Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

March 28, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Hey, everybody. It's... Thanks for hanging in there. 

Not a whole lot of changes to speak to since we last talked on Friday. Day 33 now.

We've observed more than 1,370 missile launches. Still assess around Kyiv that Russian forces have not only ceased to make any advances toward the city, but as we said before, are making really no efforts on the ground to advance on the city. But obviously, they continue to strike the city with long-range fires. But no change in their positions both to the north and northwest. They're still 15 to 20 kilometers away, and to the east/northeast, still at 55 kilometers away. Again, static situation on the ground there except for the fact that we continue to see the Ukrainians, you know, defend the city and and try to push the Russians back, as well.

No real changes of Chernihiv. Again, just going around the clock here. Still assess the Russian movements on Chernihiv are stalled there between eight to 10 kilometers away from the city, depending on where you look, and we still believe that in -- or on the out -- that in Chernihiv that the Ukrainians still have been able to maintain lines of communication, which means that not only physical communication, but the ability to resupply themselves inside Chernihiv.

Again, no changes around Kharkiv. When I keep going around the clock there, that little town of Izyum that we've talked about so many times, we have assessed that the Russians have been making incremental advances in the southeast, more towards the Donbas, out of Izyum, so we hold them about 15 kilometers now to the southeast. You might recall when we talked on Friday that we said they were about 10 kilometers to the southeast. But that's -- it's incremental progress. I think that's the way we would describe it, again, of a piece of what we believe to be their re-prioritization of the Donbas and their attempts to try to cut off the Donbas, particularly cut off the Ukrainian forces that are in or near the Donbas area.

Going back around, no changes in Mariupol. You've seen it for yourself, a lot of heavy fighting there still using -- the Russians are still using long-range fires, but they have not been able to take Mariupol. And it -- they're both, you know, the -- the Ukrainians are slugging it out in Mariupol and they are keeping the Russians at bay there so far.

Then swinging back around towards, you know, we talked about the -- Kherson and -- and Mykolaiv. We still believe Kherson is being fought over, so I think you heard me -- we talked about, on Friday, that it was contested territory. We still believe that's the case. The Ukrainians are actively trying to take Kherson back. The Russians have not been able to take Mykolaiv, and as I said on Friday, they have repositioned outside the city more towards the southeast, sort of in between Mykolaiv and Kherson and that is where they sort of seem to be right now, and they aren't making any advancements on Mykolaiv since over the course of the weekend, so they're outside the city.

No change to the airspace to talk about, and no change in the maritime environment. No imminent amphibious assaults on Odesa, no additional naval activity to speak to over the weekend. I know since we all were focused on Friday on the attack that the Ukrainians conducted against an LSTs, that there's been no additional naval activity of note since the weekend.

Bob Burns?

Q: Thank you. I do -- I do have one follow up question on [the Growler announcement today]. I don't know if you can comment on the record or how that would work but those six aircraft are going to Spangdahlem in Germany but [the statement] also referred to them as being used on the eastern flank. So I'm wondering are they going to be repositioned from Germany?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No -- no, they'll -- they'll be based in Germany but you can expect that they'll be flying missions in support of eastern flank deterrence and defense. You can use that on the record.

Q: Okay, thanks. And then I have a -- a question going back to -- on -- on Friday, you were talking about indications that the Russians were drawing on their troops based in Georgia. And I'm wondering whether you have any update on that? And also, in a related matter, do you -- are you seeing signs of them doing -- making similar moves with Russian forces that are based in other countries outside of Russia (inaudible) Central Asia? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, no updates on the reinforcements from Georgia. We do believe they are drawing on some forces there -- some of Russian forces that were -- that were there.

And I have nothing more to report today in terms of bringing reinforcements from elsewhere, except to say we continue to see indications that the Russians are in -- interested in -- in reinforcements from outside of the -- the troops that they have in Ukraine, and as we know more and can say more, we'll try to do that.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, sir. Dan Lamothe, Washington Post?

Q: Thank you, (inaudible). I wanted to see if you had seen anything and have any confirmation or additional detail on some of these enclaves where Ukrainians appear to have been pulled from their town and put in sort of camps? It sounds like some pretty harrowing stories. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: They're deeply concerning stories, Dan. I don't have anything to independently corroborate them. So we just -- we don't have that level of fidelity but it's certainly deeply concerning to all of us. But no, I'm afraid I can't independently verify that.

David Martin?

