Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing, March 29, 2022

March 29, 2022
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Yeah, we were gone for a little while.  It's good to be back.  OK, a couple of things at the top.  So, if you just bear with me here.  I do want to take a couple of minutes right at the beginning of the briefing to talk about things in Ukraine.  There's been a lot of reporting today on withdrawals and Russian decisions and I think it's really important that we put a little bit as into context.  So first, again, we've seen that Russia has attempted now for going on a month to sell this war theirs to its domestic audience as a quote, ‘liberation of the Donbas.’

However, the intensified rhetoric over the last year and in the lead up to Russia's invasion demonstrated that the Kremlin's real intent was to overthrow the democratically elected government and to occupy or annex large portions of Ukraine.  The posture of Russian forces around Kyiv, along much of the Black and the Azov Sea coasts and in central and northeastern Ukraine indicates the geographic scale of this ambition. 

They've been attacking Ukraine ,as we have been talking about now for several weeks, on multiple lines of axes.  Russia's intent was to replace Ukrainian regional and national authorities and create so called People's Republics, as displayed recently in Kherson Province.  The rapid advance to Kyiv in the initial days of the war showed very clearly for all of us that Kyiv and a capital city was a key objective for the Russians. 

So, we ought not be fooled, and nobody should be fooling ourselves, by the Kremlin's now recent claim that it will suddenly just reduce military attacks near Kyiv, or any reports that it's going to withdraw all its forces. 

Has there been some movement by some Russian units away from Kyiv in the last day or so?  Yes, we think so, small numbers. But we believe that this is a repositioning not a real withdraw, and that we all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine.  It does not mean that the threat to Kyiv is over.  Russia has failed in its objective of capturing Kyiv.  It's failed in its objective of subjugating Ukraine, but they can still inflict massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv.  We see that even today and continued airstrikes against the capital city. 

Mr.  Putin's goals stretch far beyond the Donbas.  The Russian Ministry of Defense's recent talking points may be an effort to move the goal posts, moderating Russia's immediate goals and spinning its current lack of progress as part of what would be next steps.  But it's too early to judge what additional actions the Kremlin may take. 

No amount of spin can mask what the world has witnessed over the past month.  And that's the courage and the military prowess of Ukraine's armed forces and its people.  Which are proving to be more than what Russia bargained for in its unprovoked and unjustified invasion. 

Now that prowess is not accidental. We've talked about that a little bit.  It's partly a result of the training and the support we and other allies, over the last eight years, have been given to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.  The United States together with our allies and partners, we're going to continue to provide that support going forward to meet their security needs as they bravely stand up to this Russian aggression. 

I thought it was really important to kind of set the level straight there on that because I've seen, again, lots of reporting here on the so-called withdrawals. 

Now in other news, Balikatan 22 started this week.  This is a long standing annual bilateral military exercise conducted between the U.S.  military, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.  It's a key component of our alliance cooperation. 

The exercise features planning, operations, exchanges and activities that increase both our nation's military capabilities to provide for the mutual defense of the Philippine archipelago.  Exercise activities will occur at multiple locations throughout the Republic of the Philippines.  And will consist of three primary components; a bilateral staff exercise, joint interoperability events, and combined interoperability events, as well as humanitarian and civic assistance efforts. 

With more than 3,800 members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and 5,100 U.S. service members, this will be the largest iteration of Balikatan to date.  We look forward to a meaningful, productive exercise and we're grateful for that terrific relationship that we have with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. 

And then last but not least today, the final COVID-19 response teams in active-duty status, who were supporting 59 cities across 30 states completed their mission at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.  Since the onset of the outbreak, more than 24,000 military members in active-duty status have provided support to the whole of government effort. 

The support included approximately 5,800 military medical providers that supported hospitals and other civilian medical facilities, more than 5,000 military medical personnel administering vaccines at federal community vaccination centers, as well as military personnel who assisted citizens when they were initially repatriated back to the U.S.  in the very early days of the outbreak. 

In January of this year, the Department activated more than 1,000 service members in support of the President's direction to mobilize additional military medical personnel.  And of those service members, DoD deployed nearly 700, who supported 25 hospitals in 14 states just from January to March.  The rest of these military members were on standby throughout that time period ready to deploy at the request of FEMA if they were required. 

