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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Hello, everybody. Seems a little higher than...

Q: A little bit.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, what the heck?  Let's put it Kirby size. There we go. All right. A couple of things to go through at the top and get at your questions. I think you saw on Friday, the department notified Congress of additional assistance activities under authority provided by the Ukraine security assistance initiative. USAI and under that initiative, DoD will provide up to $300 million in security assistance to bolster Ukraine's capacity to defend itself.

And this, of course, underscores our unwavering commitment to Ukraine sovereignty, and their territorial integrity and support their efforts to repel the Russian forces inside their country. You've probably seen if you haven't seen we'll get you the list. I'm not going to read it right now. There's a quite extensive detailed list of what some of these capabilities are, including unmanned aerial systems and some tactical secure communications, and other like capabilities.

We've now committed more than $2.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine just since the beginning of this administration. Including more than 1.6 billion since Russia's invasion. Unlike Presidential Drawdown, USAI is an authority under which the United States procures capabilities from industry rather than delivering equipment that is drawn down from our own stocks. That's the difference here. So, this announcement represents the beginning of a contracting process that will provide these new capabilities.

I would hasten to add that we are going to expedite that contracting process as fast as we can. I don't have exact delivery dates for you, or procurement dates today. But rest assured we're going to be moving at as fast as we can. The U.S. also continues to work with its allies and partners to identify and provide to the Ukrainians additional capabilities. And we'll certainly utilize all available tools to support Ukraine's armed forces as they fight bravely for the defense of their country.

Also, I think you may have just heard the National Security Advisor just a few minutes ago, say that we are in the process of a committing an additional resource for material to the Ukrainian military as part of our ongoing and intensive efforts to provide them the equipment they need. So, all that's to say is, as we've said many times, we're going to continue to support Ukraine's ability to defend itself.

We're going to do that as much as we can as fast as we can. In keeping with that, today, the Secretary did speak with Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov to again reaffirm our support for Ukraine. He reiterated the U.S. commitment to the provision of additional defensive assistance to bolster their capacity. And he highlighted that $300 million Ukraine security assistance initiative package that he just talked about.

He of course, also expressed outrage at the apparent atrocities that were committed by Russian forces in Bucha, across Ukraine and reiterated the U.S. commitment to using every tool available to help document and share information in an effort to hold accountable those responsible. And of course, they have stayed in close contact, and they will continue to stay in close contact.

On the documents and evidence front want to stress that this is an administration effort, not DoD specifically. That we in concert with so many other nations around the world, we'll do what we can to make sure that clear evidence of these war crimes are documented and preserved for investigators to look at. I don't have anything specific to speak to in terms of DoD capabilities with respect to that collection.

But it's part of an interagency effort to make sure that the war crimes are properly documented. And then lastly, not lastly, I actually have two more things. An exercise to talk about over the weekend, Iceland and the U.S. 6th Fleet, kicked off the biannual exercise Northern Viking with other NATO allies in Iceland. The exercise will run through the 14th of April and demonstrates U.S. commitment to the defense of Iceland and the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap.

As well as the strength of the 70 plus year defense relationship between the United States and Iceland. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps forces including the USS Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit P-8, Maritime Patrol Aircraft from Keflavik Airbase, and the Henry J. Kaiser-class Underway Replenishment Oiler, the USNS Patuxent, and as well as sailors from Task Force 68, and the Virginia-class Attack Submarine USS John Warner, we're all participate.

And then finally, while we're talking about naval issues. On Friday, the DoD did release its annual freedom of navigation report for fiscal year 2021. I'll let you go and look at the report. I won't give you the whole details. But it reports our comprehensive global freedom of navigation program that seeks to challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights and freedoms and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.

In Fiscal Year 21, U.S. forces operationally challenged 37 different excessive maritime claims made by 26 different claimants throughout the world. Excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the law of sea of convention and they pose a threat to the legal foundation of the rules based international order. And with that, we'll get to questions. Lita.

Q: John, did the minister have any specific requests for the Secretary this morning, that could be looked at in terms of the upcoming packages? And then more broadly, Jake Sullivan talked today about this sort of shift of focus that you all have been talking about for a while to the east.

