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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

Feb. 26, 2022

Senior Defense Official (SDO): Let me just give you a rundown, generically, of what we've seen in the last 24 hours and then we'll start taking questions. 

So we continue to observe this invasion along those same three main axes that we talked about, south to north, north central to south, north east to south. We also continue to see indications of viable Ukrainian resistance. We continue to believe, based on what we have observed that this resistance is greater than what the Russians expected and we have indications that the Russians are increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum over the last 24 hours particularly in the north parts of Ukraine.

They have - we did observe the amphibious assault from the Sea of Azov to the west of Mariupol. Those forces put ashore do continue to advance as we said some were splitting - they were splitting more towards the north east. And of course the Russians are continuing to try to advance on Kherson. 

As of this morning we have no indication still that the Russian military has taken control over any cities. As of this morning we still believe that Russia has yet to achieve air superiority. Ukrainian air defenses including aircraft do continue to be operable and continue to engage and deny access to Russian aircraft in places over the country. 

And then over the last 24 hours or so we have continued to observe Russian missile launches. As of this morning when we - now that we're speaking now, we've seen more than 250 launches. The majority of them continue to be of short-range ballistic missile types. That's the - the majority of those are SRBM.

I would also say that despite Russian claims to the contrary, we continue to see civilian infrastructure and residential areas impacted and damaged by these missile strikes. Again we're not able to tell you whether those locations were intentionally targeted but there's no doubt in our mind that civilian infrastructure and residential areas are being hit as a result of these barrages.

Lastly, we do - have seen reports overnight and this morning of some internet outages in Ukraine but it's intermittent and in general and you guys and your reporters probably can speak to this as well as I can, in general the internet is still generally available and accessible. But there have been intermittent outages.

Let's see if there's anything else I wanted to add. We do continue to see increases in the numbers of people trying to leave the country. The lines are stacking up on the Ukrainian side of the border with Poland. In some cases very long. But people are leaving the country at a greater rate over the last 24 hours then what - when we had last talked.

And I think with that, I'll stop. Bob Burns, over to you.

Q: Thank you. A couple quick questions. When in your description of the condition of the Russia advances you said that you have indications of - of that they - the Russians are becoming increasingly frustrated. Can you be more specific and explain what signs of that you see and what - to support your conclusion that they're frustrated?

And secondly, can you - regarding the fact, as you say, that the Russians have yet to achieve their superiority. Can you say anything about the degree to which Ukrainian air defenses have been degraded at this point? Thanks.

SDO: So on the frustration, again, you know, I think Bob we have lots of different ways to sort of try to gauge what the Russians are doing and what they think about what they're doing. I'm not going to get into that here, but we know that they have not made the progress that they have wanted to make particularly in the north.

They have been - they have been frustrated by - what they have seen is a very determined resistance, and it has slowed them down. Now I want to stress, as I said yesterday, this is a - it's a battlefield and events on the battlefield are dynamic and they can change very, very quickly.

So I'm giving you a snapshot in time, but we believe that their momentum continues to be slowed predominately from a stiff Ukrainian resistance. On the air defense, I would say because, you know, again, we want to be careful here that we're not violating any Ukrainian operational security here. They - they're putting up a resistance, and some of that resistance is through air and missile defense and it's still viable.

I'd rather not put a numeric quality on that. They have clearly some of their defensive capabilities, and that would include air and missile defense, as I've said before, have been targeted in the initial salvos and in salvos since. But their air and missile defense capability remains viable.

And I think I really just kind of have to leave it at that. I'd rather not quantify that just as things are certainly unfolding. Okay, James Levinson from Fox.

Q: Hey SDO. So two questions really quick. For one, in terms of the $350 million military aid, are you able to get it to the - will be able to get it to the Ukrainians despite the fact that command and control may change from time to time? 

And my second question is that Zelensky just tweeted out that the Turkish government has - will cut off on the Black Sea to Russian warships. Can you confirm that and are you concerned that this puts us ever more closer to potentially an Article V situation with Turkey being a NATO country?

SDO: I cannot confirm that tweet. I have not seen it, so you're one step ahead of me. I've not seen it so I can't confirm that. And therefore, I'm not going to speculate about how close we might be to, you know, Article V territory. The only thing I would say about that is that the President has been crystal clear that we're going to defend every inch of NATO territory and we take Article V seriously.

On your other question about how it's going to get there, we have continued to flow assistance to the Ukrainians, even since the air space has become disputed and contested. And we're going to continue to look for additional venues to do that, especially now given that the President has authorized another $350 million worth of assistance.