It's important to note that while the Title 10 COVID-19 response may have come to a close, as of this morning, there are still more than 10,800 National Guard soldiers and airmen supporting COVID-19 response efforts in at least 43 states, territories, and the District of Columbia.  And I also want to add that NORTHCOM remains postured as well to deploy more personnel, if requested. 

And of course, the Secretary wants to take this opportunity to pass on his personal gratitude and that of all senior leaders at the Department for the extraordinary work that the men and women of this department have done throughout the pandemic, but certainly, in just the last few months, to work so hard in support of our civilian medical practitioners. 

And with that we'll take questions.  Bob.

Q:  Thank you John.  Back on Ukraine, when you say you are seeing small numbers of Russian troops moving you say they’re repositioning.  Would that be, by ‘small’ do you mean like less than a battalion tactical group?

MR. KIRBY:  This is very early on Bob.  So, we don't have a number estimate.  But it's certainly not a significant chunk of the multiple battalion tactical groups that Russia has arrayed against Kyiv. 

So, we can confirm that we've seen a small number start to reposition.  But I'd really be reticent to get into an exact number or try to put a unit on it.  It's not anywhere near a majority of what they have arrayed against Kyiv.

Q:  When you say repositioning, can you say -- I mean, are they moving like north into Belarus?  Or are they re-positioning for what you described as potentially an offensive somewhere else?

MR. KIRBY:  I would say at this early stage, we see the movement more northward.  But again, it's too early to tell Bob what the destination is, what the final purpose is.  And you know where exactly these troops are going to go long-term.  We believe, we assess, that it is likely more repositioning to be used elsewhere in Ukraine. 

Where exactly, we don't know.  I would just note that the Russians themselves have said in the same breath, they're saying they're withdrawing, that they're reprioritizing the Donbas area and eastern Ukraine. 

Q:  But they could move there?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, that's a question better put to the Russian Ministry of Defense, if they'll ever give you a straight answer.  But again, they have said themselves that they're reprioritizing that part of Ukraine.

Q:  Great.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes. 

Q:  You mentioned obviously they're redeploying.  Have you seen any signs that Russia has pulled back and actually sending supplies into Ukraine?  Are they still basically continuing their own convoys of moving supplies, fuel, food, anything like that?  Or if they stopped doing that is just the troops that have basically repositioned?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, very early stages here.  They've only just recently, in the last few hours, made this proclamation.  So, we have seen a small number begin to move away from Kyiv.  That's about the most I can give you.  I don't have any information on their resupply efforts for troops that are still arrayed against Kyiv.  I would remind that the Russians still have a significant majority of their assembled combat power to include logistics and sustainment capability, available to them inside Ukraine. 

Yes, Fadi.

Q:  Thank you , John.  So just trying to understand something.  If you're talking about a ‘small number,’ do you think just what you're seeing now?  Or do you think there's going to be more numbers?  Because you're saying they might be pulling out these forces to redeploy somewhere else.  If they are small numbers, are they going to make any difference if they were redeployed?  Is it the beginning of something (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  That's a great question for Minister Shoigu.  I don't know Fadi.  All I can tell you is what we're seeing.  We're seeing a small number now, that appears to be moving away from Kyiv.  This on the same day that the Russians say they're withdrawing. But we're not prepared to call this a retreat, or even a withdrawal.  We think that what they probably have in mind is a repositioning to prioritize elsewhere.

Q:  And do they still have enough forces on the ground around Kyiv in case they decided to basically relaunch some kind of attack on the city?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, I'm not going to predict what the Russian military plan is here.  To my answer to Bob; very, very small numbers that we've seen move at this point.  They still have the vast majority of the forces that they had assembled around Kiev are still there.  As I've said before, we largely assess that they are in a defensive posture.  And they have  several days ago, stopped trying to advance on Kyiv and sort of took up defensive positions. 

Yes. Carla?

Q:  Thank you, John.  Three questions, please.  Can you update...

MR. KIRBY:  Let me start writing.

