Transcript

Secretary of Defense Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley Press Briefing

Jan. 28, 2022
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley; Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Well, good afternoon, everybody. Just a couple of notes at the top.

Obviously, we're all socially distanced, so we've got the majority of the press covering this press conference on Zoom, and the secretary and the chairman will be taking questions from both in the room and on Zoom. Given the unique circumstances and, of course their pressing schedules today, I'd ask you to please limit your follow-up questions so we can get a chance to get through everybody. And I'll be coming back to call it towards the end of it here as we get ready to close.

Both the secretary and the chairman have opening statements. I will stop talking now so that they can deliver their opening statements, and then we'll get right to questions.

Mr. Secretary?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, thanks, John, and thanks to everybody. I'm really glad to be with you.

I know you're covering the situation in Europe closely, and so I want to update you on what the department's doing to support Ukraine and to uphold our ironclad commitment to our NATO allies.

As you know, for months now, Russia has been deploying forces to Crimea and along Ukraine's border, including in Belarus. It has progressed at a consistent and steady pace involving tens of thousands of Russian troops, and it is being supported by increased Russian naval activity in the northern Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea.

While we don't believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, he clearly now has that capability and there are multiple options available to him, including the seizure of cities and significant territories, but also, coercive acts or provocative political acts like the recognition of breakaway territories. Indeed, we're seeing Russian state media spouting off now about alleged activities in the eastern Ukraine. Now, this is straight out of the Russian playbook, and they're not fooling us. We remain focused on Russian disinformation, including the potential creation of pretext for further invasion or strikes on Donbass, and any Russian attack or further incursion into Ukraine would not only ignite conflict, it would also violate the bedrock principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination.

So this is something that we're taking very seriously both as a strong partner of Ukraine and as one of 30 members of NATO. We're unified in opposition to Russia's attempts to undermine those core values that threaten peace and security in Europe. So let me be clear on where things stand today.

First, conflict is not inevitable. There is still time and space for diplomacy. The United States, in lockstep with our allies and partners, has offered Russia a path away from crisis and toward greater security, and the Department of Defense will continue to support those diplomatic efforts.

Second, the United States remains committed to helping Ukraine defend itself through security assistance material, and since 2014, we've committed more than $2.7 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. That includes more security assistance to Ukraine in the past year, $650 million, than at any previous time.

And so in December, President Biden authorized $200 million in assistance, which included additional Javelins and other anti-armor weapons, grenade launchers, large quantities of artillery and small arms ammunition and other equipment. Those deliveries are ongoing. Indeed, another shipment just arrived today.

And third, the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with our NATO allies. That includes reinforcing security on NATO's Eastern Flank, and as you know, we've placed thousands of U.S. troops on prepare to deploy orders earlier this week. If NATO activates its response forces, these troops will be ready to go.

Now, the situation on Ukraine's borders is changing rapidly, but as we look ahead, there are a couple of things that we can count on. One, this department will continue to provide President Biden with options to defend our national security interests in response to Russian actions. And two, we will stay united with our NATO allies.

Earlier this week, I spoke with my Polish counterpart. Yesterday, I spoke with my Romanian counterpart. And this morning, I had two very good conversations with my counterparts in France and Germany.

As we've made clear, in addition to the significant economic and diplomatic costs that Russia will incur, a move on Ukraine will accomplish the very thing Russia says it does not want -- a NATO alliance strengthened and resolved on its Western Flank.

The United States will contribute to NATO's response forces and we will coordinate with our NATO allies, we will make sure that they have the capabilities that they need to defend themselves. Article 5 is clear on this point -- an attack against one NATO member is an attack against us all. And as President Biden has said, the United States holds this as a sacred obligation and we will do right by that commitment.

And Mr. Putin can do the right thing, as well. There's no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict. He can choose to deescalate, he can order his troops away, he can choose dialogue and diplomacy. Whatever he decides, the United States will stand with our allies and partners.

I want to briefly address two other items before we open it up for questions. First, on Wednesday, I was honored to join the president when he signed an executive order to help us deliver on the promise that all men and women in uniform should be able to serve their country free from fear of violence or harassment. This executive order will improve the military justice system's response to sexual assault, harassment and related crimes, and I welcome it.