We're going to do everything we can to get that into the hands of the Ukrainians, and I think that's about as far as I'm going to go on that. Tom Bowman, NPR.

Q: Yes. Can you - you talked yesterday, I think, about one third of the Russian forces are in. Do you have any sense at this point what the percentage is? And you can - you drilled a little bit more down on Kiev. What are you saying, remember from the northeast, northwest, moving into the capital and also from the south?

SDO: Yes, so Tom, what - right now, we would - we'd estimate that about more than 50% of the Russian force that Mr. Putin had arrayed against Ukraine, more than 50% of that force we believe has been committed inside Ukraine. 

As I said in my opening statements, we believe the stiffest resistance that he is - is facing is in the north on those two axes of the north that we talked about, from - down towards Kiev and then that - generally from Belgorod towards Kharkiv.

Those are where the most - that's where the most resistance is. He's facing a little less resistance in the south, so there's been more success for him down in the south. But in the north, that's where the stiffest resistance is. There is still heavy fighting in and around Kharkiv, and of course the Ukrainians are absolutely fighting back north of Kiev.

Our best estimate, and I want to couch this as an estimate because it's, you know, a snapshot in time, is that the Russians are approximately 30 kilometers north of Kiev, so they have not gotten any closer than that. That's an approximation and it's a snapshot in time. And I want to stress, again, to all of you that this is very dynamic and will change hour by hour.

So I - again, I'm just kind of laying flat for you what we're seeing right now.

Q: And any sense of Spetsnaz in the city or saboteurs as some have, you know, called them?

SDO: I would say that - without getting into too much detail, Tom, we have seen some - we have seen some reconnaissance elements in and near the city. I think that's as far as I'll go.

Q: Okay.

SDO: Courtney Kube.

Q: Hi. So two quick things. On the security assistance, it says anti-armor. I'm assuming that's Javelins. Can you confirm that? Are - is there any - is there approval to send them Stingers? 

And then you said yesterday and again today that you're continuing to flow assistance to the Ukrainians, even since the airspace came - became contested. Can you say when the last time was that you - the U.S. was able to deliver any kind of equipment to the Ukrainians? Thank you.

SDO: So Court, I think it's fair to say that the Javelins will be in this - in this next tranche as they had been in so many tranches in the past. I'm comfortable acknowledging that. I'm not going to go beyond that in terms of detail. And on the when, I can confirm for you that they have received security assistance from us just within the last couple of days. David Martin. 

Q: I don't have any questions. 

SDO: OK, it said yes next to you name, David. So I'm just trying to be fair. 

Q: Yes.

SDO: Tara Copp.

Q: Thank you. Similarly, could you confirm or has the department seen any independent confirmation that Ukrainian forces (inaudible) to shoot down transport aircraft? And then on the security assistance, were these items specifically requested by the Ukrainian government or is this what the U.S. can get to Ukraine the quickest? Thank you.

SDO: All the security assistance that we provided are in consultation with the Ukrainians. And we're confident that what we're providing them is in-line with what they need. I'm not going to talk about specific aircraft shot down by whom or with what affect, Tara, at the - that's just a level of tactical detail that we're not going to have great fidelity on and I'm just not able to do that. Gordon Lubold.

Q: Hi, I was going to ask about the plane as well because there have been various reports. Can we take from this that you don't deny maybe a troop carrier was shot down? But my real question is, is there any sense given - understanding you're limited intel, what the number of casualties on either side could be?

SDO: On the aircraft, it's - we can't confirm, we can't deny it. And, again, we're going to be careful here about what level of tactical detail that we get into. Because I want to be able to make sure we can do it confidently. 

On the casualties, what we confidently tell you is that we certainly believe there have been casualties taken by both sides militarily. And that would include both killed and wounded. But we are not able to give you a number and we're even not able to give you a range. That would be a level that we'd feel confident in providing. But we do believe there have been military casualties on both sides.

Q: Got it. And just to clarify one thing, the (inaudible) report that's come in the last couple of days is separate from what's just being announced today of the $350 million, is that correct?

SDO: That is correct.

Q: And do you have any sense or did you say when that might first arrive? Can you give us some sense of -

SDO: I don't - Gordon, I don't have a sense of timing. But I can assure you that we will move to provide this additional drawdown package as soon as we possibly can. As before it will come tranches, it will come in pieces as we can get it moving and as we can get it into the hands of the Ukrainians. But I couldn't give you an exact timeframe other than to say it will be moving as soon as possible.

Q: Thank you.

SDO: Sam Lagrone?