Q: On his visit to Europe, the President talked a couple of times about the need to be in this for the -- for the long haul. And I wonder if that means that the U.S. is now starting to consider giving Ukraine systems, weapons that would require training before the Ukrainians could operate them? And I'm thinking specifically of tanks, which Zelensky has mentioned, but any other systems as well.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sorry, (Bob?) -- sorry, somebody was talking to me. So David, I would tell you that the -- we remain focused on providing the kinds of systems and the capabilities that the Ukrainians already know how to use and are using most effectively. So nothing has changed from our perspective on those kinds of security assistance details.

And again, I would tell you we continue to deliver every single day, not only from the United States but from other countries that we're helping coordinate it, and that includes, you know, additional shipments from the $800 million that the President announced a few days ago and that you've already got the inventory list for. So those shipments are, in fact, continuing to flow. But that's our focus and I have no changes to that focus to speak to today.

Q: Have you made any progress on finding S-300s?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We're continuing to consult with a range of allies and partners who have those kinds of long range air defense systems but I don't have any announcements to make, nor probably would we in any event because these would be sovereign decisions that other nations would make and -- and would either speak to themselves or not to -- not speak to themselves. It wouldn't be for the United States to announce it but we're continuing to talk to a range of allies and partners that have those kinds of long range air defense systems.

Carla Babb?

Q: Hey, thanks. Ukraine mentioned that it's not going to open humanitarian corridors due to warnings of Russian, quote "provocations along the routes." Can you give us any information about what you have seen the Russians doing in recent days on that -- concerning that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have anything from recent days to speak to that specifically. We have seen, though -- in just the last couple of weeks, we've seen the Russians announce humanitarian corridors and then promptly shell them or mortar them or strike them.

So I can't speak to these specific assertions by the Ukrainians, certainly can't refute it, but I don't have anything more specific than that.

Tom Bowman?

Q: Yeah, there have been reports that the Russians are pulling back some of their units to Chernobyl. Do you have anything on that or any other seeming retreats?

And also, I understand the 82nd in Poland has been extended. Can you say anything about that and about any other extensions?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So I would say on the movements we continue -- I think I kind of laid it out at the top. They've made no progress moving towards Kyiv. They've made not progress elsewhere in the north, whether its Chernihiv or Kharkiv. I don't have any -- I've seen press reporting on these retreats. I've not -- I don't have anything that I can independently verify that. Clearly they remain certainly around Kyiv very much in a defensive posture. And the Ukrainians are continuing to try to take back ground. We've seen that down in the South and we have even seen it in the north.

There is a -- there is a town, for instance, I know you're not asking about this, Tom, but kind of gets to what you're talking about. There is a town south of Sumy, I won't disrespect it by trying to pronounce it, but it spelled T-R-O-S-T-Y-A-N-E-T-S, T-R-O-S-T-Y-A-N-E-T-S, just south of Sumy that we have assessed that the Ukrainians have recaptured from the Russians. So they continue to make progress in that regard.

And on -- on force levels, I would -- when -- there's obviously, with the exception of the Growlers, I have no additional posture changes to speak to. When the secretary ordered these troops to Europe, we made it clear at the time that they would be there for as long as we believe they were necessary to be there. And the secretary continues to believe that they're necessary, that these are temporary deployments. They will eventually end, of course, but -- but they continue. And the secretary constantly, again, is in touch with General Wolters as well as the chairman, Chairman Milley, and constantly reviewing the posture to determine whether we've got it about right and whether -- and whether -- you know, to think about, you know, what might eventually be redeployment. But we haven't made any decisions like that so far. Those troops are still there. And the secretary assesses that they need to stay there. And so I have no announcements or changes to that posture except for those six Growlers.

And as we can talk about (inaudible) we certainly -- we certainly will.

Q: Okay, got it, thanks.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Luis Martinez, yes, sir. Luis Martinez?

Q: Hi.

Quick question about -- two quick -- two questions, please. One on the Growler. That announcement, you typically don't announce deployments like this, and is this to lower the risk of miscalculation on one thing? And then the other question has to do with Mariupol. Is the expectation there that the Russian -- the Ukrainian troops that are there may not last should for long because of dwindling resources and water and food and ammunition?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So you're asking me, do I think that -- that they won't be able to hold out much longer? I didn't understand the second part.

