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Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby Holds an On-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Alright, just a couple of things to start with everybody. As the President mentioned in his remarks yesterday, 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 in the defense of the Eastern Flank. These forces, comprised of aviation element and some ground forces, will 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. 

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 Tod 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 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 wintertime to help demonstrate the ability to operate in austere conditions. 

The Army fifth core will provide command and control for the exercise. And conducting Saber 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 Saber 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 capital region. He approved that request yesterday. Those requests came from the D.C. government, their Emergency Management Agency, as well as the U.S. Capitol Police. All told, among the two requests, it's about 700 guardsmen, 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 with that, we'll take questions. Lita.

Q: John, people are talking about this a 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 sort of now imminent? Have you seen Russian troops move into Luhansk and Donetsk? Have you seen them move into that Donbas region? And have you seen that move further into Ukraine beyond those two regions? 

MR. KIRBY: OK. A lot there. On the Donetsk and Luhansk, as you've heard, administrative officials say before. We do believe that marks the beginning of an invasion. We certainly believe that additional Russian military forces 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, Lita, 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. Again, what that action is going to be, and exactly on what 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 any time now. We believe that they are ready. I'll just leave it at that. They're ready. 

Jen?

Q: 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? Or what are you seeing?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any specifics on that claim. But it is a piece of the kinds of ridiculous claims that we have seen the Russians make and 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 showing of Russian forces or Russian separatists. All again, that is 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. 

Q: 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?

MR. KIRBY: So first, I don't think we're in a position to attribute the 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 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 a piece of a Russian playbook, which is to disrupt in cyberspace. 

Let's see anybody else? Janne?

Q: Thank you, John. I have a quick question on the Ukraine and (inaudible) 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?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. I'm going to avoid speculating here and getting into hypotheticals, particularly about the potential use of use of nuclear weapons, Janne. 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 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, you know, 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 just 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?

Q: Yes, thanks John. 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, because the word is temporary is pretty prominent there, is there a timeframe for ‘temporary?’ And is there any talk yet of the NATO rapid response, those U.S. forces getting activated? 

MR. KIRBY: OK. Yes, there's a lot there. Right now, they're going to be under the command of General Wolters in his U.S. European command hat. I don't know of any changes to that. Temporary, I don't have an exact timeframe on this. I want to remind you that they were already in Europe, there's 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 host nations -- the new host nations that will be hosting, these units are willing to continue to have them. So, 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. On your -- I lost your third question, dang it.

Q: Rapid Response Force?

MR. KIRBY: That's a better question for NATO, Abraham. That's not a question for the United States. That will 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. So, they are more ready to go if called upon. So, while I can't give you any sorts of timing or certainty about whether the NRF is going to be activated, what I can tell you with certainty, is that if it is our contributions to the NRF will be ready to go and will contribute fully. 

Q: But they're still in the United States, correct?

MR. KIRBY: Correct. Yes, Tony. 

Q: Is there much discussion within the Pentagon or within the National Security Council about whether all the Putin's maneuvers and the force build up is a grand game of brinksmanship? And he's got no intention of invading. 

He just wants to show his muscle, get the U.S. and NATO to commit to not entering or letting Ukraine into the alliance? In other words, a game of brinksmanship bluffing, but not really an attempt to invade?

MR. KIRBY: We have seen no indication of that, Tony. 

Q: But, let me ask you though, has there been group-think here though? You're all thinking, just assuming he's going to do this? Or habe you actually, skeptically looked at whether this is just a bunch of BS brinksmanship, albeit on grand scale. 

MR. KIRBY: 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. That other NATO Allies feel the same way. 

We've all been looking at this. I hope, 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. I mean, 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 saying. We've been talking about this very openly now for weeks. We've seen, sadly and unfortunately, no indication that he's willing to de-escalate, move those troops back home and actually get to some sort of serious diplomatic solution. 

Every indication rather, that we see is quite the opposite. 

