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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

KIRBY:  Good afternoon, everybody. More of you, I see, today.

(CROSSTALK)

KIRBY:  You're welcome for that. OK, a couple things on the top, and then we'll -- we'll get right at it.

Secretary Austin will be departing tomorrow on an overseas trip to meet with senior military and government leaders in Belgium, Poland and Lithuania in Brussels, of course. He will meet with allied and defense ministers across NATO leadership in the defense ministerial, obviously, to discuss Russia's military buildup in and around Ukraine. He'll also reiterate the United States' commitment to our allies made in Article 5 and continue the alliance's progress on deterrence and defense while ensuring the alliance is prepared to face tomorrow's challenges.

In Poland, he plans to meet with the Polish president and the minister of national defense to enhance bilateral cooperation and security and deepen the Polish-American partnership, which we believe is vital to addressing today's current threats and challenges. He'll also get a chance to meet with U.S. and Polish troops that are at Powidz Air Base to tour the facility there and to observe the conditions of our rotational presence.

Secretary Austin will also travel to Lithuania to meet with the Lithuanian president, the prime minister and minister for national defense as well, again, to reaffirm that the United States stands with Lithuania and the Baltic states, working together to strengthen Lithuanian Armed Forces and to continuing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against threats and adversaries.

Separately, Secretary Austin does plan to meet jointly with his counterparts from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia together, and he'll have a chance, as well, to visit with some U.S. servicemembers that are there in Lithuania.

On another note, I'd like to announce that the secretary has appointed Dr. Eric D. Evans to serve as the chair of -- OK, it's not here. I'm missing some -- some sentences here. I'm going to -- we'll -- we will announce this later after the briefing. I don't have all the text of it here.

So with that, Bob, we'll take questions. Sorry about that.

QUESTION:  Improvising.

KIRBY:  We actually -- let me see. Do you have -- do you have it there?  All right. I apologize.

Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thanks, John. A question about the Russian buildup in -- on the border area of Ukraine. Can you -- can you give a little bit more detailed description of the lay of the land there in term -- in -- like in recent days. For example, have some of the ground units that were in larger assembly areas moved into -- moved out toward -- closer to the border into what might be attack positions? Other movements over the last 24 hours and such?

KIRBY:  Yeah, so what I'd say, Bob, is even over the last 24 to 48, over the course of the weekend, Mr. Putin has added military capability along that border with Ukraine and in Belarus. He is exercising his -- some of his units on the ground there in the south, as well as -- as naval units in the Black Sea. So he continues to add to his readiness. He continues to give himself more options, should he pursue a military path here.

I'm not going to -- I -- I would like to refrain from getting into specific movements of their -- of their troops. I think that's probably not a wise thing for me to do with any great specificity. I would just say this:  That he continues to advance his readiness, should he choose to -- to go down a military path here, and should he choose to invade again, he is doing all the things you would expect him to do to make sure he's ready for that option, or options.

QUESTION:  So there's no indication, for example, that what they've called exercises have ended in any way, or are changing in any way their -- their presence either...

KIRBY:  I -- I want to be careful to characterize another nation's exercises. We've seen them conduct these exercises in recent days. Exercises are designed to make you ready, and that gets to my previous point. He continues to do the things that you would expect one to do if -- if one was planning on a -- a major military action, and that is to sharpen the readiness and to add to the capabilities of -- of his force.

Now look, we obviously don't want that to be the outcome, and neither do -- neither do the Ukrainians, and certainly, neither do our -- our -- our NATO allies. And Foreign Minister Lavrov said earlier today that -- or seemed to indicate that he still thinks there's oxygen here for diplomacy. We -- we would welcome a pursuit of that path by the Russians, because we, too, believe that there still should be and can be a -- a diplomatic path forward.

Jen?

QUESTION:  John, I'm trying to understand. Are you still suggesting that Putin has not taken a decision to invade Ukraine?

KIRBY:  We still don't believe that some final decision has -- has been made.

QUESTION:  Then how is it that communications continue -- and we just heard from President Zelensky that he's been told that an invasion will happen on February 16th, which is Wednesday. How do you reconcile...

KIRBY:  Sure.

QUESTION:  ... Putin hasn't taken a decision, but an invasion's happening on the 16th?

