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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing, March 11, 2022

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Just a couple things at the top. I think you saw a day or so ago where I announced that the Secretary was heading to Brussels next week for the NATO Defense Ministerial in person. He will follow up his visit to Brussels for the defense minister with a visit to Slovakia where he will visit with senior civilian and military leaders there to again make clear our firm commitment to NATO's Eastern Flank and talk about ways to deepen the U.S. Slovakia relationship.

A quick exercise note if I might. U.S. Africa Commands Exercise, Obangame Express, the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western Africa will kick off its 11th year today. 32 nations are participating in the exercise which is hosted by Senegal.

The exercise is designed to improve regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information sharing practices, and tactical interdiction expertise to enhance the collective capabilities of all the participating nations with respect to countering sea based illicit activity. So that's starting today. With that we'll take questions. Bob.

Q: Thank you. Couple questions on Ukraine. The airstrikes in the west, I think two airfields. Does that to you -- does that suggest a widening of the war effort by Russia? And the second question has to do with the much-discussed convoy north or northwest of Kyiv?


Q: Do changes in the positioning of elements of that convoy portend like an imminent assault on Kyiv or any significant military movement?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I'd say that people Kyiv will tell you they're under assault right now. There's Russian bombardment and shelling going on quite violently as we speak. And we do assess that the Russians are beginning to make more momentum on the ground towards Kyiv, particularly from the east. Not quite so much from the North.

I don't want to make too much of the fact that there's satellite imagery talking about this convoy, you know, moving off into tree lines or dispersing. That could just be force protection, because the Ukrainians have continued to threaten that convoy in its progress. Essentially, Bob, we don't see any progress by it to resupply and support operations to the south.

But again, I'd be careful making too much about this dispersal stuff. I don't -- I feel like I missed one - did I get that?

Q: Yes, the west -- the attacks on oil.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, thank you. Yes, difficult to know, with great certainty what the Russians are doing here. Our assessment is that they struck a couple of airfields in the West. It's not like there hasn't been any airstrikes in western Ukraine since the beginning of this operation 16 days ago. It's just that we haven't seen that as a routine matter. Now you got two in one day, that's notable.

What it means, what it portends, where the Russians are going with this, we don't really know. We believe the targets were airfields. So, from a military perspective, you can see a certain logical sense there. To deny the Ukrainians the ability to use some air strips in the western part of the country. But by and large, and to the vast majority of the combat power that they are exercising in Ukraine it is on - it in the east. It's everything east of Kyiv.

That's where the violence is the worst. That's where they're putting a lot of their energy and resources in it. Those are the population centers that they're going after Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, down to the south, and they're still fighting in the Donbas. So, it's really to -- more to the east.

Q: So, is that a marginal change or is that a widening of their efforts?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I think it's too soon to know. I mean, we're talking about two strikes on two fields. And it's not like we haven't seen any in the past there. So, I think it's just too soon to be able to divine some sort of larger purpose here or some strategy. Again, the vast, vast majority of their combat power is being spent in the east. Yes, Jen.

Q: What kind of weapon was used to fire at those airfields? Was it a missile that came in from Belarus or, what do you assess?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, we don't really have point of origin here and don't have types of munitions. The Russians themselves have admitted that they use long range precision guided weapons.

Certainly, we would agree with the long-range aspect of this since they don't have force structure in Ukraine that is really concentrated in the West. All of their ground power is in the east. So, I don't think we'd push back on the notion that's long range, but what kind of missile, what kind of munition? You know, what the warhead was? We don't have that level of detail

Q: Is it your assessment that those fields were targeted, because there's been so much talk of these MIG-29s. And they would have been airfields that the MIGs would have flown from?

MR. KIRBY: We don't know.

Q: And what would the U.S. do if Russia uses a chemical weapon in Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I don't want to get into speculating. I think you heard the President very clearly today say that there would be severe consequences for Russia, should that happen. And I don't think it'd be helpful for me to go beyond that right now from the Defense Department. Court.

Q: Thank you. Do you think do you have any indications that those attacks on the airfields in the West could have been because any foreign military equipment or anything has been flowing through there? And they were trying to target?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak for Russian targeting procedures here, Court. But we know those airfields will hit exactly why and what was in the Russian mindset. It's difficult for us to know.

Q: And then can you update on two things. One, have there been any developments or changes on the nuclear front? Like, are you seeing any indications that Russia may be considering planning for the use of a nuclear - tactical nuclear weapon?