Q: Can I ask you a China-related question? Is there any indication that President Xi has given his tacit or explicit approval to Putin for a foreign 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 has given its ‘wink and nod?’ 

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, I will point you back to the February 4 statement that that Xi and Putin put out, which certainly we took as tacit approval for what Mr. Putin is doing. You can point also to concerning comments by the Chinese Foreign Minister 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+ 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? 

Sylvie?

Q: Thank you, John. I would like to go back to the movements of U.S. troops to the Baltic States and to the Eastern Flank. Is there any consideration of sending more U.S. troops if there is an invasion? And on a permanent basis on this Eastern Flank of NATO?

MR. KIRBY: There's no expectation at this time, Sylvie, that that we're going to move to more permanent basing on NATO's Eastern Flank. What we're talking about now are short term, temporary, rotational re-deployments, 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 NATO's Eastern Flank? And I have 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.

Q: But this will be temporary? You don't think about changing your posture in case of an invasion?

MR. KIRBY: Right now, we're focused on reassuring the allies. And we're going to be in constant contact with them and 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, we're just not at that point right now. 

Barbara?

Q: You mentioned before that if this conflict breaks out, it would not be bloodless. So, I assume that also somewhat of a caution to Russia, that it would not be bloodless for them in 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? 

MR. KIRBY: So clearly, if he chooses war, he chooses violence. Which means he's deliberately choosing to put lives at danger; soldiers' lives, civilians' lives. And he's going to have to bear the responsibility for that. 

And I think, I would hope, that he understands that some of those lives at risk are going to be his soldiers' lives. And 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. And, as for the ‘10 feet tall,’ look, I think, you know, 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. And they are ready to go, right now, should that be the way that Mr. Putin wants to go. And we would obviously like to see that not happen. And we would like to see him de-escalate. We would like to see and make a better choice here, which we still think there's time to do, and de-escalate, 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.

Q: As we sit here today, are there still active, functioning channels of U.S.-Russian military to military communications? Are you able to, you know, the Secretary, the Chairman, are you able to pick up the phone and will your counterparts talk to you?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I would point to conversations that we’ve read out in just recent days. The Secretary spoke with Minister Shoygu just a few days ago. Chairman Milley...

Q: I'm talking about right now.

MR. KIRBY: I know I'm getting there. Chairman Milley has had many conversations with General Gerasimov, his counterpart. And we have seen no 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?

Q: How about more of like a tactical line of communication? You know, I don't know if ‘de-confliction’ is the right term to use here because there's not a U.S. military component to this. Like they're not going...

MR. KIRBY: That's right. 

Q: ...to theoretically be flying over the same skies. But what about something that might like de-conflict tactically on the ground, once Russia moves in? It seems that you know, we keep hearing about the U.S. 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?

MR. KIRBY: 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 Court. So 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. And that's an Eastern Flank, by the way, that we're going to continue to reinforce and make more ready. And so, you do get into a potential there for miscalculation, and miscommunication. 

We're just not there yet that we can speak to specific de-confliction mechanisms, and hopefully there won't be a need for that. But it does raise a larger issue, your question does, of the potential for miscalculation here.

Q: And, given the fact that this isn't again, I know, we talked about de-confliction. I think a lot of us think of Syria.

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: But it's a very different situation. There's not a U.S. military component inside the potential invasion area, right? 

MR. KIRBY: Correct.

Q: Would it be more appropriate for DOD or General Milley or State? Like, what would that mechanism -- who would be the one who'll be responsible for establishing that mechanism?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, again, we're not at that point right now, Courtney. So, it's hard. It's difficult to answer that question, and I'm not dodging it. It's just we aren't at that point right now. I mean, so I'd rather not speculate about who would be in communications with whom. 

And again, as in 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?

Q: John, to build on Sylvie's question, you talked about the F-35s, and I guess 32 Apaches- Well, it's not just an aircraft and a pilot, how many people are associated with those moves?