Q: Morning, SDO. Can you talk a little bit more about the amphibious landing? I think you had mentioned that there were 10 amphibs in the Black Sea more or less. Is the stuff that you all saw in the Sea of Azov is that all 10 of them or is there still a separate force coming near Odesa? Thanks.

SDO: Yes, Sam, again without getting into too much tactical detail, we do not believe that they used the - they actually have a little bit more than 10 LSTs in the Black Sea at least at last count. But we don't believe they used them all to conduct this particular assault. Our assessment was that they used four of their landing ships to conduct this assault.

We don't know how much naval infantry was on each one, we just don't have a perfect count. But I'm comfortable in saying, as I said yesterday, that this would involve several thousand naval infantry troops. But I can't be more specific than that. 

Again, we just didn't have like a head count, a nose count about how many was on each ship. Eric Schmitt.

Q: Thank you. Vladimir Putin's spokesman today said part of the delay apparently was because of a pause that Putin had ordered yesterday. Does the Pentagon believe there was a pause by Russian forces that contributed to this delay that they're getting behind schedule? 

And second, there's also some reporting from Ukraine saying that Russian forces in Donetsk have distributed gas masks to their troops in anticipation of possibly a striking chemical containers there. Any details on that?

SDO: OK, on the pause I can't confirm that those reports, whether that - whether he ordered that and whether that's part of it. What I can confirm is that they have met with stiff resistance in the north. 

On the gas mask thing, we've seen some open press reporting on that as well and we don't have a lot of fidelity on it. So I think I'm going to - I'm going to punt on that one, Eric. Dan Lamothe.

Q: Hi, yes, thank you. Can you characterize at all that those Russian forces are there. I assume that includes both combat troops and probably also some logistics. And then as far as the fighting goes, you had previously said the heaviest fighting the first day was outside Kharkiv. It sound like at this point it's probably Kyiv. But what are you seeing from that vantage point? Thanks.

SDO: Yes, Dan, we still - if we had to qualify it we would still assess that the heaviest fighting is in and around Kharkiv. But that we do see stiff resistance on the north advance towards Kyiv, no doubt about that. But the heaviest fighting we still assess is in and around Kharkiv. And I'm sorry your first question, I didn't quite understand it. Can you repeat it?

Q: Just looking to characterize the Russian forces that are over the border. Obviously combat troops but what kind of logistics and that sort of thing you might be seeing. 

SDO: I don't have an order of battle for you, breakdown. I mean again we assess that he's got just more than 50 percent of his arrayed forces, it is largely combat power as you and I would define that. But clearly he's going to have to sustain them. So I just don't have a breakdown of - by company or by unit what he's got.
We are - the farthest we're willing to go comfortably is that he's got more than 50 percent of his total assembled power now committed inside Ukraine. Jack Detsch.

Q: Yes, SDO, about that 50 percent number, you said yesterday a third of the forces were committed so have the Russians committed hundreds or tens of thousands of forces in the past 24 hours? I know you said several thousands in the Sea of Azov. 
SDO: Yes, look. I mean, I'm not going to get into a number. I - the farthest I'm willing to go is this percentage of his power. But look, we have long said that he had more than 150,000 troops arrayed against Ukraine along that border with Ukraine. And if I'm saying now that he's got more than 50% of that inside the country, I think it's safe for you to assume that we're talking tens of thousands, but I'm not going to be more specific than that.

Q: Got it. And, I mean, just - did you have any indications on the frustration piece that the Russians did not expect resistance, expected less resistance? Were told by their command something different than what we're seeing on the ground?

SDO: I would just tell you, Jack, that we don't believe they expected the kind of resistance that they're facing. Phil Stewart, Reuters.

Q: Hey there. Real quick, first have you seen any indications the Russians - the Russian forces are out of fuel or not being resupplied correctly? And then secondly, this idea of Chechen forces helping the Russians, what indications has the U.S. seen of that? Thank you.

SDO: Phil, I'm sorry, can you repeat your second question?

Q: There's been a report about Chechen forces involved in Ukraine. Any - any...

SDO: I have nothing on the Chechen forces. I will tell you, though, back to your question on logistics, and I kind of touched this earlier before, I mean he has committed logistics and sustainment support. You would expect that. What we assess now is that he has had to commit a bit more logistics and sustainment capabilities like in the - in fuel specifically than what we believe they had originally planned to do this early in the operation. Okay, Karoun from The Washington Post.

Q: Hi, SDO. Two questions for you. First, I know it was referenced before in the context of Zelensky's tweet, but how serious of a discussion or - is there right now around Turkey potentially closing the Black Sea to Russian warships?