KIRBY:  Well, I'm not going to talk about specific intelligence assessments. I think you can understand that. We have said for a while now that military action could happen any day, and you heard from the national security advisor, making it clear that it -- it -- it certainly could happen before the end of the Olympics, maybe even this week. We have shared with our allies and partners, and that includes Ukraine, our assessment of the information that -- that we've been receiving, and certainly have reflected in those conversations our deep concern about the continued capabilities that Mr. Putin has at his -- has at his beck and call.

So I -- I won't get into a -- a specific date; I don't think that would be smart. I would just tell you that it is entirely possible that he could move with little to no warning.

QUESTION:  What will the U.S. response be at that -- at that time? Is the Defense Secretary going to the NATO Ministerial? Are we talking about the NATO Response Force being activated? What would we expect to see?

KIRBY:  President Biden has made clear that should there be another incursion into Ukraine that the United States would respond swiftly with severe economic consequences. I won't speak for the alliance, a decision to activate the NATO Response Force is a decision that the NAC, the North Atlantic Council has to make. That's not something that the United States would unilaterally call into being.

I will only add this and this is why a couple of weeks ago we talked about making our contribution to the response force more ready. And so we've done that and one of the messages that the secretary will carry with him, NATO, is that our contribution to the NATO Response Force, should it be called, should it be activated, they'll be ready to go.

QUESTION:  And just to be clear, your answer to Bob, you do not see evidence that his forces have moved into attack positions yet?

KIRBY:  I'm not going to talk about what specifically we're seeing on the ground when it comes to unit-by-unit. What I would tell you is, that we continue to see him advance his readiness and improve his capabilities and provide himself more options should he decide to take another -- to take military action in Ukraine.

Let me go to the phones here. I promise I'll get to everybody. I -- we'll be here as long as you want. Tom Squitieri?

QUESTION:  Hey John, good afternoon. Thank you very much. The U.S. Navy has yet to pinpoint the exact location and depth of that F-35 that was involved in an accident. By extension, has been able to secure that area in the South China Sea.

You said several times from the podium that this F-35 is U.S. property and you have no concern that other nations or entities will try to pilfer it. What gives you confidence that the Chinese will abide by their national protocols regarding ownership and salvage, just given they've ignored other international court rulings regarding the South China Sea?

KIRBY:  It's not about confidence that the Chinese will or won't do anything, Tom. It is our property. It is not uncommon for us to recover our property when it is lost at sea. And we are making every effort to do that in this case.

And if it can be done I'm confident that the United States will be -- the United States Navy will be able to get it -- get it done. They're onsite and they're working through this in real-time.

Yes, Sylvie.

QUESTION:  Thank you, John. The Russian Defense Minister Sergey, said this morning that they are going to end soon or they are even ending some of their military exercise. So, since you say like they continue to reinforce their deployment, what that means is you don't take him at his word or it's not relevant for this moment?

KIRBY:  I'm not challenging his word that he's ending exercises. That's the -- that's not the point. The point is, he continues to make ready for -- and increasingly large number of Russian troops along that border with Ukraine.

The fact that I -- look, they can -- I'm happy that they're speaking to their exercises. That's a welcome change, for them to be transparent about what they're doing with exercises. They haven't been, at all, transparent about what they intend to do with this massive build-up.

It's strange credulity to think that they would have this many troops arrayed along the border with Ukraine and in Belarus simply for winter exercises. So, we still think there's a diplomatic path.

If they want to send a strong signal about de-escalation they could if, in fact, these troops are done their exercises they could send them back to their home garrisons and reduce the presence along that border. That would go a long way.

Yes? Oren?

QUESTION:  John, a Russian invasion would be preceded by a series of sort of preparatory steps, information warfare, cyberattacks, indication of protests in Ukraine, state media preparing the Russian population for casualties. Are you seeing that? And if so, how specific can you be about what you're seeing?

KIRBY:  I -- it's a piece of the Russian playbook to lay down a foundation for these military action with cyber operations, information operations, even hybrid operations as we saw back in 2014, you know, the little green men. These are, in fact, Russian soldiers that aren't -- that aren't -- that aren't dressed as Russian soldiers.