And finally, as you know, yesterday, I directed changes to the department's civilian harm mitigation and response policy, oversight and processes. Within 90 days, we will unveil a plan to specify the range of actions that we'll take on civilian harm mitigation and response, including important steps building on mileage and best practices and tools for preventing and mitigating and responding to civilian harm. But I also ordered some immediate steps, including the establishment of a civilian harm center of excellence, reporting to me, that will compel us to learn from our mistakes and to make changes in stride.

I know personally how hard we work to avoid civilian harm and to abide by the law of armed conflict but I've also said that we need to do better, and we will. This is a priority for me and we will ensure that we are transparent as we continue this important work.

And so now, I'll turn it over to the Chairman for his thoughts.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary, and good afternoon to everyone and appreciate having an opportunity to address all of you.

Ukraine has the right to be independent and they have been an independent country since 1991. Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, with the United States and Great Britain, that guaranteed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

It's the policy of the United States government to continue to support an independent Ukraine and their goals, and we are continuing our effort to enhance their ability to protect themselves. We strongly encourage Russia to stand down and to pursue a resolution through diplomacy. Armed force should always be the last resort. Success here is through dialogue.

The Russian Federation has amassed upwards, at this time, of over 100,000 ground forces, air forces, naval forces, special forces, cyber, electronic warfare, command and control, logistics, engineers and other capabilities along the Ukraine border.

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, with a population of 44 million. It's divided in the middle by the river Dnieper. Prominent terrain includes flat, open plains, and there are an abundance of rivers and lakes and there's a high water table. And when that high water table freezes, it makes for optimal conditions for cross-country tracked and wheeled vehicle maneuver.

The city of Kiev has a population of nearly three million people. Other major population centers include Kharkiv or Kharkov, Donetsk, Odessa, Dnipro and Lviv in the west. There are many people in highly dense population centers throughout Ukraine, and if war were to break out on the scale and scope that is possible, the civilian population will suffer immensely.

The Ukraine military has about 150,000 active duty service members, with many more in their reserves. They consist of multiple units -- sea, air, land -- and they are currently disposed and arrayed throughout Ukraine, with a high density on the east-end section and a line of contact in the Donbass region.

Ukraine has other units and they maintain artillery, air defense, airfields, bases, depots, and they have a highly regarded Territorial Force and People's Militia. Their combat capabilities have improved since 2014, when Russia annexed illegally Crimea, but they need additional help to defend themselves, especially from an invasion force the size that Russia is currently massing.

If Russia chooses to invade Ukraine, it will not be cost free, in terms of casualties or other significant effects. There is a small contingent of U.S. and NATO advisors and trainers currently in Ukraine. The United States has zero offensive combat weapons systems, nor any permanent forces, nor bases in Ukraine. Our role is limited in that we help train, advise and assist with tactics, techniques and procedures. We participate in institutional development of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

As the secretary of defense has noted, we continue to provide military material support to Ukraine along with many other countries from NATO, and we are ready, capable and prepared to uphold our obligation under treaty to NATO, as mentioned by the secretary. An attack against one NATO ally is an attack against all.

NATO has significant military capability. NATO has approximately 130-plus brigades of maneuver forces, not including U.S. forces, 93 squadrons of high-end fighters, four carriers, many more surface combatants. The military capability of NATO is very, very significant.

In addition to bordering Russia and Belarus and Moldova, Ukraine has a border with four NATO members: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The president and the secretary of defense have authorized the United States military to increase our readiness in the event we have to reinforce or assist our NATO allies. War is not inevitable, as the secretary said. The right answer here is a diplomatic solution.

And I look forward to your questions.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Chairman. We'll turn to questions now, and we'll start with Lita.

Q: Thank you. Thank you both for doing this. Mr. Secretary, and first, can you say whether any U.S. troops have begun moving either into or in and around Europe? And if not, can you give us an idea when that might happen?

And then secondarily, how much risk is it to send additional U.S. troops to the eastern flank? Russia even today has said they see little room for compromise right now. Does sending additional U.S. forces to that region hand Putin an excuse to make an incursion into Ukraine?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Lita. You know, I think you can assume that anytime that we think about troop movements, we always consider the impact that that's going to have on leaders' minds and their decision-making. I'd just make two points, and you raised this earlier.