Now on the second front, I know you were asked about casualty count. Why is it so difficult to get a read on the civilian casualties, and the military casualties, but, you know, Ukraine is reporting these very large numbers for the Russian dead and relatively far smaller numbers than - on the Ukrainian side. Is there a concern about the validity of those numbers or why else is it difficult to get that sort of a read on what the figures are?

SDO: Karoun, I don't have anything for you on Turkey closing the Black Sea. I mean, I think the Turks have talked about this in terms of what their obligations are on the Montreux Convention and I really don't have anything in terms of context to offer there.

On the casualties, Karoun, it is very difficult for us to be 100% sure and certain of civilian casualties, even in operations that we conduct, as you all know. And it is nearly impossible for us to have that certitude in an operation in which we are not participating and have limited ability to get that kind of fidelity.

We're not pushing back on the claims or the assertions of the Ukrainians on what they're seeing and the casualties they're seeing, not pushing back at all. We're just not in a position where we can independently verify that. So, again, this is very much in the bucket of information that we're likely never going to have to a degree of comfort and confidence that we could assert here from the Pentagon, from the Department of Defense.

It's just one of those data points that we're just not going to be able to share. There are - there's data we feel very comfortable with, such as the numbers of missiles being launched and giving you an estimate of the combat power that Mr. Putin has committed, but there's just some data that - that I just don't think we're going to have in - at a level of fidelity that we're going to be willing to - comfortable sharing. Luis Martinez?

Q: Good morning. Two questions. Following up on the Kiev situation, last night the President of Ukraine painted a really dire picture as if the battle for Kiev was beginning last night. It doesn't sound like that's the case based on what you're saying with the presence of troops being 30 kilometers north. Can you explain that? And I'll have another question.

SDO: I can't, Luis. All I can do is tell you what we're seeing, and we'll do the best we can on that. But obviously, we're not on the ground. So I would just stick by - I can only - I can only say with confidence what I've said so far.

Q: Great. And then a separate question has to do with the combat forces that are arrayed around Ukraine. Just want to specify that you're talking about - when you talk about 50%, you're not talking about 50% of the 150,000, you're talking about 50% of the combat power without getting into specifics, correct?

SDO: That is correct.

Q: Thank you.

SDO: Sylvie?

Q: Good morning, SDO. Can you confirm that U.S. has offered to Zelensky to evacuate him and he refused?

SDO: Yes, look, I've seen the social media on this and the commentary, Sylvie. I have nothing for you on that. We continue to do a - to have the ability to communicate with him and his government, and we absolutely applaud his leadership and his bravery in the face of this invasion and I'm just going to leave it at that. Oren Liebermann?

Q: Hey, good morning. A follow-up on the assistance, the U.S. assistance. Poland has openly stated it's sending in ammunition via ground convoy. Given that the airspace is closed, is it fair to conclude that's how the U.S. will send in assistance or is there some other option here? And then a different question, as the situation evolves, is there any indication or change of assessment, if you will, that Putin is looking beyond Ukraine?

SDO: I can't - we can't speculate what Mr. Putin's designs are beyond Ukraine. I wouldn't begin to speculate about that Oren. And I think you'd have to assume that ground routes would certainly be on the list of options that we would consider.

Q: Thank you.

SDO: Joe Gould?

Q: You're doing - yes, I'm here. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask about - we've learned that the White House has asked for $3.5 billion as part of a larger $6.4 billion package, and I'm wondering what expenses has the Pentagon incurred thus far that it would like to be backfilled? Thank you.

SDO: Joe, I think I'm - I'll try and take that question. I don't have that figure in front of me. I'll take it with the caveat that I'm not sure how specific I'm going to be able to get on that, Joe, so let me just - let me leave it there.

Q: You can skip it.

SDO: And see if can give you some context on that.

Q: All right but if I could ask another then, there's been some reporting that the U.K. held a donor conference with some 25, 27 other countries. And now we have this tranche of $350 million worth of aid from the U.S. Are you in a position to confirm that this new tranche of aid stem from a larger conversation between the U.K., U.S. and other countries?

SDO: No, I can't confirm that, Joe. I don't - let me also take that question. I don't believe the answer to that is yes. But I'll ask that question.

Q: Thanks so much.

SDO: Yes. Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you. You had mentioned that reconnaissance forces are operating in and around the capital of Kyiv. Is it possible you can characterize what types of forces these are; paratroopers, Spetsnaz? And roughly how many does the Pentagon estimate are in the Capital of Kyiv?

SDO: Yes, I'm not going to characterize who they are anymore than what I've said, reconnaissance and I can't give you a number. Fadi?