We're on the -- we are monitoring this closely and certainly on the lookout for the use of any of these kinds of tactics. I won't speak to specific assessments as -- here today. I would just tell you that we're watching this very closely.

And it's one of the reasons why, Oren, that we've tried to be open over the last week and a half, two weeks, about the potential for these kinds of a -- of concentric, if you will, that's a Pentagon phrase I know, but non-kinetic tactics and procedures used by the Russians to begin to sow the seeds for potential armed conflict, to include creating some sort of pretext that the -- that the Ukrainians would react to that then they could claim was a threat to their national security.

So, I can't speak with specificity today that of anything that is glaring obviously, except to go back to what we said before about the things we have seen in the intelligence about their preparations for those kinds of non-kinetic, sort of low-intensity operations that they could use to their advantage.

QUESTION: Broadly speaking, you can't say yes or no to a foundation is being laid at this point?

KIRBY:  I think we've seen them, certainly, make it clear that they want to lay that foundation. I think I'd leave it at that.

Yes, Megan.

QUESTION:  Hi. If there is any sort of invasion this week, will that affect the secretary's schedule at all while he's in Europe?

KIRBY:  The secretary is leaving tomorrow morning for Brussels.

QUESTION:  And the plan is to stay for the entire time no matter what?

KIRBY:  We'll have to see, obviously, how things play out. The secretary's looking forward to his trip, looking forward to meeting with these leaders, looking forward to making clear our commitments to our NATO allies.

Jim?

QUESTION:  John, just a -- you know, what role is China playing in this whole Ukraine, Russian (inaudible). Is the -- is the -- is the defense secretary worried about the role they're playing?

KIRBY:  We certainly have been watching the -- at least public burgeoning relationship here between Russia and China, their February 4 joint statement certainly provided further evidence that China has decided that they're going to stand alongside Russia with respect to what's going on in Europe. And we would say that their tacit support, if you will, for Russia is deeply alarming. And frankly, even more destabilizing to the security situation in Europe.

Mandy?

QUESTION:  I had a question for you about some of the comments that the president made in his interview with Lester Holt. He says in that interview that he's, quote, "Not told about what commanders were observing on the ground in Afghanistan." And I'm just trying to get some (inaudible) because it would seem to me that the secretary and the chairman are tasked with communicating to the president what -- what troops on the ground are saying.

So could you help me understand what responsibility that the secretary and the chairman have for the president not getting essential information from commanders on the ground on the final days of the war?

KIRBY:  I mean what I would tell you is throughout the month of August, in fact, well -- well before the month of August, there was a very robust steady frequent interagency process -- decision making process, I mean started thinking about and planning for noncombatant evacuation as far back as April.

And we didn't do that in a vacuum. There was ample interagency discussions about that as far back as the spring. (Inaudible) …the chairman and the secretary absolutely take very seriously their requirement to provide the commander-in-chief with their best advice about how to proceed forward and about how the situation is changing.

And there were many, many opportunities for them to do that, both in terms of larger interagency meetings as well as private sessions that they have weekly with the president. And they've said as much in -- in -- in testimony.

I would tell you because I know what's prompting the question and I would just tell you that commanders at the tactical level absolutely were trying to make the best decision they could in real time under incredibly difficult circumstances and they were seeing things through -- at rightly through their prism in the moment there at the airport.

There were other perspectives at a strategic level and I would tell you that the president has a much bigger view, a larger perspective on -- on what's going on then at the tactical level. And those discussions were happening here in Washington, D.C.

And there was, certainly in the month of August, literally daily touches between the secretary and the chairman and leaders on the ground there at the airport. So the information flow was -- was strong. But at no time did the National Security Council try to stop an evacuation or slow it down or gum up the works.

The leaders on the ground certainly were -- were working under incredible pressure and certainly as I gave these interviews for this investigation, doing that honestly not knowing that these documents were going to be made public so they were very candid about what they were seeing.

At the strategic level there were different perspectives, interagency perspectives that we're also factoring into the decision making process. But there was no effort in here in D.C. to slow down or stop the evacuation.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) can you tell us what the status is on evacuating the families on the August 29th during --

KIRBY:  That work still continues, Nancy. Obviously not at the speed with which we are satisfied. But we haven't lost focus -- we haven't diminished our strong desire to -- to get them -- to get them to safety.

