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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

March 23, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So, senior defense official, on day 28 now, we've observed more than 1200 missile launches, again, of all stripes and sizes. 

Let's start, if you don't mind, I'm going to go kind of around the clock as I've done before, and we'll start with -- with Kyiv. Still hold to the northwest of the city that the Russians are about 15 to 20 kilometers away from the city center. So, no movement. What I would add is we are starting to see now that they are -- that they're basically digging in, and they are establishing defensive positions. So, it's not that they're not advancing, they're actually not trying to advance right now. They're taking more defensive positions. 

And, again, going around the clock here, still -- still on Kyiv, but to the east of Kyiv, they've actually, the Ukrainians have been able to push the Russians back to about 55 kilometers east and northeast of Kyiv. Remember, yesterday, we were telling you they were about 20 to 30 kilometers away. But -- near that town of Brovary. And we now assess that the Ukrainians have pushed them back further to the east and northeast of Kyiv. That is a change from yesterday.  

No major changes around -- so going clockwise now -- around to the one o'clock position of Chernihiv still -- we still assess they are trying to surround it and circle it. The Ukrainians have fought very hard to try not only to keep the Russians out but -- but to try to push them back. And we now hold the Ukrainian -- I'm sorry, the Russians are about 8 to 10 kilometers away from the city center. They're stalled, and in some places around Chernihiv, they are ceding ground. They are actually moving in the opposite direction, but not by much. 

And -- keeping going around here and we'll go to Kharkiv. And again, we maintain that the Russians are outside of the city now, roughly 15 to 25 kilometers of the -- they're outside -- they're outside the ring road, actually, 15 to 20 kilometers away from the city center. And again, very, very stiff resistance there, the Ukrainians are really holding on to Kharkiv. 

Now when we get down, moving around the clock, going -- keep going down now, we're sort of at the three o'clock position where you have the Donbas, the joint force operations area. So, this is Luhansk, and Donetsk and all that. We still believe that the Russians are trying to basically cut it off, and therefore pin down Ukrainian forces that are in the Luhansk-Donetsk area. They are still trying to move south of that city, Izium. And they're still, we think, again, plan on moving north out of Mariupol'. 

But there's been no major changes. The only thing I would say, and I know I'm hemming and hawing here, but we're taking a bunch of notes. But what I would say is that this is the area which has become much more active for Russian forces in the Donbas area the -- that eastern part of Ukraine. We believe that they are now going to start to apply -- actually, they have applied a lot more energy in the Luhansk-Donetsk area, particularly around Luhansk. You're seeing them really put more energy and effort into that part of Ukraine. 

So, not that it hasn't been a hot war for a long time, it absolutely has. There's been a lot of fighting there since the beginning of the invasion, quite frankly, before that. But what we're seeing now is indications that the Russians are really starting to prioritize that part of eastern Ukraine. So, interesting, we're starting to see them sort of dig around Kyiv, but really trying to go more on the offense than they have been; more energy applied in that Eastern part. So, that's a little bit of a change from what we've been talking about before. 

Again, significant going back down south now towards Mariupol' -- again, very very contested still -- Russians are still bombarding it heavily with artillery and long-range fire we continue to observe Russian forces inside the city, but they're -- but it's not -- it's certainly not a majority of them, and the Ukrainians are also inside Mariupol' and of course fighting very hard for it. 

Let's move on down. We do assess around Berdyans'k seeing some naval activity, it looks like it could be resupply using some of their LSTs to put ashore some vehicles and resupply around Berdyans'k. Remember, when they moved up that coast, they did move into and basically occupied Berdyans'k. It's one of the only two towns that they really have. And so we're seeing a little bit of what looks to be some resupply effort there. 

Note -- as I go, swinging back down now past Crimea and over towards Kherson and Mykolayiv. Mykolayiv, again, nothing major to report there. As we said yesterday, I can't remember when I said it. The Russians are kind of repositioning around Mykolayiv. They have not been able to take Mykolayiv. They've been frustrated by the Ukrainian defenses there. And we're seeing them. When they started out, they started, you know, they went through Kherson, they went up to the north and northeast, we're now seeing them sort of position more towards the southeast and the east. So, they're about 15 kilometers to the southeast and about 30 kilometers to the east of Mykolayiv. So, they have not only not made progress, they've had to reposition around Mykolayiv because the Ukrainian resistance has been so stiff. But again, both sides are still fighting very hard. 