Q: No, I apologize for not being clear. Is it possible that the Russian -- these -- I'm sorry, that the Ukrainian troops in Mariupol may not be able to hold out much longer given -- I mean, is the city fully encircled and therefore they can't get any additional supplies in?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We -- as I said at the top, we continue to see Mariupol getting slammed by long-range fires. And we are certainly aware of reports that inside Mariupol the Ukrainians are not only fighting very, very hard, but that they are -- that they are experiencing their own challenges because the city is near surrounded. But again, I can't give more detail than that. I -- you know, we can't independently verify every assertion, but we do understand that it is nearly encircled. It is under incredible pressure by the Russians, but the Ukrainians continue to defend it.

And on your other question, it's really an effort to be as transparent with you as we can be. There's going to be some things and some moves we make that we may not be able to talk about, and I think you can all understand that. But if it's a move that we can talk about and we should talk about we're doing that, and that's why [there was an announcement about the six EA-18 Growlers]. They're going to be fairly obvious when they arrive, and we felt it was the right thing to do to explain to you why they're going and when and how many. It was really an effort to be transparent with you. And clearly, it gives us another opportunity to explain to you, to the American people and frankly, to the Kremlin what we're doing and why we're doing it, and it's about NATO Article 5 commitments and defense and bolstering deterrence and defensive capabilities of -- of the eastern flank.

Tony Capaccio?

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You bet.

Q: Hi. A couple questions. Do you envision the Growlers, they're all flying presence missions like the F-30 -- F-35s that have been deployed to Estonia and Latvia?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That's going to be up to General Wolters.

Q: Okay. Second question: At this point is -- are the Ukrainians air defense systems and, you know, their whole air defense network, are they holding up fairly well against the Russians in terms of preventing air superiority and air supremacy?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes. I -- I think that the short answer to that is yes, Tony. We still assess that -- that they have the majority of their air defense, long-range air defense systems available to them. Yes, they're using them, of course, and we are working hard with allies and partners to help replenish those stocks. But they are using them quite effectively, and as I said earlier, the airspace remains contested.

And you -- and you know, I know you probably get tired of me saying that every day. But think about this: We're on day 33. The Russians have surface-to-air missile coverage almost all over the entire country. Their pilots are still showing risk-averse behavior by -- if they have to venture into Ukrainian airspace, only doing it for a short amount of time before they leave. Most of the cruise missile strikes that they're launching are coming from inside Russian or Belarusian airspace. I mean, it's remarkable, what the Ukrainians have been able to do with the air defense systems that they have available to them, and that's why we're going to try to replenish them as best we can.

Q: You've mentioned a couple times that they've demonstrated they're nimble and agile. What's an example of nimble in the world of air defense over Ukraine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- I think -- I want to be -- I want to be careful that -- not to --

Q: I know.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- qualify it too much more because I want to preserve their opsec, but they're being very creative and very innovative by the way they are using the resources they have available to them and making them harder targets.

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: And I think that's really as far as I can go.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tara Copp?

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. So I wanted to ask about the next tranche of security assistance. Can you talk about what's been flown in, or actually, driven in? And since there's been increased launches of -- towards the west, have you had to make any adjustments to how weapons are getting into Ukraine? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We -- we continue -- as I said, continue to flow in shipments. They're arriving every day. I -- I'd rather not get into a specific inventory list on every shipment that -- you -- you know what's in that $800 million package. The president announced that. We are prioritizing the -- the weapons in these early shipments because obviously, we know that that's what the Ukrainians need the most right now. But I'm not going to get into, like, each shipment and what's on them. But they continue to arrive and continue to arrive over the course of the weekend, and -- and certainly into -- into this week. So I -- that's really the best I can do right now on an open line. And -- and there's been no -- we have not seen any attempted interdiction of these shipments on the ground into Ukraine.

[CROSSTALK]

Courtney?

Q: Hi, just a quick one. What's the latest on Irpin? I -- I don't know if I'm saying that right. I-R-P-I-N. The -- the local officials there are saying that they have taken it back. Do you guys have any assessment on that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I saw that too, Court, just before we started, and asked the team, and we can't independently verify it. We've seen the mayor's comments. As you might remember on Friday, we talked about there being, you know, active fighting and the Ukrainians' efforts to take it back, but we're not in a position now where we can independently verify that they've done so.