And mentioned the potential dozens of battalion tactical groups moving that way. Have you seen evidence of battalion tactical groups actually moving toward the east at this point? Or are they still in that resupply movement?

MR. KIRBY: Yes. So, on your first question, I won't -- we put a readout of the call. I'm not going to go in any more detail than that. I think it's safe, you can safely assume that every time he has a chance to talk with Minister Reznikov, he invites the Minister to offer whatever needs he might have. So that's a routine part of their discussions. Sometimes he doesn't even need to offer that.

Mr. Reznikov, of course, mentions in his own right, the kinds of capabilities they're looking for. You can imagine that with Ukraine under attack the way is that those two leaders would not miss an opportunity when they're chatting with one another to talk about requirements and capabilities. But I won't get into more detail about specifics. And then on your second question.

We do believe that the Russian military intends to focus their efforts on the Donbas area and the east. We do believe that as they move forces out of Kiev, and Chernihiv, and places like Sumy that they are going to put these units into a refit regimen so that they can be resupplied, maybe even reinforced with manpower, and then applied elsewhere into the country.

We think that the most likely place for them to be reapplied into the end of the fight in Ukraine is in the East in the Donbas. We have not seen wholesale movement in that regard. We're only just now seeing more movement of forces out of Ukraine and up into the north, but too soon to say that we can see any of those battalion tactical groups being actively resupplied and then reapplied into the fight. That hasn't really happened yet.

That said, Lita, we have seen efforts by the Russian military to get more aggressive and go more on the offense in the Donbas. This is on the ground, as they push south from that town called Izyum and try to close off Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbas. As they now focus more of their airstrike activity on the Donbas area and the JFO, the Joint Forces Operations area. As they now press the Wagner Group, to put the -- to add to their recruiting totals and then move those contractors into the Donbas.

So, we have -- any certainly we have seen more kinetic activity, more military operations, if you will, in the Donbas. So clearly, they are -- they're definitely putting a priority on that part of Ukraine. We just haven't seen that there's been the out of the forces that are repositioning out of Kiev and Chernihiv we haven't seen them be reintroduced back into the fight yet. Jen.

Q: Do you have any indication, John, that these recent atrocities in Bucha were carried out by the Wagner Group, the Chechens, the mercenary groups that have been sent in?  Or was this something that was wide-scale, you know, at the recruit level, the conscript level that was taking -- that is taking place in various cities?

MR. KIRBY: We don't know. We don't know exactly who committed these atrocities or what level or what the chain of command was. But clearly, you know, we certainly do not refute that they happened.

Q: And you talk about the difference in the kind of military aid now going from the draw down weapons that are already on, you know, off the shelf weapons that you can send over?

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: Will you ever be going back to that? And will there be a gap for this $300 million since you have to contract it? Will there be a gap and flow of weapons into Ukraine, because of that?

MR. KIRBY: We certainly don't want there to be a gap. That's why we're going to expedite this contracting process as fast as we can so that there is no gap. And we are still delivering on the 800 million drawdowns that the president is most recently signed out. Again, shipments arrived on that drawdown package even over the course of the weekend.

There'll be another one arriving in the next 24 hours. We're prioritizing the kinds of capabilities in those shipments that we know the Ukrainians need the most -- Javelins, Stingers, UAVs. So, all that's being prioritized. Our goal is, again, I said it before, as fast as we can, as much as we can, and just keep it going to make sure that the Ukrainians can continue to defend themselves.

So, our goal would be no gap. On your first -- the first part of your question. I don't want to get ahead of the White House, and the president. You heard Jake Sullivan just talked a little bit ago that there'll be additional assistance to speak to in coming days. And I'll just leave it at that.

Q: Are you out of drawdown stockpiles, and that's why you're going to this new route?

MR. KIRBY: No, I wouldn't characterize it as you know, we're out of schlitz on that stuff, and now we have to go to a different route. This is just another way of getting them some security assistance. But again, I don't want to get ahead of the president or any decisions that haven't announced yet.

Q: Thank you. Just a couple of quick follow ups. You mentioned the Secretary today expressed outrage about Bucha and his call with Ukrainian defense minister. Is there a point in Secretary Austin's view where this building feels that there's a moral obligation to prevent war crimes in Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: Are you suggesting that we haven't expressed that there's a moral obligation not to commit more crimes there or anywhere?

