
John Kirby: (29:47)
I have not seen any indications of that.
[crosstalk 00:29:49] man, anything like that?
John Kirby: (29:49)
I haven’t seen indications of the Wagner Group being used, but again, that might be a level of detail we don’t have.
Okay. Also, to go back a little bit in history. The Soviet Union conquered Hungary in ’56, roll through Czechoslovakia in ’68, the U.S. complained and made a lot of noise, but nothing really happened. How will this turn out different from what’s already happened in the past with their satellite, their former satellite countries?
John Kirby: (30:24)
I was a history major at the University of south Florida, but I don’t know that I can answer that one. Let me just put it this way, what we hope happens is that he deescalates and this war of choice doesn’t occur. If he chooses to go ahead and again, every indication is that he will, it’s the one thing any student of war will tell you is it’s unpredictable once it starts. It is the old adage, I think it was Eisenhower, right? No plans survives first contact. It’s difficult to know where this will go. What we believe is that it will involve significant casualties and destruction, and that it will only cause instability on the European continent rather than the stability that I think most of the world, and certainly the West wants to see.
John Kirby: (31:32)
Where it goes beyond that, I just don’t know Mike, because we don’t know really what he has in mind here. I mean, he’s pretty much, in terms of military action, that’s what I mean. If you look at his speech, he was pretty clear, wasn’t he? About the disdain he has for Ukrainian sovereignty and the false claim that you Russia created Ukraine. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that as the Ukrainian foreign minister said, just when he was here, that Putin wants to erase Ukraine as a nation state.
John Kirby: (32:12)
What that ends up looking like longterm is difficult to know. And, again, at the risk of sounded like I’m dodging and I’m not, I truly don’t know the answer to your question. It’s a good one and don’t know anybody can know that, but he doesn’t have to be that way. It just doesn’t have to be that way. He can choose a different path here, which is still open to him and that’s what I think all of us would like to see him do. I got time for a couple more. Yeah, go ahead.
Speaker 1: (32:39)
That country is invading another country just because that country wants to be part of an alliance that United States is leading, like NATO. Isn’t it an indirect threat to NATO and United States nation security at the same time?
John Kirby: (32:55)
Well, primarily, it’s a threat to the Ukrainian people. And I think, again, if you go back and look at his speech, certainly he’s groused about potential NATO membership for Ukraine, no doubt about it, but he laid out an even more sweeping, alternative reality in his speech that it isn’t just about whether or not Ukraine joins NATO. And as for whether it further threatens NATO, I think that remains to be seen. Clearly we are making it very obvious that we take our obligations to NATO seriously.
John Kirby: (33:40)
That’s why we’re sending these additional forces. That’s why we’re bolstering our allies. That’s why secretary Austin was in Europe just last week to deliver that message so that Mr. Putin knows, and quite frankly, our allies know too what President Biden said. We will defend every inch of NATO territory. Again, we don’t want to see it come to that, but if it does come to that, the United States will be ready.
Speaker 1: (34:05)
What you’re saying, you are really saying that the open door policy, you are stick to the open door policy of NATO?
John Kirby: (34:11)
It is up to the Alliance and the nation state in question to determine future membership. It is not something that Mr. Putin gets to veto, period. Okay. Thanks everybody.