QUESTION:  It's been six months. Do you think it's days away, weeks away, months away?

KIRBY:  I would be -- I'd be reticent to give you an estimate. If -- if we had total control it would have been months ago. But I -- I -- I just don't have an estimate for you. I can just assure you that it's not been forgotten and that there's a deliberate concerted effort to do the right thing by those family members and get them to safety here in the United States. Yes, let me go to the phones.

Jeff Schogol?

QUESTION:  Thank you. The United States is certainly taking a number of precautions that indicate it believes war is likely, including closing the embassy in Ukraine. Is there any chance that U.S. Troops in Europe might be a bit -- or excuse me -- is it possible that Europe might be part of the combat zone tax exclusion in which troops in Europe would not pay taxes on their pay?

KIRBY:  Jeff, the president has made clear that U.S. troops are not going to be fighting in Ukraine. The troops that we have added to the already 80,000 that are based in Europe are going to reassure our allies and our partners to deter aggression against the alliance to conduct some joint training.

So I know of no decision or no -- no need to change the parameters of the European theater with the respect to combat zoning tax exclusion. 

Mike Brest, the Examiner?

QUESTION:  Hi, Mr. Kirby. Thank you. How many people -- or how many civilians does DOD now believe were killed in the Abdullah raid?

KIRBY:  I -- I would tell you we -- when we briefed this out we indicated that a total of seven individuals were killed. Two of them -- three of them of the seven, of course, were Mr. Abdullah and then his lieutenant on the second floor as well as his wife who was, in fact, a combatant. So of the seven that -- that we have talked about we know three of them were combatants.

And that's the -- that's the estimate that we have right now. But we have certainly seen numbers higher than that and we're not in a position to dispute those numbers because we didn't stay on sight for more than two hours, as was the plan, and we're not going to certainly rule out the possibility that in that explosion on the third floor additional individuals, whether they were combatants or not, can't say, since that explosion happened before our troops got into the building but it's not out of the realm of the possible that additional people could have been killed in that initial explosion and buried in the rubble and -- and we didn't see them.

Again, we weren't on sight for very long. So seven is the number that we know of and we -- we -- but we do believe a sense of humility here, we don't -- we don't know, we can't confirm that there weren't others that Mr. Abdullah decided to take with him when he exploded that device on the third floor. 

Janne?

QUESTION:  Thank you, John. President Biden said he would pursue diplomacy and deterrence in the Ukraine crisis and this (inaudible) with the allies. And South Korea has said it supports Ukraine. My question is what kind of military support does the U.S. want to from South Korea as an ally?

KIRBY:  That is a question for the South Korean government to answer. Should they want to assist Ukraine in a tangible way, certainly that -- I'm sure that the Ukrainians would -- would welcome that. We've noted and I've said before that many of our other allies in NATO were also finding ways to support Ukraine but -- excuse me -- those are sovereign decisions that each nation state has to make for themselves and I wouldn't get ahead of the South Korean government on this.

Yes, Abraham?

QUESTION:  Thanks, John. A couple short Ukraine follow up questions. Does DOD have any air defense trainers on the ground in Ukraine?

KIRBY:  No.

QUESTION:  Does DOD consider a Russian movement into the Donbas a new incursion?

KIRBY:  Yes.

QUESTION:  And can you elaborate on what Secretary Austin's thinking was on pulling the Florida National Guard trainers out of Western Ukraine?

KIRBY:  We said it quite clearly in our statement. It was in abundance of caution. Again, given the mosaic of the information that we've been getting over the course of the last 48 hours and the information we continue to receive even as early as today, it is obviously not the safest place for them to be. And so, he ordered them taken out of the country over the weekend. Again, abundance of safety, abundance of caution here.

I said, what, two weeks ago when you guys were asking me about this if and when he believed the safety and security of those individuals was going to be at risk he would make the decision to remove them, and he did that. 

Courtney?

QUESTION:  There's also another small contingent of our US military in the country not just what remains at the embassy but, you know, there's some Special Forces there. Are you - can you say that as of now all U.S. military forces that are deployed in Ukraine have been taken out or ordered out?