And then on the chemical, biological, weapons, are there any indications that they've been bringing any of those into Ukraine or into the area to potentially prepare to use?

MR. KIRBY: So, on the nuclear stuff, again, I want to be very careful here in talking about intelligence assessments. I would just say, and this is something we look at every day. That we are confident in the strategic deterrent posture that we have in place in order to defend the homeland, our allies and our partners. I can't -- I would not speak to anything specific on the Russian side.

I would just tell you that we've seen nothing that gives us a cause or reason to change our deterrent posture at this time. I think that's really about as far as I could go.

On the chem-bio thing, again, I don't want to get into intelligence assessments. We're watching this as closely as we can. I don't have anything to report with respect to specific Russian chem-bio capabilities inside Ukraine.

I would only say two things, Court. One, this is a country that has a reputation for using those kinds of weapons on people, and we know they have a program. And two, we continue to watch for the potential, and I want to stress the word potential. Potential that they could be banging this drum with the intent of creating some sort of false flag event that they could use as an excuse to escalate the conflict even more.

Again, we're watching this every day. I don't have any specific indication now to talk about, but it is something we're concerned about. You might have heard President Zelensky in his nightly address last night, say that exact thing. That you got to be careful what you see the Russians accuse others of because it oftentimes ends up being what they're planning to do.

Now, again, that's -- we don't have firm indications right now. It's just something that we think that could happen that we want to watch out for. Yes, Tara.

Q: Thanks John. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense reported earlier today that Russia launched two airstrikes inside Belarus. Potentially to try and drag Belarus into the war.


Q: Can you confirm this? And has there been any outreach or attempt to try and keep Belarus out of the war? You've mentioned, there have been missiles launched from within Belarus into Ukraine already?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, we can't confirm these reports. Seen the open-source reporting on it Tara. But we have nothing to corroborate that. And I would just tell you that we haven't seen any indications that Belarusian troops or forces have moved inside Ukraine.

We did note that the President of Belarus made comments the other day through state media, that he felt it was important for Belarusian forces to come to the defense of the rear of Russian forces should they be attacked -- that supply line route, if you will. That's the first time that he's ever said anything about Belarus perhaps getting involved, but no indications at this time that they have or that that's in the offing.

Q: Separate topic. As these sanctions have gone into effect, you've started to see global food prices spike. And there's concerns that you know, this could raise additional risk of conflict in countries that are already facing hunger such as Afghanistan, and likewise.

Is the DoD looking at this -- is there a greater risk of global conflict because it'll become that much harder to feed people in -- that already face great food insecurity?

MR. KIRBY: The administration is obviously looking at the humanitarian crisis that this war of choice is causing. And exploring -- excuse me, I'm going to try that, again, with English. Exploring lots of opportunities to work inside the international community to alleviate that. I know of no plans in DOD to augment or to prevent or to subside the effects of food insecurity.

So, I don't have any DoD role here to speak to. But I do want to just pivot off, you know, one thing you had in your question which was this risk of escalation. And obviously, that is something that we're constantly concerned about. The risk of this conflict, escalating beyond what it already is. And it is already dangerous enough inside Ukraine.

So, you know, to Court's questions about the things we're looking at and what we're monitoring. We're constantly concerned about the potential escalation here.

Q: I guess the question is just the overall trickle-down effects. You have this conflict inside Ukraine that is having already global ripple effects. And whether or not the Pentagon is taking a broader view of already hot zones, conflict zones? And if this will make it worse, because hunger becomes worse, access to food becomes worse?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, again, we haven't seen any -- I get where the question’s going. Oftentimes, when you have instability in one area, it can bleed over to others, either in that region or without. And I understand that. I would tell you, broadly speaking, we're constantly looking at threats and challenges around the world.

And we're not unmindful of the fact that threats and challenges do spill over and can cause instability. And therefore, insecurity in places that aren't the origin of the conflict. So, we're obviously taking a global view, we do that every day. We're certainly doing that in light of what's going on in Ukraine. I don't know -- let me put it another way.

We haven't seen any specific indications that there are going to be any imminent insecurity issues, challenges, threats in other regions, as a result of this that we're going to have to address. I think that's what you're trying to get at. And I just think it's too soon to know that right now. Too soon to tell. But obviously, we're watching clearly because of the potential for escalation here. And I just want to say if I can, again, it's a war of choice.