Q: Thank you, SDO. I have two questions, please. So the first -- despite what we're seeing in open sources about the attack yesterday that according to some sources on Kyiv – was on the main road that runs east to west toward center of Kyiv, you're saying the Russian troops, based on what you can see, are 30 kilometers. Can you first tell us about the battle that raged last night, what you were able to see? Were the Russians trying to push in and how it unfolded?  Were the Ukrainians able to repel them? And I have a second follow-up, please.

SDO: Yes, Fadi, I just don't have that level of tactical detail, I just don't. And I want to stress again on the 30 kilometers, it's an approximate, number one. Number two, it's going to change. So I just want to stress again that this is what we're seeing now, we're trying to be as transparent with you as we can. But I want you to understand that those positions are very dynamic and likely could have changed literally in the length of time that we've been talking.

Q: And my second question, although you gave some details on the - what's going to be included in this new tranche of assistance, however Secretary Blinken in his statement talked about assistance to help Ukraine deal with airborne threat as well not only armored threat. So should we kind of conclude that there will be some kind of air defense in that new assistance? Thank you.

SDO: I think I would just leave it the way Secretary Blinken characterized it. OK, Demetri?

Q: Thanks, SDO, morning. Are you seeing any evidence that the roughly 50 percent of Russian combat troops who are not yet inside Ukraine are actually moving towards entering the country or are they just waiting in place waiting for orders? 

And secondarily, if the percentage of combat forces has gone from a third to a half in 24-hours that's roughly 25,000 troops. Can you tell us what route the bulk of them came down into Ukraine from?

SDO: So on your first - your first question, it's a - just like it's dynamic inside Ukraine it's dynamic outside Ukraine. So I don't have a - I couldn't tell you specifically how many troops are moving into a given tactical assembly area. But the Russians are clearly moving what they need to move inside their own country and in Belarus as they see fit. 

So but I can't quantify how many have moved from where they - from being farther back to moving forward into assembly areas. It's very dynamic. And on your second question, shoot I'm sorry, I lost it again. What was it?

Q: (Inaudible) it sounds like roughly 25,000 troops have come into Ukraine over the last 24 hours. And I'm wondering which routes they came in through? What was the avenue?

SDO: I think pretty much along all three lines of access is how I would characterize it. And I want to be careful, you said 25,000 and that's a number you put on there, Demitri, we are not - we're not verifying a specific number here. It really is about a percentage of the force he had arrayed and as I've said, that's both combat power as well as logistics and sustainment. But I would say it's fair to say that as he has committed more forces over the last 24 hours they have been committed along all those three lines of access; north and south.

Q: All right.

SDO: OK, I think Courtney, you had one more.

Q: I did but you know what you answered it already. Thank you.

SDO: Thank you. OK, Jared Szuba from Al-Monitor. 

Q: Hi, SDO, thanks for doing this. About this amphibious invasion in the south, is there any indication - does the department have any indication that this was launched or supported by Russian forces in Syria? What's the connection there? And what's the situation? And then I have a follow-up.

SDO: I have no indications that they - that advancing on those axes in Ukraine using forces from Syria. 

Q: And does the department see an indication that Russia has made preparations for a prolonged occupational, supplies that sort of thing?

SDO: It's difficult to state with certainty on that, Jared. He has, as you know, he has called up reserves and some of his National Guard. Some people have surmised that that could be what he's thinking about in terms of whether he needs to occupy and whether those forces might be used for occupation. And that is - that is one analysis of that call up of reserves and National Guard but we can't be 100 percent certain about that. Brian Everstine, Aviation Week.

Q: Yes, thank you. In your first briefing you said that there was 75 aircraft involved in the operation. Do you have an update to that figure? And secondly on the discussion of air superiority have you seen any changes in tactics or aircraft on the Russia side? There's been spottings of airborne early warning and control aircraft. Have you seen deployments of advance fighters, that sort of thing? Thank you.

SDO: Yes, Brian, I would tell you we don't have a good strong estimate of numbers of aircraft to give you aside from what I've said before. It's likely the numbers now north of 75. But I don't have one that I could give you right now.  
And then I don't have more specifics on air defense weapons specifically being used. I would just tell you that, again, Ukrainian air and missile defense systems remain viable, remain engaged, remain in the fight and remain part of this resistance. And largely you can see that a lot for yourselves just in terms of the stuff coming out of the imagery coming out of Ukraine. But I really would be loathe to get into much more specific description of that. 

OK, thanks everybody. I think I got through everybody. I don't think I left anybody off. And I appreciate it. Hopefully this helped. I'm not planning on doing one of these tomorrow but if there's a hue and cry that we need to we'll certainly do what we can. Thanks and (inaudible). Thank you, out here.