KIRBY:  I would tell you that there remains a small amount of U.S. military personnel in support of our diplomats, and they remain in the country.

QUESTION:  Other than the remaining security guards, is there anyone besides them?

KIRBY:  I'm just going to leave my answer as I - as I said it. 

Kasim?

QUESTION:  John, Secretary Austin ordered 3,000 additional troops to Poland. What triggered that decision? You already have deployed 1,700 troops a week ago to the country. What triggered that specific decision to...

KIRBY:  We talked about this at the time. I mean, again, we continue to see a buildup - continued buildup for Russian military forces. We continue to consult with our allies, in this case in particular, Poland. And it was deemed by both sides that this was a prudent measure given what we're seeing on the ground, given what our intelligence was telling us, and given the potential need for additional capability in Poland.

I would remind you that these 3,000 are still part of the 82nd Airborne. When we announced the first 1,700 I called them an element of and I didn't rule out the fact that additional 82nd Airborne soldiers would go. The secretary held them in reserve. He decided that now is the time to send them.

QUESTION:  And also just we have seen the U.S. F-22s arrived in United Arab Emirates. How do you think these fighters help Emirates dealing with the Houthi missiles? Is that a plan to kind of join the action or defense actions I guess?

KIRBY:  They're going to - these F-22s are going to join a range of joint coalition and allied partnered combat air capabilities that are already based across the region, so they're additive to the airpower that we have in the region. 

Jen?

QUESTION:  Can I just go back to a question that Jim asked? I'm a little confused by your answer. Do you have evidence that China gave its tacit support to Russia during that meeting on February 4th for an invasion of Ukraine?

KIRBY:  The statement itself leads in our view as tacit support. 

Yes. Nobody else in the room? Yes. Matt?

QUESTION:  Thanks. I know you don't want to get into specific troop number (inaudible) for the Russian...

KIRBY:  You're right. I don't.

QUESTION:  OK. I guessed right. When you talk about more capabilities being brought in either over the last 24 to 48 hours...

KIRBY:  Correct.

QUESTION:  ... and last week you talked about some of those capabilities and sustainment. Can you say anything more about what these capabilities are that are continuing to be flown in? Is it more of the same or more offensive capabilities?

KIRBY:  Just broadly speaking, Matt, we've talked about the presence as providing him combined arms capabilities, right? So it's infantry, it's armor, it's artillery, it's air and missile defense as well as offensive air. I mean, he's got a lot of combat aircraft now at his ability. He's got significant naval power inside the Black Sea, and not lost on anyone that a good chunk of those ships, at least half a dozen of them are LSTs. They're landing ships with one purpose, and that's to put troops to shore.

He's got special operations capability. He's got cyber capability. He's got ISR capability, and over the past weeks and months he's continued to add to that. So I don't know that I would go so glibly as to say well it's just more of the same, but in terms of the menu of options he continues to add to that across the whole spectrum of military capabilities, and I think I'd probably just leave it at that.

And but you also talked about sustainment, and we have definitely seen in recent weeks adding logistics and sustainment capability so that it's pretty clear that if he wants to he's going to ensure that he can keep these troops in the field for longer periods of time. And that's everything from transportation to supply chains to medical support, so we continue to see that being added. Does that help?

QUESTION:  Yes.

KIRBY:  Yes. Tony?

QUESTION:  What steps are being taken to make sure the entire 82nd Airborne's immediate response force now that you're sending to Poland that they're staying away from any harm's way in case there's - if there's an invasion? Will their location be pretty much central Poland and nowhere near border?

KIRBY:  I'll let the commander talk about where he's going to put these troops, Tony. They're going to be sent over there for a range of potential contingencies. They're multi-mission capable as you know.

QUESTION:  Sure.

KIRBY:  And as we've talked about if one of the contingencies are, if one of the needs are to help with evacuation assistance on the Polish side of the border as people come across the border, should they come across that border and need help, they'll be prepared to do that.

And if that's going to be the mission that you're going to conduct, you're going to have to be somewhere near that border, right? But again, I won't get ahead of - I won't get ahead of leaders on the ground and what they're doing. But I do want to just - I know we've said this before. It's worth repeating. There's no intention, there's no plan, and there's no approval to put these troops into Ukraine. They're being sent to Poland. They're going to stay in Poland.