Mr. Putin can stop this war right now, by agreeing to a diplomatic solution. Or at least just stopping the bombing, and the death, and the destruction that he is causing against a nation that provoked nobody. Against a nation that presented no threat to Russia. All of this is by his choice. And all that blood is on his hands. And he could stop it right now if he wanted to.

Q: John, there is a discussion that some NATO allies might send their S-300s to Ukraine. Is the U.S. involved in and these discussions? And will the U.S. greenlight if it should have some allies move forward with that?

MR. KIRBY: I have talked before that sovereign nations are making decisions for themselves about how to help Ukraine and we respect those sovereign decisions. It's not about the United States giving green lights or having vetoes here. What I will tell you and I said this the other day, we are working with allies and partners to help get the kinds of capabilities that we know that Ukrainians need and are using very well inside Ukraine -- get more of that stuff to them.

Some of that material we have, and we are providing. Some of that material we don't have, but we know others have. And we're helping coordinate that as well. And that security assistance is flowing even in just the last 24 hours.

I'm not going to talk about individual systems. You know that I haven't done that yet. And I'm not going to start today. But we are working hard to canvass other allies and partners that we know could possibly help. And it's really up to those nations to make these decisions. And then to speak to them, if they want to speak to them. They can do that. And we have to respect that.

What's important, and what I don't want you to walk away not understanding is that we're having these conversations actively. We are helping coordinate the assistance as best we can. And we're going to continue to talk to the Ukrainians about what they need to better defend themselves. OK?

Q: Another question. We have seen the U.S. Patriot Batteries along the Poland's border with Ukraine. I know you won't get into details, but can you tell us if the rules of engagement have changed since the war began in that part of...

MR. KIRBY: We don't talk about engagement. David.

Q: A couple questions. Can you update us on any uses of the deconfliction line? And has Secretary Austin attempted to communicate with his counterpart at the Russian Defense Ministry? And you just said you're helping coordinate assistance. Does that include providing airlift from donor countries to trans-shipment points?

MR. KIRBY: On the deconfliction line David, no specific interactions to speak to. In other words, no content has been needed. But we do test it once or twice a day. And that continues. And thus far, with maybe only a couple of exceptions, the Russians have picked up on the other end. And we know they know what the ringtone is, and they'll pick up and answer. And so, we know it's functional.

I have no conversations between Secretary Austin and Minister Shoigu to speak to. And I have, you know, no expectation that that's going to change anytime soon.

And then on the helping coordinate, I really don't want to get into too much detail here. I think the coordination is in two planes. One, it's in the conversations with allies and partners about these capabilities and their willingness to provide. And then on another plane, it's you know, it's about helping with the logistics. And it really varies from country to country and capability to capability. But we are trying to help with that coordination function.

And the Brits have been too. In fact, they've been very, very vocal about their efforts to help coordinate and work through that. And we're grateful for their assistance. Jim.

Q: John, just two questions really. The Russians have occupied a lot of area in Ukraine. Do you know if the Ukrainians, is there any assessment if they've gone into like a guerrilla war in these occupied areas? And a separate question. I imagine the Russians have to have captured Ukrainian service members. Are they treating those service members as captured POWs with Geneva Convention protections?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any information about captured soldiers on either side. I really don't and I certainly couldn't get into how they're being treated. I mean, obviously we're not involved in this war. But our expectation would be that both parties would abide by Geneva Convention requirements. And to treat any soldiers that are captured humanely and in accordance with the rule of law.

That would be the United States expectation as well as so many other nations. But I don't have any information about what that looks like in terms of numbers and what that treatment actually is. And on your question about guerrilla tactics. Jim, again, I'd let the Ukrainians describe for themselves, the manner in which they're fighting. But they are fighting.

And they are fighting skillfully, bravely, quite creatively. And the fighting isn't just by their armed forces. I mean, average citizens, you've seen it for yourself, picking up arms, you know, getting arms, given to them by the government. And learning how to use them and using them. And some of the Resistance has been non-violent. You've seen it for yourself with crowds of Ukrainians blocking city streets.

And actually, stopping in their tracks, some Russian units. So, the resistance resides on many levels. And it's quite inspiring, whether you'd call that guerrilla tactics or not I don't know. And I don't even know if that's, you know, worth having that debate over.