So, that kind of takes us around the clock all the way from Kyiv down to Mykolayiv. Oh, I'm sure you're going to ask about Odesa. Nothing significant to report there. No, nothing that we could observe that would tell us there's a move on Odesa coming. We obviously continue to observe naval activity, both in the northern Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In fact, I just told you a little bit about some resupply efforts; it looks like the Russians were trying to do around Berdyansk. They still have vessels in the northern Black Sea, no major changes from what we talked about in the past. We haven't seen additional shelling from those ships in the northern Black Sea. And there's no apparent movement on Odesa. 

Again, I want to say, you know what I said yesterday, I mean, what could be the Russian play here is, you know, a potential feint on Odesa to -- to try to see if they can pin down Ukrainian forces. It's not entirely -- it's not entirely obvious though that they actually will make a move on Odesa. So, we're just kind of watching that to see where it goes. But no major changes from yesterday. 

And no major changes in the air environment. Again, the Russians have not achieved air superiority. And we still see fairly risk-averse air activity by Russian pilots if they do go; you know if they do go in, venture in, and they don't stay in contested airspace very long. So, it's still contested. 

You'll probably ask me about Belarus. No indications that Belarus is moving or staging or getting ready to go in. Nothing major on the resupply effort to speak to today. And on reinforcements, again, we continue to see the Russians look at options for reinforcements. And we do believe they're moving in that direction to reinforce some of their forces from outside Ukraine. But nothing specific to speak to today. 

Let's see. On our security assistance, what I can say is that the $350 million security package that the president signed out to should be closing out, or at least getting into the last… the remaining material should be arriving within the next day or so for further transshipment into Ukraine, and that'll close that out. And the first flight of material from the next big tranche, the $800 million package that the president announced, that also should be starting to arrive here, the first flight should be planned to arrive within the next day or so. I don't want to get too specific here because that -- that's -- that's all in-work, and it'll be a series of multiple flights over many days. But that should start to arrive, that material should start to arrive very, very soon. 

And obviously, I'm not going to get into what's on every plane in every shipment, but -- but we're going to prioritize the kinds of systems, the defensive systems that we know that they are using in the fight, we're going to prioritize those, obviously, first and foremost. So, that'll be weapon systems that will be prioritized. That doesn't mean that the only thing that's going to be on these first few flights, but that's how we're going to prioritize that. So, we are already aggregating stocks in the United States, and we're getting ready to ship them over there. 

OK, I think that's about it. With that, I'll start taking questions. Lita, I guess you go first. 

Q: Hi, thanks. 

Two things; one, you haven't been willing to talk, obviously much about estimated casualties. A NATO official today talk in a sort of more detail that they believe Russia has suffered between 30,000 and 40,000 casualties, including 7,000 to 15,000 killed. I'm wondering if the U.S. is part of this estimate or if there's any comment you can make at all on the validity of it. 

And my second question is on Stoltenberg's announcement about the four new battle groups. Will the U.S. be taking on one of those responsibilities Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria? The U.S. already does one of the initial four that was set up a while back. I'm wondering if the U.S. plans to take responsibility for one of these four new ones and whether you have any -- anything more you want to say about any additional troop, et cetera movements that we can expect over the next coming days.  

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have any -- anything to speak to you today with respect to additional forces. Obviously, we are continuing to monitor what's going on, talking to the NATO allies, and again, as I said many times, the secretary is certainly not ruling any options out. So, if and when that changes, I'll certainly will try to make sure that you guys are aware of it. 

On the U.S. lead of a new battle group, you know what, I'm going to take the question, Lita because I saw the announcement today. But I don't know if -- what the U.S. role would be in the leadership of that. So, let me take that one. And we'll try to come back on that. I don't know of any plans right now. But the truth is, I just don't know. So, I don't want to guess. 

And on the casualties, I, you know, as you know, I'm going to continue to stay away from that. There are lots of different ranges of casualties. I would tell you that in the material that I have seen, I have not seen estimates that look like that, that aren't that high. But I'm not going to characterize what the ranges are that we're looking at because they're just -- they're very broad. And we continue to have low confidence in those estimates, because we're not on the ground, we can't see, you know, what's really going on, on a day-to-day basis. And it just wouldn't be prudent for me to go there. 

Tom Bowman? 

Q: Yeah, I wanted to stay on the issue of NATO and the eastern flank and the U.S. role. I know, no announcements, no decisions made. But can you give us a broader sense of the way ahead? Is the U.S. prepared to offer or at least discuss maybe more rotational troops? Maybe not right now, but later. Or maybe even a permanent troop presence in the eastern part of NATO, Poland, or Romania? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean, we kind of dealt with this question yesterday. I -- in terms of the immediate need to bolster the eastern flank with temporary forces, the secretary is obviously looking at this every day and monitoring it. And I, as I said before, we're not gonna take off the table, the possibility that he will flow more forces in from the United States, or reposition from elsewhere in Europe. I mean, all those are options available to the secretary, and he's still working his way through that. And you know it if that happens, and when we can talk about it, we'll certainly do that. 