MR. KIRBY: All told, if you added up, you know, the infantry, the battalion that we talked about, that's about 800. And then there's about another 200, crew, pilots, maintenance, that would go with those aircraft elements that we talked about. 

So, all told, the President's announcement yesterday equates to about 1,000 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.

Q: And if I could just build on Courtney's question, doesn't General Wolters, in his NATO hat, can't he speak to Gerasimov?

MR. KIRBY: I would suspect yes, as SACEUR 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'll be a reason why if General Wolters wanted to speak to him that he couldn't in his NATO hat. 

Yeah.

Q: John, based on the fact that Russians have brought a variety of their 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 this capability?

MR. KIRBY: We are providing, again, lethal and non lethal 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. 

And 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 Brest Washington Examiner?

Q: 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 (inaudible) details or take the question?

MR. KIRBY: You know what? You broke up there, Mike. Can you just repeat the last part of your question? 

Q: Yes, so the 90-day period for his investigation into the 2019 Syria Strike expires this weekend. Could you provide any update or take the question?

MR. KIRBY: 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 we can't get you a better answer. 

Tom?

Q: Hi John, good afternoon. I have two questions, one on Ukraine and one on the guard deployment, which would you like first?

MR. KIRBY: You can decide, Tom.

Q: The guard deployment is the easier one perhaps. There's been reports from, of complaints and concerns by the District of Columbia government and Capitol Police that they don't have the ability to remove trucks, tow trucks in other words, to remove any trucks that impede traffic situations. Is there a Defense Department asset that could be made available to help them in this situation?

MR. KIRBY: You know, 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 requests 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. 

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. And again, it was roughly 700 guardsmen and 50 vehicles. What's your second question?

Q: On Ukraine, you've talked a lot and others have talked about what the Russians are doing is out of their ‘playbook’ are the words there. Everything they're doing is sort of doing the playbook. 

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: 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 others. What playbook are they emulating for this possible attack on Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: 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 kinds of 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 kind of stuff. 

It's claiming that they're the victims. Creating false events or even, not even creating events, but simply claiming that things happen that never did to paint themselves as the victims. 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+ plus troops along the border. 

I mean, it is ridiculous. But that is exactly the kind of plays 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 the border, more than 150,000 troops and significant, as I said, combined arms capabilities, that is something we haven't seen them do before.

Q: Where do you think they've gotten that tactic from? That strategy from? Since they've never employed it in their past adventurisms?

MR. KIRBY: That is a great question for Vladimir Putin. I mean, 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 any indication to do that.

Q: Hey, John I got a few questions. First off, any idea whether or not Russia has also used the Wagner Group mercenaries as part of this invasion force, or is it strictly sort of mainline Russian army troops?

MR. KIRBY: I have not seen any indications of that. 

Q: Or ‘little green men,’ anything like that?

MR. KIRBY: I haven't seen indications of the Wagner Group being used, but again, that might be a level of detail we don't have.

Q: Also, to go back a little bit in history, the Soviet Union conquered Hungary in '56, stroll 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 former satellite countries?

MR. KIRBY: I was a history major at the University of South Florida, but I don't know that I can answer that one. Well, let me just put it this way. What we hope happens is that he de-escalates, and this war of choice doesn't occur. 

It's difficult, if he chooses to go ahead, and again, every indication is that he will. And it's, the one thing any student of war will tell you is it's unpredictable once it starts. It's the old adage, I think it was Eisenhower, right, no plan 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. 

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 know, 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. 

What that ends up looking like long term is difficult to know. And again, at the risk of sounding like I'm dodging, and I'm not, I truly don't know the answer to your question. It's a good one. And I don't know that anybody can know that. But it 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. Yes, go ahead.

Q: A 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 the United States national security at the same time?

MR. KIRBY: Well, primarily, it’s a threat to the Ukrainian people. And I think, again, if you go back and look at his speech, and 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. 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 to 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. 

Q: You're really saying that the open-door policy -- you are sticking to the open-door policy of NATO?

MR. KIRBY: 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. 

OK, thanks, everybody.

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