They are resisting, they're defending. And we are going to continue to look for ways to help them do that better going forward. Barb.

Q: Can I divert for just a minute to a North Korea question? Can you -- now that several parts of the administration have talked about your public announcement. Can you tell us why the Pentagon – INDOPACOM, but essentially, the Pentagon -- decided to take the seemingly unprecedented step of making a public statement, being sure the North Koreans would see it. That you were going to increase intelligence collection against them on their ICBM program.

Why would you make that public statement letting the North Koreans know you're going to collect -- increase your collection of classified intelligence? What is the state of your current concern about how close they are to an ICBM? And is this disclosure, this candor about a potential adversary -- is this potentially a lesson learned from the Russian situation? Put everything you know, out there as if hoping it will be a deterrent?

MR. KIRBY: Who just did, whew?

Q: That was me sorry.

Q: Then I have one other thing. (Laughter)

MR. KIRBY: Of course, you do. Alright, there's a lot there. Look I think I said in my statement, we're -- we made these revelations public. We announced some of the additional ISR and enhanced readiness we were taking, because we believe it's important to call out the behavior that we've been seeing.

Particularly in the last few weeks, and that we believe it's important for the entire international community to speak with one voice about the concerns that we know they have over the DPRKs continued ballistic missile program. I'm not going to get into any more detail in terms of the assessments we've made. It's all there out in the public.

I've -- I won't go beyond my public statements. But clearly these continued tests are a provocation. They are a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. And they give us, as well as so many other nations, added concern about the kinds of capabilities that the North is trying to develop. And so again, we feel it was important to make that case and to lay it out there.

And as for whether it's a lesson learned I would be careful drawing a direct, bright line between these revelations about this program. And revelations that we made early on, even before the invasion of Ukraine. When we believe that information should be in the public, we're going to put it in the public. We're going to state it as best we can.

Obviously, there's some stuff we know that we're not going to talk about. But we believe that calling them out publicly for these tests was the right thing to do.

Q: Let me ask one follow-up quickly on the deconfliction line, two things. I take it, they have never called the United States. It's all been you calling them, is that right?

MR. KIRBY: To my knowledge, it has been us using it to check in once or twice a day.

Q: With them. OK. And you said that they know your ringtone? So, can you tell us what ringtone?

MR. KIRBY: I was -- it was a poor attempt at being -- it was a poor attempt at humor. I did not mean that we have an exact ringtone here. Just that we know they know how to use the system.

Q: OK.


Q: John, you mentioned the Secretary's upcoming trip to NATO. What kind of things is he going to be discussing with the NATO partners? And we have been talking about the NATO Response Force being activated, and potentially some U.S. forces would be dedicated to it. What is the current count of how many U.S. personnel are actively participating in the NATO Response Force?

MR. KIRBY: Again, we're still working that through with NATO. With what their response force would look like, be composed of, where it would go. So, I don't have any source requirements to speak to today. I'm sorry. You had another question.

Q: Yes. What about -- what exactly is going to be the tone of these meetings that he's going to have with his counterparts in Brussels next week? What is he actively seeking?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, I think this second defense ministerial now, in light of this issue, comes at a critical time here. Two weeks, it'll be more likely three weeks into this conflict. And I don't know what things are going to look like next week.

But obviously, we can expect the defense ministers to talk seriously about what NATO is doing, to better shore up its defenses. And making sure that we all have a common sight picture of the threat environment. And what needs to be done again to meet our Article Five commitments.

Q: So, like, is there an agenda that says something specifically the talks the agenda with regards to Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: I would let NATO and the Secretary General speak to the -- it's his defense ministerial. I don't want to get ahead of his agenda. That's really for him to speak to. The Secretary is pleased to be able to go in person and be there to meet with other defense ministers, whoever is going to be there. And we know that there's a lot to talk about. I mean, there's an awful lot going on inside the Alliance.

The Alliance is more relevant than ever, it's more united than ever, it's certainly a more viable Alliance than it's ever been. And, again, there's going to be a lot of material to go through both in terms of what we're seeing happening in Ukraine. And the effect that that needs to have on the Alliance going forward. Including the application of the NATO Response Force and what that looks like, where and who and when.

All that we expect will be discussed. In the back there.

Q: Thank you. I want to follow up about North Korea. The INDOPACOM increased the readiness amongst the missile defense forces...