Q:  Can you update us on the number of missiles?  I'll just ask them one at a time, if that's easier.

MR. KIRBY:  That's actually much easier

Q:  What’s the number of missiles Russia has launch into Ukraine at this point?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have an update on the missiles.  We know that they’ve, since the beginning of this, launched more than 1,000.  But I don't have an exact number.

Q:  OK.  Secondly, does the Pentagon still consider Russia a ‘near-peer competitor?’

MR. KIRBY:  I think you can take away from what we talked about yesterday, when released the budget, and we talk about Russia as an acute threat.  And that's how we're looking at Russia right now.

Q:  But that's not the same as what you've been saying.  You've been saying ‘near peer competitors,’ Russia and China.  And now we're hearing ‘acute threat, acute threat.’  So, has it changed in the Pentagon's view?

MR. KIRBY:  We consider Russia as an acute threat based on, certainly, but what we've seen happen over the last month.

Q:  OK.  And then my last question is about Ukraine's peace proposal.  It seems like they envision some sort of security guarantee, like Article Five with NATO with a country like Poland or Turkey or Canada.  So, my question is, does the Pentagon think that's feasible?  Because these are NATO countries and establishing some sort of collective defense with the NATO country, would essentially bring in all of NATO with this.  So, does the Pentagon find a proposal like that feasible?

MR. KIRBY:  I think we're not going to get ahead of where Ukraine and Russia are on their discussions.  This has got to be a negotiation between Russia and Ukraine.  And we're certainly not going to get in the middle of that or get ahead of where that is right now.

I would just say a couple of things, Carla.  One, Russia should negotiate in good faith.  They have an opportunity here.  An opportunity they have missed, many, many times over the last month to end this war and to do it responsibly and to negotiate in good faith. So, we hope that they'll do that.  But the war could end today, if Mr.  Putin did the right thing, and actually did withdraw all his forces from Ukraine, and respect Ukrainian sovereignty.  And again, as for what that settlement looks like, that's really between Russia and Ukraine.  We wouldn't dictate the terms and we wouldn't want to get ahead of that process. 

Let me go back over here, David?

Q:  As I understand military tactics, when you retreat, you leave forces in place to cover the retreat.  So, are the movements that you're seeing so far, are they consistent with what a retreat from Kyiv would look like?  What would it take to convince the Pentagon that Russia had given up on its attempt to seize Kyiv?

MR. KIRBY:  So too soon to tell on the first question, David.  Again, this is only hours old here that the Russians made this announcement.  And we've only seen the very small numbers of troops actually just to begin to move away from Kyiv.  So, way too soon to make a judgement on, you know, covering forces and that kind of thing. 

And I think, what would it take for us to believe it?  I think I'd go back to my answer to Carla- It would be to see them take all their forces out of Ukraine, move them out.  Get them back to the home station and negotiate in good faith. 

It's just too soon to know, based on what they've said today, what their real intent is here.  That said, we don't believe -- we believe, let me put it another way, that this is really more of a piece of repositioning.  And again, we're basing some of that on the clear indications that they are reprioritizing in the Donbas.

Q:  I'm going take another run at the...

MR. KIRBY:  Go for it.

Q:  ‘...acute threat.’  Russia being an ‘acute threat.’  So, does that change in language signal a change in Russia's priority level for the department?  I mean, in your summary documents, it's listed right after China.  Does it still occupy the same priority level?  Or has it gone up?  Or has it gone down with this new language?

MR. KIRBY:  I mean Russia and the threat posed by Russia has remained a priority here at the department.  You know, if you're asking me to rack and stack it, like, you know, like a baseball card collection, I'm not going to do that.  But clearly, we assess Russia to be an acute threat.  We've been pretty clear about that.  You don't have to look any further than what you've seen them do over the last 30 days to see that we're justified in labeling them such. 

And again, you said it yourself, it's pretty clear in the points that we've delivered since delivering the budget yesterday and in our strategy that Russia remains a significant issue for the department.

Q:  And if I could just follow up on the COVID Title 10 support and that ending.  Could you just talk about the conditions that led to that decision, the general conditions that led to the decision to end that?