We haven't actually moved any troops; we've put troops on higher alert. And the second point that I would make, Lita, is that even if and when we do move troops, the purpose of those troops deploying would be to reassure allies or directly in support of NATO, or both.

So I think that, again, before we make any decisions on readiness or movement of troops, we always take those things into mind -- the impact on other leaders.

Q: Mr. Chairman?

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, I'd just echo what the secretary said. We haven't deployed anybody. We haven't moved anybody yet. We're just increasing our readiness levels. And I think in terms of your question about provocation with respect to Russia, that would depend on the size, scale, scope and type of forces that were deployed as to whether or not that was provocative to Russia. We certainly have no intent whatsoever that I'm aware of of putting offensive forces to attack Russia, and I don't think that's NATO's intent at all. This is entirely engineered by Russia and President Putin as an overt act of coercion against Ukraine.

SEC. AUSTIN: We'll go to the phone now, John. I think Helene is up, Helene Cooper.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, sir.

SEC. AUSTIN: And so we'll go to Helene next.

Q: Hi. Thank you, Secretary Austin and General Milley, for doing this. I have questions for both of you.

For Secretary Austin, you said in your opening statement that Vladimir Putin clearly now has the capability to enter Ukraine. Has he put in place the military hardware and troops that he would need to launch a full-scale invasion of all of Ukraine, the whole country?

And for both you and General Milley, both of you have been military officers for four decades. You served in the Gulf War, in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. You've seen North Korea and Iran pursue their own nuclear ambitions. I'm wondering, does this feel different to you? How would you characterize this crisis with Ukraine and Russia in terms of its potential to spark a great power conflict?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, in terms of whether or not he has enough forces to conduct a full-scale invasion, Helene, you heard the chairman say earlier that he's got north of 100,000 troops in the border region. That gives him a number of options, and what he's done as he's continued to move troops and resources into the region is increase his options. And so we won't predict where his decisions will take him, but we remain concerned about the range of options that he could pursue, and we'll stay focused on this problem set.

And I'll turn to the chairman here for his thoughts.

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, in terms of the size of the forces that are amassed right now, they could -- I mean, it's potential. We don't think there's been a decision, as the secretary already made that point. But sure, with 100,000 troops, and you've got combined arms formations, ground maneuver, artillery, rockets, you've got air and all the other piece parts that go with it, there's a potential that they could launch on very, very little warning. That's possible, and there's a wide scale of options that are available to Russian leadership, and the best option they should pick, in my view, is a diplomatic solution to resolve whatever differences they have.

SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of how this feels, Helene, your second part of the question -- as we look at that number of troops and that amount of hardware that's in the border region, it far and away exceeds what we typically see them do for exercises, and so it's very concerning.

Where this could lead us in terms of a type of conflict or where it could put the region in terms of, you know, future activities, I won't bother to speculate on that, Helene. I would just say that we're focused on making sure that we do our part to provide the president options to support and reinforce NATO if, in fact, he does make a decision to invade Ukraine, so --

GEN. MILLEY: And Helene, does it feel different? Sure, it does feel different in terms of what we've seen in the past of Russian exercises, et cetera. This is larger in scale and scope and the massing of forces than anything we have seen in recent memory, and I think you'd have to go back quite a while into the Cold War days to see something of this magnitude. They do annual exercises and we watch those closely but this is different.

So we'll continue to monitor it very, very closely, but yes, it does feel different.

SEC. AUSTIN: We'll come back to the room and go out to David.

Q: Since the president has ruled out sending U.S. troops into Ukraine, does that mean that the U.S. military would not be used if an evacuation of Kiev became necessary?

SEC. AUSTIN: As you've indicated, David, the president's been real clear that he does not intend to put combat troops into Ukraine for the purpose of conducting combat operations.

Any troops that we deploy, if we deploy troops to the region, are those troops that are already in the region have multiple capabilities. And so as we conduct our planning, we always look at a range of options that we may have to pursue, but again, to the point that you made earlier, David, the president has been clear about not employing troops in Ukraine for combat purposes.

Q: Does that rule out using U.S. troops for evacuation purposes?

SEC. AUSTIN: I won't speculate, David, but I would say that we prepare for a range of activities and options. That's what we've always done and that's what you can expect us to do going forward.