Q: in the region earlier this week. So, could you tell us a sense of what steps the INDOPACOM have taken since then? What has changed before and after this new direction?

MR. KIRBY: What has changed is we've increased ISR coverage in the Yellow Sea. And the INDOPACOM has increased their ballistic missile defense readiness. And I think you can understand why we wouldn't detail every bit of that effort.

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, in the back there.

Q: On Cold Response, which you briefed on Wednesday. The Russians told the Norwegians, I think last week that they wouldn't send observers to the exercise. And we've already seen Russian jets fly over Swedish territory and the Baltic Sea. So, are the forces involved in Cold Response on guard or wary about any attempted provocations or other interference?

MR. KIRBY: We always take force protection as a premium here. It's always a factor. It is an exercise. And here's the deal, we actually announced it. In fact, we've been talking about the preps for it for quite some time. It's a defensive exercise. And I stood up here the other day and walked through all the capabilities that we're going to be training to.

And what those Marines and sailors are up to. We'll continue to be as transparent about the exercise as possible. There's no reason for anyone to view this as some kind of threat. Therefore, there'll be no reason for anyone, including the Russians to threaten it. But obviously, force protection is always a paramount concern.

We don't anticipate that at this time that there would be a specific threat to the exercise.

Q: And a few moments ago, you mentioned that you don't talk about the specifics of the security assistance. But obviously, a lot of that assistance is being publicized. There's mention of javelins, obviously, but also some of stingers. So, I just wondered, you know, as kind of background, could you talk about the decision process there about what the Pentagon does and doesn't disclose about its security assistance?

MR. KIRBY: We have been very consistent. Since before Mr. Putin decided to launch a war on Ukraine that we were going to help Ukraine with the capabilities that it needs to defend itself and that we weren't going to get into a shopping list. I haven't done that yet.

And I'm not going to start today. I think you can understand why we don't believe it's helpful for the Ukrainians, to have us publicize and put out in great detail, the kinds of capabilities that we're getting into their hands. If they want to speak to what they have and what they're using that certainly their right.

But we aren't going to violate that little bit of OPSEC for them, it wouldn't be the right thing to do. It's a prudent operate -- we you know, we always worried about our own operational security. In this case, we also want to observe Ukrainian operational security. Paul Shinkman from U.S. News.

Q: Yes. Hi, John. One question to follow up on Belarus. So, the Ukrainian government or officials in Ukraine, have also warned about a pending invasion by Belarusian forces as soon as this afternoon. So, you said that there was no indication that they were moving in response to real or imagined attacks on their territory. But do you have any response to those claims from Ukrainian officials?

MR. KIRBY: I haven't seen those Ukrainian reports. As -- I can only tell you what we're seeing. And we're not tracking any imminent involvement by Belarusian forces. That's not to say that it couldn't happen, or that it wouldn't happen, or that they could get involved in a way that maybe we didn't see. But I can just tell you what we're seeing right now.

Q: Other Ukrainian officials claimed this morning that Ukrainian forces had killed a third Russian General in ongoing conflict. Can you confirm whether that has taken place? And any observations about what that indicates about the Russian offensive?

MR. KIRBY: I can't confirm those reports, Paul. Tony Capaccio.

Q: John, did you just call me?

MR. KIRBY: I did, Tony.

Q: OK, sorry. Sorry. I missed it. Just two questions. One budget question and one air defense question. The President is about to sign the $13.5 trillion package. Excuse me, the $1.5 trillion package within that is $3.5 billion for Ukraine defense equipment, defensive equipment. 3 billion of that is going to be new equipment to the Ukraine. How quickly will be the Pentagon be able to send over this new tranche of equipment?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I'm not going to get ahead of that process right now, Tony. I would just tell you, as we've said before, I mean, we're still we're still delivering assistance on the last drawdown package that the President signed -- the $350 million. We're still delivering as a matter of fact, even in just the last 24 hours, and in the next 24 hours.

And obviously, we will, as I've said before, we will continue to provide security assistance to the Ukrainians for as long as we can as fast as we can. And that would certainly include under the authorities and funding that would be provided by this spending bill when the President signs it. He's indicated that he's going to sign it.

And obviously, broadly speaking, we're grateful that -- to be able to have an Appropriations Bill signed into law. And not have to live under threat of yet more Continuing Resolutions.

MR. KIRBY: Anything more in the room? OK. That'll close us out today. Thank you very much.