MR. KIRBY:  To end the support?  I mean, we were doing this in support of FEMA and the interagency effort.  And so, we took our guidance from the need out there by FEMA.

Q:  Is the reduction, and...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  I mean, the conditions are better in the country.  And the need for -- remember what we were doing was taking the pressure off civilian practitioners so that they could do the treatment.  So, most of our medical personnel that were operating in hospitals were not really doing COVID treatment, they were taking the pressure off other burdens.  And that pressure was appreciated and welcomed and has been alleviated.  And in concert with discussions with FEMA and civilian health practitioners, we all deemed collectively that now is the right time to pull back that support. 

But I want to state again, as I said, in my opening statement, Northern Command stands ready in case there's more need.  I mean, we can flex. We didn't even deploy, as I said, all the troops that we had put on readiness to do this mission.  So, we could flex up again, if needed.  I mean, this pandemic, as you well know, is a living thing, and it changes over time.  So, we're grateful for the ability -- we're grateful for the chance that we had to contribute to this.  And we'll stand by and stay ready. 

And again, I, at the risk of sounding redundant, I want to also point out the fact that you still have, you know, more than 10,000 National Guardsmen that are still at it.  They're still added in the States. 

Nancy.

Q:  I'd like to go back to the repositioning.  Have you seen any territorial losses, or newly contested areas around Kyiv or Russia, since it repositioned its forces?  And also, have you seen any change in the amount or type of missile strikes Russia has launched on Kyiv in the last few days that you feel would be tied to this repositioning or focus towards the Donbas?

MR. KIRBY:  We have seen the Ukrainians push back around Kyiv, particularly in suburbs to the west of Kyiv, where the Ukrainians have retaken ground.  I don't have a list of the towns, but we have seen them retake some territories, to the west of Kyiv.  And, as you saw, we talked about this not about a week ago, to the east of Kyiv, where the Russians were on the outskirts of Brovary and the Ukrainians pushed them back then to almost more than 50 kilometers away from the city.  So, we have seen them do that around Kyiv, again, to the west and to the east. 

I don't have a breakdown of the airstrikes that are happening.  I couldn't give you a number over the course of time.  It's just that we do continue to see Kyiv being struck from the air. So, the threat to Kyiv is not over.

Q:  The repositioning in Donbas, has that manifested in terms of a marked change in the strikes on the capital, is that...

MR. KIRBY:  Again, I can't quantify it Nancy, over the course of a day or two.  I've just -- I don't have a count of how many strikes are happening on Kyiv.  And we've -- actually we've never given you that because we just don't have it.  But we do continue to see strikes on Kyiv.  So, we're not convinced that the threat to the capital city has been radically diminished here by this proclamation by the Russian Ministry of Defense. 

Barbara, did you have one?  No.  Tara?

Q:  Thanks.  Could you give us a sense of if Russian forces are spread evenly throughout Ukraine?  Or how many battalion tactical groups they've kind of concentrated against key versus the east and how you’ve seen that shift?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, again, as you know, I've been very careful not to lay out Russian operations.  It's not prudent for me to do it and we don't have exact details of where every battalion tactical group is.  So, I couldn't tell you how many troops are arrayed against Kyiv versus Kharkiv and Chernihiv, even certainly in the Donbas. 

What I can tell you is that the vast majority of the of the assembled force that we saw against Kyiv is still there.  We've only seen a small number begin to move away from Kyiv, mostly to the north.  We'll watch this over the course of the coming days.  And to the degree we can describe for you what we're seeing, we'll do that. 

We have seen even before the Russians said that they were going to prioritize the Donbas and the east we saw them begin to pick up the pace there.  More aggressive operations, more active campaigning against towns and villages in the Donbas, that continues today.  But look, I mean, the Donbas has been a hot war for the last eight years.  And we definitely have seen the intensity pick up. And again, where that goes, we don't know.  We've also seen the Ukrainians be just as active in the Donbas and trying to push back on the Russians there.

Q:  Can you give us a sense of, did they put the bulk of their forces against Kyiv?  Or did they...