GEN. MILLEY: And David, the State Department has issued out travel advisories. Those are in effect right now and those advisories say words to the effect of "don't travel to Ukraine if you’re an American citizen, and if you're in Ukraine, you should consider leaving Ukraine." And you can go to the State Department website and see what they've put up.

Q: There were similar advisories before Afghanistan too and it didn’t forestall an evacuation crisis.

GEN. MILLEY: That's also correct.

SEC. AUSTIN: Rest assured, David, that whatever task the United States military is called upon to accomplish, we'll be prepared to do it.

Let's go back to the phone and reach out to Phil Stewart. Phil?

Q: Yes, hi. I have a question for both of you.

To Secretary Austin, President Biden's decision to rule out deploying U.S. forces to combat Russia -- earlier in the crisis, must have impacted Putin's calculus in some way. How do you assess that it's impacted his calculus? And do you have any concerns about pursuing a strategy other than an ambiguity and as far as deterrence goes?

And to Chairman Milley, if President Biden responds by deploying U.S. troops in NATO's Eastern Flank or with economic sanctions, how do you anticipate that Russia will retaliate? How are you preparing for potential retaliation in Europe and how are you preparing for potential retaliation against the homeland, perhaps by Russian use of cyber warfare? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Phil. I won't speculate about what or how President Putin is thinking. I think that's been the question that everybody has, you know, -- if he did something like this, what would he possibly want to achieve? So I -- I won't speculate on that.

I would say that our focus is to make sure that whatever happens, we're prepared to reassure our allies in the region and support NATO's efforts. And of course, this is about NATO and the alliance. And I would remind you that NATO is a defensive alliance. Again, you've heard the Chairman talk about the resources that NATO has and I think they're considerable resources. And again, it's important to make sure that we keep the alliance united, so.

GEN. MILLEY: And Phil, I would just echo that, you know, the uniformed U.S. military is prepared to do whatever we're directed to do and we are increasing our readiness postures for units and we'll be prepared to execute whatever the president and secretary of defense require of us.

With respect to your question about the homeland and cyber and all of that, we have capabilities -- I'm not going to go into them here at the microphone -- but we've got a significant amount of capabilities to defend and do whatever is necessary to protect the homeland.

SEC. AUSTIN: Okay, let me stick with the phone here, and I think Nancy Youssef is out there. Nancy?

Q: Thank you, sir. I have a question for each of you.

Mr. Secretary, this week, we've heard about military commitments from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain, among others, to defend the alliance. I'd like to talk to you about one decision in particular and that is Canada's decision to keep as many as 400 trainers in Ukraine. The U.S. has half that amount now. Would the U.S. consider sending more trainers or advisors or does it believe there are enough there to deter Russian aggression?

And Chairman Milley, do you believe that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have taken all of the necessary steps to defend against a large scale Russian invasion or do you fear that in their push to not provoke panic, the Ukrainian government has not done enough? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Nancy. Let me, at the top, thank Canada and our other allies for what they continue to do alongside us to support Ukraine. I applaud their efforts.

And certainly, we have had advisors and trainers there since 2014, as the Chairman indicated earlier, and we remain focused on providing all of the assistance, in terms of training and advising, that Ukraine feels it needs and we worked that issue with them on a consistent basis.

I would also say that it's less about the specific number but more about the capability that you bring and what you're focusing on. And in some cases, it may take several more types of trainers to train on a specific event or a skill, and in other cases, less so.

So rest assured that we are in constant communication with Canada and the UK and everyone that's providing assistance to Ukraine at this point in time.

GEN. MILLEY: And for me, I'm not going to comment on the composition and the disposition and the readiness of the Ukraine forces in any kind of detail. I don't think that'd be appropriate for me to do that, given the current situation.

SEC. AUSTIN: Barb?

Q: A question for both of you.

Mr. Secretary, you've talked a bit here today about U.S. troops providing reassurance and deterrence to the Eastern Flank of Europe. Can you help people understand a little bit more about what that means in terms of what U.S. troops would be doing to fulfill that mission? How do you know when you're done? You don't send troops unless you have an exit strategy. What would it take for you to ever trust Vladimir Putin?