As for what the permanent posture would look like going forward, I just don't think anybody knows right now, Tom. I mean, we're -- certainly the security environment in Europe is -- is different now. And it will be different now. It will be different no matter what the outcome is of this war. I think it's safe to say that the United States, as well as other NATO nations, will be taken a hard look at what -- at whether we have the footprint right, and whether the posture is appropriate to the new security environment that results from all this. 

So, I wouldn't rule anything on or off the table at this point. But we aren't at the stage where -- where we are making those kinds of decisions. But I think it's safe to assume that all of us will be looking at that going forward. The focus right now, Tom, is the security assistance to Ukraine and getting that stuff there. And we -- and I just told you that we were already going to in the next, you know, 24 to 48 hours, we'll start seeing material from the latest presidential drawdown start to arrive. 

And the second thing is to just make sure that the eastern flank is properly reinforced. And so, if and when there's additional force posture changes to speak to, it'll be in that vein; it'll be in the immediate need for bolstering the eastern flank while there's a hot war going on in Ukraine. And then what goes beyond that, again, we're just -- we're just not in a position right now to speculate. 

Q: Yeah, I know. Getting beyond the immediate need, is there a way you can characterize it in any way that there’ll likely be a greater role for the U.S. in the Eastern flank of NATO? You know how it works, when -- when you talk NATO, NATO is always looking over their shoulder at the U.S. helping if not troops, then clearly logistics and training. So, can you at least say that it is likely the U.S. will play a greater role in the future in the eastern flank? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think the way I would put it, Tom, is that you know, we're going to be open to discussing and to consult with our allies about what the new security environment is going to require of every NATO ally, including us. I think we're gonna stay open to having those discussions and deliberations. But I just think it's too soon right now to be able to, you know, to make some pronouncement right now. 

Q: All right, thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. 

Tara Copp? 

Q: Hey there. 

The president has discussed the threat of chemical weapons a couple of times. I was just wondering, given NATO's announcement today about getting chemical gear, I wanted to go back to the MoP issue; will the U.S. help provide some of that gear and get some of those chem-bio protections to Ukrainians? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean, I don't have -- first of all, we haven't seen any imminent signs that there's going to be a chem-bio event caused by the Russians. 

And I don't have, you know, when you look at the kinds of material that we're prioritizing, it's right now, it's largely the kinds of things that they need in the fight right now, those kinds of weapons of small arms ammunition, stingers, javelins, body armor and helmets and those kinds of things that they need in the fight right now. That's where the priority is. And again, we don't see an indication right now that there's an imminent potential use here of chem-bio. 

Q: OK, and then just as -- just as a quick follow-up, has it become more difficult to get those supplies into Ukrainian hands just because of how some of the airstrikes have moved further west? Or are you still seeing that the supply line has not been affected? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We are still able to get material into Ukraine using a variety of ground routes. And we have not seen those routes put at threat yet. 

Phil Stewart? 

Q: Hey there. 

Secretary of State Blinken today talked about war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine and cited several specific examples. Is there -- was there any Pentagon or from any of the Pentagon agencies any intelligence or supporting evidence that was provided to the State Department to help make that determination? 

Thank you. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, we are just like the State Department. We're certainly watching closely what they're doing. I can't speak to a specific report that we turned into the State Department. But we are in constant communication with our State Department colleagues about what they're seeing, about what we're seeing. And you can assume that Secretary Blinken's remarks today were certainly informed by information that's been shared across the interagency. 

Let's see. Dan De Luce, NBC. 

Q: Thanks. 

Could you describe a little bit more the situation around Kyiv? You were saying how the Russians were pushed back, and we're in defensive positions. Is it also the case that Irpin and Mokri are now in Ukrainian hands? And is it -- how would you assess overall the Russian assault on Kyiv given that latest development? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, I think there's been no progress towards Kyiv on the ground. And in fact, to the north and northwest, it is -- it is effectively stalled as we see them take defensive positions now to really make no indications that they're planning to move forward from that direction. And from the east, they've actually moved backwards. The Ukrainians have pushed them back to about 55 kilometers from -- from -- to the -- the east of Kyiv; they were around 20 to 30 as we talked about the last several days. So, they've actually moved backwards on the Eastern front. 