MR. KIRBY:  Again, I don't want to give you a breakdown here.  We have been talking now for a month about sort of three main axes of approach by the Russians, right?  North and Northeast of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv.  All really, that whole northern grouping, was really designed against the capital city, the effort to cut off Kyiv.  Then the East in the Donbas, which again, has been in hot war now for eight years, and the Russians poured more resources in there, and then in the south. And in the South, as we've been talking about coming out of Crimea, they basically split to the northwest and to the northeast.  To the northeast, against Mariupol which, obviously, there's a lot of heavy fighting still going on there, you guys have seen that for yourselves, and then to the northwest out of Crimea up to Kherson.  And then an attempt to what we saw was an attempt to take the town of Mykolayiv, which they have not been able to do. 

And as I think we've talked about, in recent days, you've seen that the Ukrainians are actually scrapping it out for Kherson, as well.  So those were the three main groupings and three main lines of effort.  They, up until recently, we had still assessed that that was their plan, was to, as I said in my opening statement, to occupy and annex Ukraine using approaches on those three lines of effort. 

Again, now we think that they're going to prioritize the east.  They have been stalled in the north.  And the progress, in the early days they had made in the south, they had made progress, now that’s stalled out.  And we again, we see them prioritizing the east.  But I couldn't quantify that for you, Tara.  I don't have their order of battle on that that level of detail. 

Let me go to somebody on the phone.  I haven't done that yet.  Let's see, Courtney?

Q:  Hi, thanks.  Can you talk a little bit about President's comments yesterday, when he said that U.S. troops -- it seems that U.S.  troops are training Ukrainian military inside Poland?  What kind of training are they providing?  And how long has that been going on?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, Courtney, I think General Wolters dealt with this pretty well, in his hearing this morning in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  There is some liaising going on as Ukrainians go into Poland, for instance.  And they are -- we're transposing shipments of material to them.  And so, there's some general liaising going on in that regard and that's what the President was referring to. 

Janne?

Q:  Thank you, John.  Everyone finish Ukraine issues?

MR. KIRBY:  Do you want me to stay on -- why don't I come back to you?  Want to do that?  That'd be fair. 

Q:  Yes.

MR. KIRBY:  We'll do that.  Yes, I promise I'll get back to you.

Q:  Can I follow-up with this question on Kyiv.  One more question.  From a military perspective, does the Pentagon think that the Russian forces attempt -- Russian forces were basically defeated in their attempt to take Kyiv, and this campaign...

MR. KIRBY:  I said as much in my opening statements, they failed to take Kyiv.  Yeah.

Q:  That's a defeat to their forces basically...

MR. KIRBY:  They failed to take Kyiv.  And we believe that Kyiv was a key objective for them. 

Yes, Louis.

Q:  Hi, John.  You used the word ‘spin’ in your remarks. 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, I did.

Q:  You've also confirmed small numbers leaving.  Did you note those small numbers leading before the Russians made public the proposal today that this was being done in good faith.  So, in other words, are the words following actions that you've already seen taking place?

MR. KIRBY:  I couldn’t give you a time hack Louis, exactly.  Like, whether it was exactly the moment that the Russians decided to announce it roughly, you know, same day kind of observation.  But we're not taking anything they say at face value.  I'm being as honest with you, as I can.  Small number, seeing started to move.  We're not we're not prepared to buy the Russian argument that it's a withdrawal.  Again, our assessment is that their intention is to reposition forces and bolster their efforts elsewhere.

Q:  So, the word ‘spin’ is accurate to what you've been describing what you just described then?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm comfortable with the way I characterize it. 

Helene Cooper?

Q:  Hey, thanks, Kirby.  I want to take another whack at -- because I feel like you're describing, it sounds like you are describing, it's been five weeks, almost five weeks now.  And it sounds very much like you're describing a failed military campaign.  Would you go that far?  Or is that too much?  I mean, what we see -- what we're seeing now is this a failure by -- is it a failed military campaign?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't think we're prepared to slap a bumper sticker on this thing right now.  I mean, there are still people dying, there's still bombs falling, there’s still missiles flying.  And they're still give and take on the battlefield.  So, I don't think we're ready to call it one way or another here.  What I would tell you is, as I said, in my opening statement, they failed to take Kyiv, which we believe was a key objective. 