And General Milley, you laid out some pretty dire scenarios if the Russians decided to make that full move. Could you explain a little bit more? You mentioned, for example, the capital of Kyiv. How disastrous could it be, in your assessment? Are you looking at massive civilian casualties? Are you looking at massive refugee flows? The impact on the security of Europe that has existed for so many decades, if the scenario you're laying out were to come true? Thank you both.

SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of our reassurance efforts, Barb, as you know, we have had a number of forces in the region in training with the Eastern European countries. Those forces -- and that's been going on for quite some time, and those forces provide great value. Just their presence reassures our partners there that we're interested in them, interested in helping them. The types of things we do with them routinely is train with them and enable them and really increase their level of readiness. And so that's been very helpful to them, and it has strengthened our bonds with our allies and partners in the region.

These are temporary deployments, and so again, we will continue to sort this out as we go forward. But again, we are focused on NATO. We're focused on reassuring our allies, and that's what this is all about.

In terms of trusting Putin, I don't think this is about trusting Putin; this is about our allies trusting us. And so that's really what we're focused on, and you know, Mr. Putin at some point in time will reveal what he's thinking. But again, I'm not sure that he's made final decisions on what he's going to do yet, so --

GEN. MILLEY: And Barbara, let me first say that as the secretary said up front, right now, we don't think final decisions have been made to conduct any sort of offensive operation into Ukraine by the Russians, and we firmly believe there's still room for a diplomatic outcome here.

Having said that, given the type of forces that are arrayed -- the ground maneuver forces, the artillery, the ballistic missiles, the air forces -- all of it packaged together, if that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and would result in a significant amount of casualties. And you can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas, along roads and so on and so forth. It would be horrific. It would be terrible. And it's not necessary, and we think a diplomatic outcome is the way to go here.

Q: If I could very quickly follow, do you have a view? Can either of you, can you keep U.S. forces from having to deal with Russian forces directly if you're reinforcing Eastern Europe, for example? Will U.S. forces potentially be in missions against Russian forces? Can you keep them away from Russian forces?

SEC. AUSTIN: Again, our presence there helps to reassure our partners in the front-line countries there. And you know, Barb, that we have an Article 5 commitment to our NATO partners. And so if an attack -- if Putin were to attack one of those countries, then, of course, that commitment -- that's an ironclad commitment. The president has said a number of times that we will live up to that commitment, and so -- but again, our focus is not on fighting in Ukraine; it's on reassuring our NATO partners and allies.

MR. KIRBY: Sir, we've got time for just one more. One more, sir? Sir?

SEC. AUSTIN: Yes. Yes, so let's go to Luis -- from ABC.

Q: Hi, sir. Thank you to both of you for doing this briefing today. I'd like to go back to something that Lita asked at the top and the way that you framed the response about provocations and how they're perceived by Russia.

Typically, you do not disclose prepare to deploy orders, particularly when you're talking about large numbers of forces like the 8,500 that you put out this week. What was the calculus in doing that? Are you sending a message to Russia? And is it possible that the way they see that -- they may see that themselves as a provocation?

SEC. AUSTIN: Again, our focus is on making sure that we're ready to live up to our commitment to NATO, should the NATO Response Force be activated by NATO. This putting our forces on a shorter string enables us to get there in a shorter period of time.
And again, I think that provides reassurance to NATO that we're ready to live up to our commitments.

In terms of what Putin thinks and the way he feels about things, again that's hard to predict. We take those kinds of things into consideration.
But again, if you look at the forces that he has moved into the region and that he continues to move into the region, you know, there was no provocation that caused him to move those forces. So you know, we'll continue to listen to what he says and watch what he does.
Chairman?

GEN. MILLEY: Yes, I would echo all of that with respect to the PTDO forces. You know, for 20 years -- Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera -- we've announced when forces are rotating, et cetera. We attempt to be transparent with you, and with Congress, and with the American people on the use and the deployment of military forces.

We alerted based on the direction from the president and secretary of Defense, we increased the readiness status of these forces. So the forces themselves have been told.
And we think it's a better -- from a transparency standpoint, better to inform you, the media, the American people and Congress of the forces that are out there that are being alerted. In addition to that, the piece about, you know, assuring and deterring with respect to our NATO allies.
But we think it's also important to be transparent with you and the American people about what we're doing with your military.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, all. We have to get going. Thank you so much, gentlemen.

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