I don't have an update on this suburb and Irpin. I don't well, I'm not completely sure about my information on Irpin, so I'm not gonna -- I won't speculate right now. But I don't have any updates on that other suburb.  
But, again, I think you're seeing, as we talked about before, in places around Kyiv and even to the south. I mean, we talked about the way that they've had to reposition now around Mykolayiv because they've not been able to take it. I mean, the Ukrainians are not only in some of these places, sufficiently defending, they're going on the offense in some of these places and actually pushing the Russians back; or in the case of Kyiv, they're basically forcing them into a defensive position. 

I don't have updates on the two suburbs. I apologize. 

Q: Sorry. And then one -- another thing. There was an interview in the New York Times with a Ukrainian pilot, and they described, you know, dogfights and also described how the Ukrainian Air Force is obviously losing planes as well, not surprisingly. And that the tempo, the operational tempo is intense, and they're going to need replacements. Given the state of the kind of air war there, is it still possible that the U.S. might consider some way of helping Poland or another country provide fighter jets to Ukraine? Or are you still ruling that out completely? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Again, Dan, we never ruled it out. We -- these are sovereign decisions that other nations have to make for themselves. And as we said, all along, we respect that. So, if another nation has fixed-wing aircraft that they want to provide to Ukraine, that is their decision to make, and the United States is not going to stand in the way. 

What we're focused on are the kinds of things that we know they're using very effectively, the javelin, the stingers, small arms and ammunition. And that's what we're focused on, the United States. We're focused on getting them those things as well as you know, other -- other kits, such as, you know, medical supplies, and again, body armor and helmets and that kind of thing. That's what we're focused on. 

We're also focused on working with other allies and partners to help get them more long-range air defense systems that they're trained on, that they know how to use. And quite frankly, they're using it very effectively. That is one reason why the big reason why the airspace is contested and the Russians have not achieved their superiority. It's one reason why we're seeing fairly risk-averse behavior out of some Russian pilots because they don't want to loiter around in airspace that they think, though they know are covered by Ukrainian SAMs. So, it's never -- you know, we didn't put a veto on people providing fixed-wing aircraft to the Ukrainians. 

Carla Babb? 

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. 

Just a follow-up one more time on Dan. So, you don't know whether or not Ukrainians hold (INAUDIBLE) not -- I don't know if you got that part of his question. So, you don't want to say at this time? 

And then just my second one, back on those ships, you know, in the Black Sea that you said maybe like to fake out, that's why they're positioned there. Can you, even if you have to take the question, can we get the last time there was any sort of military activity from these ships? Because it's been a while since there was a landing or a missile launch, I don't even know if we know exactly when the last missile launch was because you guys just give it to us generally. Can you take that? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Carla, I'll -- first of all, I think I've been talking about that. I noted that two days ago, we saw shelling him some of the ships in and around Odesa, and yesterday I said we hadn't seen any, and we hadn't seen any today. So, I don't know that I need to take the question. I'm giving you real-time as best I can on that. 

And -- and my answer on the suburbs was I don't know. I just I don't have that. I don't have that level of detail to tell you specifically that this or that suburb have been retaken or -- by the Ukrainians. I'm giving you -- honestly, I'm just I'm giving you as much context as I'm getting from various sources every day, and I just don't have that today. 

Q: OK, sure thing. Thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: (CROSSTALK) Matt, go ahead. Sorry. 

Q: Thank you. 

You know, in addition to the type of support you've listed here, anti-tank, anti-air, small arms, and ammunition. Another thing that Jens Stoltenberg talked about today as being important was NATO, also now hosting millions of refugees. You know, we talked about a lot of U.S. heading to the region earlier on and how they have multiple skill sets, including possibly taking people over the border. We also know, you know, we've seen the U.S. military set up camps and manage refugees in recent tasks. So, is this something that's being discussed more that we might see at NATO tomorrow? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You know; I don't know what's on the agenda. I would not be surprised if the humanitarian issues are discussed. I mean, I -- again, it's a -- it's ahead of state summit. So, I don't have that level of visibility. But I think everybody here, particularly on the eastern flank, this is foremost in their minds. 

When the -- when the secretary visits Slovakia earlier -- well, I guess it was just a few days ago. There's a country they're hosting more than 250,000 refugees right now. So, it -- and it definitely (INAUDIBLE) discussions with the defense minister. So, I would not be surprised, certainly, if they talk about it. But I mean, right now, you know, there's -- there could be more than 4 million refugees. 

Poland themselves are hosting, you know, 2.1 million of them. So, more than half are in Poland alone. So, it is -- obviously, it's a significant issue that the alliance members and even some non-alliance members are dealing with. So, again, I can't say with certainty that it's going to be an agenda item, but I would not be surprised if...