I mean, and again, you just have to look at what they tried to do in those early days to see that they wanted Kyiv.  They didn't get it.  And in the last few days, they hunkered down into defensive positions basically stopped advancing and now they're saying and we're seeing small numbers move away.  So, we'll see where this goes. 

But step back, they also, you know, failed to take, really take and hold any major population centers.  They haven't taken Kharkiv.  They haven't taken Chernihiv.  They haven't taken Mariupol.  And while we assess they took Kherson, that's back in play right now.  So, if you count maybe Berdyansk on the on the Azov coast, you know, even that is contested. 

I mean, you saw the Ukrainians basically sank one of their amphibious ships in the port, there in Berdyansk.  So, not only did they not manage to take Kyiv they’ve not managed to take any population centers.  And the Ukrainians have been fighting back very hard.  So, it's hard to see how they are succeeding in any one place except at the death and destruction they're causing to these population centers and to the civilian population. And that's something we can't lose sight of.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  So, about 14,000 Troops, you guys have committed to send it to Europe in one way or the other either for NATO or to individual countries.  And there's a few thousand leftover from who's actually been set to even announce that you're going to send.  Are you still trying to get up to that 14,000 number?  Are you still looking to source units to get there?  And do the peace talks have any bearing on whether you're thinking you're going to send more people or not?

MR. KIRBY:  It's not like, you know, the 14,000 is a goal here.  The Secretary wanted as many options available to him and to the President.  And so, you know, we put some on ‘prepare to deploy’ and we sent some forward.  It is about options, it's not about a number goal.  It's about capabilities and making sure that we've got the right capabilities. 

So, we're constantly reviewing that, and not that you asked this, but as a matter of fact, I can let you know that you've all been tracking a Marine Corps exercise Cold Response up in Norway.  So, I can tell you that a command-and-control unit from Marine Air Control Group 28, which is based at Cherry Point, has now been repositioned to Lithuania.  That's about 200 people. 

So, they finished the exercise.  They're in Lithuania now.  And about 10 Marine Corps F-18 hornets from Beaufort, South Carolina and a couple of Marine Corps C-130s are now going to be repositioned to Eastern Europe.  I don't have an exact destination right now.  But they're going to be repositioned and that's another 200 personnel.  So, I mean, we're trying to stay flexible here. 

We, just yesterday we talked about some growlers coming out of Whidbey Island.  It's not about a number goal, it's really about capabilities.  And it's based on constant conversations with our NATO allies on the eastern flank.

Q:  Are those Marines NATO Response Force committed, or are they just individual?

MR. KIRBY:  Right now, these are individual decisions based on available capability that we had, and in talking to our NATO allies.  I don't -- as you probably saw on the NATO summit, I mean, they announced another four battle groups and I think the nations are still filling those out. 

You know, I think you know, we're leading the one in Poland.  Other nations like France, I think is leading Romania.  So, they're still filling some of these out. 

Yes, yes.  OK.  You've been patient, we'll go yes.

Q:  I have a quick question about North Korea’s ICBM launch.  When North Korea launched new ICBM last week there is a report that the Pentagon refuses a South Korea request to respond immediately to North Korea. Why did the Pentagon, along with South Korea, refuse to fire an immediate response to...

MR. KIRBY:  Why did we refuse to fire an immediate response to this…?

Q:  Yes.  I mean either with the South Korea and United States is supposedly a joint fire training response to North Korea.  Pentagon refuse to tell South Korea ‘don't do this’ because -- you know why did you do that?  Why Pentagon refused South Korea...

MR. KIRBY:  Look I...

Q:  There’s a story that General LaCamera and his combined forces command has contacted the Pentagon, but the Pentagon refuses to fire an immediate response to North Korea.  That is the story that the what...

MR. KIRBY:  OK.  I haven't seen the story.  I'm not sure what you mean by ‘fire an immediate response.’

Q:  Yes. 

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not sure what that means.  The -- but look...

Q:  South Korea, after launch, the North Korea ICBM, South Korea started a respond and fire 111 minutes later.  This is so late, because it took it so late to respond to it.