QUESTION:  But it's essentially planned you know, you've heard it said they could accidentally be drawn in. I mean, there's...

KIRBY:  They're not going to be accidentally drawn into Ukraine.

QUESTION:  They're not?

KIRBY:  No.

QUESTION:  OK. They actually - what's the level of intelligence sharing with Ukraine between the U.S. and Ukraine? You hinted at it earlier that you're sharing broadly, but are you giving them a granular tactical intelligence?

KIRBY:  I would tell you that we have been very transparent with our Ukrainian partners about the intelligence assessments that we've been seeing and the things that we've been seeing in that environment, and I'm comfortable and confident that it has been of a sufficient level of detail to convince. Put it that way. 

Jeff Seldin, VOA?

QUESTION:  John, thanks very much for doing this. Some questions on Russia and Ukraine. First, was the Pentagon aware that the Ukrainian President was going to post on Facebook today about Russia invading on Wednesday? And also for weeks you and others in the U.S. government have been sharing information about possible Russian false flag operations, how Russia could launch military action in Ukraine. Are there any indications that the warnings from your (inaudible) and others has done anything to change Russia's calculus and if not was it worth it?

And finally, if I may, has the U.S. been asked by any allies or partners in Eastern Europe for help preparing for an influx of refugees as a result of anything Russia might do? Thanks.

KIRBY:  OK, there's an awful lot there, Jeff. On Mr. Zelensky's Facebook post I don't know whether anybody here in the building was aware of that, Jeff, I certainly wasn't. But -- but that doesn't really say anything. I don't even have a Facebook account. But I don't -- I don't know, Jeff.

I mean, I can take the question to see. I would, you know, just point out that he's -- he's the president of Ukraine, he can post on Facebook what he wants, and when he wants. He doesn't have to run that by anybody or seek approval from us. You know, he's the -- he's the leader of a sovereign state.

So I'll check to see if we had any kind of heads up but I would, frankly, be surprised if we did. And that's perfectly OK. On the false flag question, I mean, you know, what I would just tell you is we continue to see indications in the intelligence that they're -- that the Russians are exploring that option. And I think I'd just leave it at that.

On -- on refugees, our -- the focus of the troops that are going over there as I mentioned in my answer to I think it was Matt, that multi-mission capable, certainly, assistance with evacuation flow is something that they could do, and could do quite well. And they're going to be working with Polish authorities on what that looks like, and how they would handle that.

I know of no other efforts inside at least U.S. troops in Europe that -- to contribute to -- to like operations should they be needed. But obviously, one of the great things about the U.S. military is that it's multi-mission capable, is that it's flexible.

And as you heard the secretary say when he was up here a couple of weeks ago, if that's something we're called on to do outside of Ukraine, you know, we would certainly be able to contribute to that kind of mission.

The -- your question though, and pardon me for -- for foot-stomping again, but, you know, it -- it's a good question but it -- but it gets to an outcome here that doesn't have to be. There -- there shouldn't be a need for evacuation assistance, there shouldn't be a need for people to -- to -- to have to flee their homeland.

Because there shouldn't be any invasion of it, a sovereign state by another nation-state next door. Who clearly has shown aggressive tendencies here, and an alarming build-up of military capabilities, and certainly, has shown no sign yet of being willing to de-escalate or an unwillingness to take those capabilities off the table.

And to find a real diplomatic path forward. And I think it's important to remember, again, not that this really answers your question specifically, but should they conduct another major military action, real lives will be at risk. Ukrainian lives to be sure but also Russian lives. This -- this will not be bloodless, this will not be easy.

And -- and not only will you see people trying to flee the country but you're going to see people seriously hurt and seriously killed as a result of it. And there's no reason for it. The Russians can de-escalate immediately, they could easily sit down and take seriously a diplomatic path forward, and stop this now.

So that there is no need for people to have to flee their homes. So that there is -- there are no causalities, there is no bloodshed. It's -- it's -- it's within Mr. Putin's power to make the right decision now. And obviously, we hope to see him do that. OK, thanks everybody, appreciate it.

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