Q: OK. Even below the NATO line, was it something the pentagon is considered making initial plans for? For the possibility of it? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The U.S. military? 

Q: Yeah, (INAUDIBLE) the U.S. military...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: There's no -- there's no discussions right now using U.S. military assets to move or care for refugees. These nations that are welcoming them are doing that. So, there's no U.S. military plan to get involved in that right now. 

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. 

Let's see. Fadi?

Q: Thank you for shedding light on the situation in the Donbas region. So, I have a question related to that area. And then I have clarification. So, I'm just gonna start with a clarification. You said that the first shipment slides from the $800 million package would start arriving the next day or so. So, I assume you don't mean arriving to the Ukrainians, but arriving somewhere in Europe before shipping them to Ukrainian forces. So, when do you anticipate the first shipments to actually arrive inside Ukraine? And then on the Donbas...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It won't take long, Fadi. I don't have -- sorry, Fadi, I don't have an exact -- that, I don't know. But it won't take long. I mean, we're not letting this stuff stay fixed for very long before we put it on trucks and get it in the country. 

Q: And then -- thank you. And then, in the Donbas area, why do you think the Russians are putting more priority there? You mentioned before that one; the thinking is maybe they're trying to cut off Ukrainian forces inside that region? I mean, how significant would that be for them if they were successful in this effort? And how would it, if any, change the dynamics of the war inside of Ukraine?

Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I -- again, we don't have perfect visibility into Russian planning and thinking here. I would only note a couple of things. One, this has been a hot war there since 2014, so this has been a key focus, a geographic focus area for the Russians for a long time. 

Number two, we do think that they are trying to fix -- at least to some degree trying to fix Ukrainian forces there, in what's known as the JFO, the joint forces operations area. So that they can't be used elsewhere, it's of a piece of what we think, again, we think, could be what's going on in the south, you know, Odesa. 

But again, I don't have perfect visibility in the Russian planning here and what they're thinking. All I can tell you, again, what I've been doing from the beginning, I'm just telling you what we're seeing, and we're seeing a lot of energy applied by the Russians in that part. 

Heather from USNI? 

Q: Thanks so much for taking my question. 

I noticed -- I know that you said that they -- you haven't seen any more shelling or missiles from the Black Sea. But have you seen any additional shelling or bombardment coming from naval bases along the coast of Ukraine or Crimea? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Shelling of bases or from bases? 

Q: From bases. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Actually -- yeah. No, I haven't. The only naval activity that we've seen in the last 24 is what I just told you about. You know, it looks like they're doing some sort of resupply in the Sea of Azov with some military vehicles being landed. But that's about it. 

Karroun, from The Washington Post?

Q: Hi. 

Just two things. One, just kind of circling back on a question I think I was asking earlier. The Russians are claiming to have hit a weapon storage area in northwestern Ukraine using high precision sea-based weapons. I was just wondering if there's any truth to that claim. Does that seem like a significant move? 

And then also, should we be expecting any announcements about new military capabilities? I know you talked about the timeline for the 350s almost being done. And the 800 billion (inaudible) starting up. But after President Biden's meetings tomorrow, we -- should we be expecting any sort of new announcement about more to come? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I'm not going to get ahead of the president or what the -- or the summit. I think you can understand why I wouldn't do that. 

I cannot confirm; I did look into that, this idea of sea-launched missile hitting a weapons storage facility. I can't confirm that. I did try to track that down, and I just don't have anything on it. We don't have anything on that. 

(CROSSTALK)

Sylvie, from AFP? 

Q: Hello. 

Do you have an updated number of the missile fired by the Russian forces? And do you assess that the Russians are depleting their stockpile? And in that case, how long can they last at the same tempo? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I didn't get your first question. 

Q: You used to give us the number of the missiles that the Russians were launching, using. Do you have an updated number? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I gave you an updated number today; we have launched more than 1200. And again, without getting into specifics here, we still assess that they have the vast majority of their assembled available inventory of surface to air missiles and cruise missiles available to them. I mean, they've expended a lot, but they -- they put a lot in to the effort. And they still have an awful lot left. So, you know, I don't -- I think that's about as specific as I am going to be willing to go into right now. 

Of all the things they have available to them, the thing -- and I think we talked about this yesterday, the thing that they are -- they're running the lowest on are air launch cruise missiles, they still have just, you know, over 50 percent of what they had assembled left of them. But in every other category, ground-launched cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, I mean, they've got -- they've got a significant majority still left of them. 

OK, let's see. Liz from Fox News. 

Q: Hey, thanks. 

My question was asked and answered. Thank you.