MR. KIRBY:  You mean the statement that we issued?

Q:  Yes.

MR. KIRBY:  Look we respond with the time and the care that we believe is required based on these provocations.  I mean, there's no ill intent towards our South Korean allies here.  I mean, it's a sovereign nation, they are.  And if they want to issue a response on their timeline then we certainly respect that.  We responded, I believe, I know, we responded in a way that we felt was appropriate to our own initial analysis of the launch. 

And look, let's not get hung up on who's issuing a statement first, or whether it's together or whether we say the right things.  I mean, let's focus on the real issue here, which is security on the Korean peninsula.  And the fact that the alliance is still really strong. The fact that we constantly consult with our South Korean allies about readiness on a peninsula.  And that we did make a statement.  We did note it.  And, oh by the way, in recent weeks, we've actually changed the way we're doing ISR they're in and around the peninsula because of recent provocations by the North.

Q:  OK.  I have another one. 

MR. KIRBY:  Of course.

Q:  There's U.S.  and South Korea are analyzing North Korea ICBM as Hwasong-15.  But North Korea claims that it is Hwasong-17, two steps up.  Do you know why this information is so different between North Korea and United States?

MR. KIRBY:  I will just tell you that we assess that that launch was a probable ICBM.  And we continue to analyze the test in close coordination with our allies and partners to include the South Koreans.  I don't have an update for you beyond that.

Q:  Can I follow-up on North Korea for just one second?

MR. KIRBY:  Sure. 

Q:  So, I know you -- the administration often has is constructed answers about the North Korean missile threat, and so I understand that fully.  But beyond those constructive answers, is there anything you can tell us about your concerns about the most recent missile tests, given the distance and altitude that the North Koreans achieved? 

Your concerns about the threat, that kind of missile capability that they successfully achieved poses?  And can you tell us anything about your latest assessment about potential activity at their underground nuclear test site?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to talk about intelligence assessments, Barbara.  I think you know that.  And we are still, as I said to Janne, we're still analyzing this last test.  I'm not going to get ahead of that process.  But we've been very clear about the threat that the North Korean ballistic missile program continues to pose to the region. 

And that includes their continued efforts to advance their nuclear program.  But I'm not going to speak about intelligence assessments.

Q:  (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  We remain concerned about the North Koreans -- their attempt to continue to improve their nuclear capability as well as their ballistic missile capability.  It's provocative, it poses a threat to security on the peninsula and to the region to our allies and partners.  So, if you're asking me, are we concerned about it?  Absolutely we are.  Yes. 

Q:  I need to follow-up one more time.  But you just said, concerned about their efforts to improve their nuclear capabilities.  So...

MR. KIRBY:  Because every time you test, you learn.  Every time you test you learn.

Q:  OK.  But you said improve their nuclear capability that's different than a missile.

MR. KIRBY:  It is.

Q:  So are you seeing them work right now -- are you saying you're seeing them work right now towards a nuclear...

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not speaking about -- I'm not speaking to press reports that I've seen out there about potential future tests.  But we know that this is a program that they want to improve.  And so of course, we're concerned about efforts to do that.

Q:  (Inaudible) last week Secretary Austin and South Korean Defense Secretary Suh Wook, they have a telephone conversation.  So do you know what particular, talking about North Koreans missile launch or further next launch trying to nuclear test...

MR. KIRBY:  Again, I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments about specifics on the North Korean program.  We read that call out I'm not going to go beyond that readout. 

Let me go to Idrees from Reuters. 

Q:  Hi, John.  Just following up on Courtney's question about the liaising with Ukrainian forces, when the handover of weapons happens.  Can you sort of define what liaising means?  Does it refer to sort of a pat on the back, saying go get them?  Or is it more of this is how you use these weapons?  Could you sort of define that?

MR. KIRBY:  Idrees, it's just general liaison with them as these shipments are handed over.  I don't have exact details of every conversation that's had or what that looks like.  But of course, there are interactions as these Ukrainian soldiers take possession of some of this gear and this kit and I really don't have more detail than that. 

MR. KIRBY:  Alex Horton, Washington Post.