Q: And then just one other on -- on Donbas and sort of this change. I mean, is there any -- over the weekend, was there any additional assessment or analysis on -- on what this sort of turn to Donbas means, if you -- if the U.S. thinks that now Russia is actually going to give up going after Kyiv and some of these other places? I mean, is there any -- anything new in the last 48 hours? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Nothing new over the last 48 hours. I think you know, we talked about this on Friday. They clearly have begun to prioritize now, or actually are prioritizing the Donbas area. They've -- they've as much as said so publicly, and the -- and we're seeing -- we're seeing a lot more ground activity in the Donbas. It has always been heavy fighting, but of course, they're -- you -- you can see that they are going after Ukrainian positions more in the Donbas area. We talked about them now advancing further south out of Izyum.

They -- we believe that one of the things they -- so a couple of things, and I'll just say that like we said Friday. One of the things that we think they want to do is cut off the Donbas for the sake of cutting off the Ukrainian Armed Forces that are there, pinning them down so they can't come to the defense of other places. That's one.

Two, we think it could be an attempt by the Russians to gain negotiating leverage at whatever negotiating table they end up working out a cease-fire and -- and hopefully, a peaceful settlement here if they can -- if they can establish authority and occupying presence in that part. I mean, it could be that that's what they're trying to get at here. We -- it -- it could actually be that they are reassessing now their strategic goals, because they clearly are not moving on Kyiv anymore. But we don't know that, Court, and I want to be very clear about that. It's just we -- we're not exactly sure what's behind this reprioritization. All I can tell you is what we're seeing, and what we are seeing is, you know, this continued reprioritization on the Donbas.

Phil Stewart?

Q: Hey. So two small things. One is the -- the Mayor of Mariupol has estimated 5,000 casualties or -- or -- or killed actually in the city during the -- the siege there. Do you have any -- any estimate, even if it's just vague, like in the thousands? Are there thousands of -- of casualties in Mariupol?

And then secondly, there appears to be a story coming out from the Journal that will talk about a potential poisoning of -- of Ukrainian negotiators. Just wondering if there's anything on that that you could say? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Nothing on that. That's the first I've heard of it.

And I can't give you an estimate -- I'm sorry -- an estimate of civilian casualties in Mariupol. We clearly believe that there have been but we're not able to quantify that. I know that continues to be frustrating for you all but we're being very careful about getting into estimates on -- on casualties because we just have low confidence in them, Phil. We're not on the ground, we can't see it for ourselves, and it's just difficult to wrap your arms around that kind of data.

But the only thing I'd say and at the risk of getting into editorializing here, I mean, we do see the continued, just relentless pounding on Mariupol by long range fires and airstrikes by the Russians, and we know it's having a devastating effect on the town and on the people there.

Paul Shinkman, U.S. News?

Q: Yeah, hi.  Have you seen any military response to President Biden's comments over the weekend that President Putin cannot remain in power, either rhetorically from Russian commanders or in actions on the ground?

And any indications that commanders are using these comments to boost morale along their own troops? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The answer is no to both, Paul.

Barb Starr?

Q: Can -- can I come back to the Growlers for a second? [The statement said] in the very beginning the -- they weren't being used against Russian forces and the deployment was not being made in response to any crisis, [and that they fly EW, including radar jamming to suppress enemy air defenses].

So my question is this -- they suppress enemy -- adversary, enemy air defenses. There is no adversary out there but the Russians. So they're either flying (around practice?) or they're actually -- if you say they're on a deterrence mission, that means they're doing something. Can you rule out that they will actually radar -- use their radar jamming and suppress enemy air defenses? Because if you're not able to rule that out and yet you say they're a deterrence, I -- I -- I don't understand.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Barb, they are there to reinforce deterrence capabilities of the alliance on the Eastern Flank, they are not there to engage Russian assets. That is not the goal. They are there, as everything else is there -- all of the other aircraft that we have devoted to this mission, including a -- in -- you know, a carrier -- a carrier air wing, which also includes the electronic warfare capability, they are there to reinforce our deterrence posture on the Eastern Flank. That is their goal.

Okay, listen, guys --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- really quick, (inaudible)? (Inaudible), can I just ask you -- so -- cause I think we probably all have to ask you all this everyday practically now -- any U.S. Defense Department contact with the Russians, either through the Secretary, the Chairman or senior officials?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, nothing to speak of.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm sorry?

Q: Were there any efforts since -- over the weekend -- Friday, over the weekend today, to try to reach out to counterparts?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No. None that I'm -- none that I'm aware of, and I would think that I'd be aware of that kind of an attempt.

Okay, listen, everybody, I know it's also a big day budget-wise so I'm going to hang up and let you get back at it. 

[CROSSTALK]

Thanks. Hopefully everybody had a good weekend. Out here.