Q:  Yes, can you go back to Idrees, for his follow up, please, and then come back.  Thanks.

Q:  The follow up is that different from training in any way?  When you sort of quote unquote "liaise" with that?

MR. KIRBY:  It's not training in the classic sense that many people think of training.  It's -- I would just say it's liaising. 

Go ahead Alex.

Q:  Yes, thanks.  So, I'm curious about what senior defense officials told us last week about indications that the Russians are being more aggressive in the east.  Now that your very capable analysts have looked at it more.  I was wondering if you could give us more details on what those signs are in the Donbas. 

And have you seen any kind of intensity pick up, you know, within the last couple of days, specifically, when it comes to their supposed movements around Kyiv?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, without getting into a blow by blow of Russian operations, it's not our war, it's their war.  But I can tell you we have seen increased activity, offensive activity, by Russian forces in the Donbas, going after more towns and villages, that's one.  Number two, and we've talked about this before, making an effort to come south out of a town called Izyum moving south and southeast, to try to pin down Ukrainian armed forces that are in the Donbas. 

It's one of the reasons why we believe they are fighting for Mariupol, because we believe one goal of them could be to use Mariupol as a way to go north and sort of close off the Donbas.  And again, we have seen them, without getting into too many specifics here, we have seen them try to reinforce their footprint in the Donbas. And that's about as far as I'm going to go on that, Alex. 

Yes, in the back there.

Q:  John, thank you.  Once the $800 million package fully arrives in Ukraine, will the U.S.  continue sending weapons to the Ukrainians, even with the Russians kind of pulling out from that Kyiv area?  And then secondly, if there were to be a ceasefire would the U.S.  continue sending weapons to Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any announcements to make beyond the President's $800 million package.  We're working hard on that.  There's already been several deliveries made on that package.  And we're moving out as quickly as we can on it.  And the President's been clear, we're going to continue to support, as I said, in my opening statement, we're going to continue to support Ukraine for as fast as we can for as long as we can. 

I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about ceasefires and agreements and all that.  Obviously, we want to see this war end.  But for as long as Ukraine and Ukraine Armed Forces need assistance, the United States is going to be there to help provide it. 

Yes.  David.

Q:  Last week a senior defense official said they'd seen indications that Russian troops were coming out of Georgia for redeployment to Ukraine.  At the time, he said they didn't know where they were going.  But one assumption might be that you're going to the Donbas as they announced they were going to prioritize the Donbas. 

Now you just said that, on the record that you've seen them reinforce their footprint in Donbas.  So, have reinforcements from Georgia been going to the Donbas?

MR. KIRBY:  I haven't seen any indications that troops from Georgia have gone to the Donbas. 

Jeff Schogol?

Q:  Thank you.  And this may sound like a smart aleck question, but I assure you it's not. When the Defense Department describes Russia as an ‘acute threat,’ what does that mean?  I'm having a hard time explaining it to my readers.

MR. KIRBY:  I would point your readers to what we have seen over the last month here.  Russia's unprovoked aggression against the nation state that posed no threat to them.  I would point your readers to Russian interference in elections, not just here in the United States, but nations in Europe.  I would point to Russian activities in Syria to prop up the Assad regime and to continue the bloodshed in that country. 

I could go on and on.  The actions of Mr.  Putin and the Kremlin and Russian forces speak for themselves.  And it would have been irresponsible for us not to address the Russia problem and the Russia threat in our National Defense Strategy, or even as we rolled out the budget.  And talked about some of the capabilities that we want to procure and maintain to deal with that acute threat.

MR. KIRBY:  I’ll take one more.  I guess we're good.  Go ahead.

Q:  So, following along with what David was asking, British intelligence has said Russian Vagner group is deployed to eastern Ukraine is expected to send over 1,000 Mercenaries for combat operations.  Have you guys seen the same thing?  Can you confirm that?

MR. KIRBY:  I won't get into specific intelligence assessments, Carla.  But I will go so far as to say that we certainly have seen indications that the Russians are leaning on private military contractors to bolster their efforts in Ukraine.  I think I just leave it at that. 

OK.  Thanks, everybody.  Appreciate it.  That's it for today.