Q: Yes. So you feel there's a moral obligation to prevent more war crimes?

MR. KIRBY: There should be no war crimes there -- because there should be no war in Ukraine. Because Vladimir Putin still had diplomatic options on the table when he decided in late February to go ahead and cross over the border and invade a sovereign neighboring country. And so, look, the international community has spoken on this.

The president has spoken on this. We've spoken on this. That we believe the Russians are committing war crimes in Ukraine. They need to be documented, evidence needs to be collected, investigations need to be completed. The United States -- the United States, not just the DoD. The United States will be a participant in that process.

Q: And then my second follow up is a Senior Administration Official said that about two thirds of the Russian troops around Kiev were repositioning. You mentioned that about them potentially refitting and going back into Ukraine. Is there anything that could be done to prevent these forces from reentering Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: If you're asking is the United States going to get militarily involved in the fighting in Ukraine, the president has been clear that's not going to happen. But we are going to provide every advantage we can to the Ukrainian military to defend their territory, their sovereignty, their citizens, their towns and villages.

So that support will go on. Now, what operations the Ukrainians will undertake inside their borders to defend themselves? That's up to them to speak to not for the United States. Court.

Q: Two quick ones. So, the -- to Jennifer's question, it's not that the U.S. doesn't have some of these things to provide U.S. military that is. But has the U.S. hit like a threshold in some of these specific capabilities like Javelins and Stingers? That if the military keeps getting some from their stocks, it degrades U.S. military readiness. And that's why this next group is going directly from the defense industry?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, no. That we're applying USAI is just another tool in the toolbox. It doesn't connote some sort of shortage that affects U.S. readiness at this stage.

Q: And then one more. Today, the State Department announced that (inaudible) was selling some F-16s C's and Ds for Bulgaria. And I'm wondering if that is a -- if that is one of these -- we've heard a lot about backfilling so that some countries could send MIGs to Ukraine. Is that this kind of a deal?

MR. KIRBY: I would not refer to it in that, in that capacity.

Q: You're not aware that Bulgaria is going to send MIGs so that the U.S. would [CROSSTALK]?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak for another nation. And I certainly would leave it to the State Department to talk about foreign military sales. But I would not draw any conclusions from that announcement to some sort of backfill requirement. That would be a misreading of what's happening. Sylvie.

Q: It was also the question I wanted to ask you.

MR. KIRBY: But I already answered it.

Q: But Bulgaria has said that they would give these MIGs if they had some F-16s as backup. So it's surprising that just as Ukraine needs MIGs, U.S. decides...

MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything more to add on this than what I did with Courtney. I'm just going to leave it at that. And I'm not going to speak for another nation and what another nation is willing or able to do in terms of supporting Ukraine. That's up to them to speak to. Barbara

Q: Both you and Jake Sullivan, were very specific this afternoon that U.S. troops would not be going into Ukraine to fight Russian soldiers. So, I just want to close a loop on that. If not going into fight Russian soldiers, but is the door open for U.S. troops to go into Ukraine in a non-combat role to assist with if and when it comes to it? And I'm not speculating the Polish initiative?

If and when it comes to it, to assist in documentation of war crimes, as you just said the Pentagon would be part of the interagency effort? Is the door now open with these new missions to U.S. troops in Ukraine in a non-combat way?

MR. KIRBY: There are no plans to put U.S. troops in Ukraine at this time. There are no discussions or conversations or plans or speculations about U.S. troops in terms of documentation of war crimes in Ukraine. It is still a hot war going on, Barbara. And the president has been very clear, U.S. troops will not be fighting in Ukraine. There's been no change to that.

And your question was speculative, because you use the word if. There's no discussion about U.S. troops being involved in the physical documentation or collection of evidence. David.

Q: John, can I follow up on that really quickly, just because you definitely say boots aren't -- boots on the ground are not going to happen. But you know, the previous administration, when Syria used chemical weapons against citizens, launched tomahawks, not from inside Ukraine, there were no boots on the ground, so to speak.

But that they launched tomahawks in on sites that had chemical weapons to prevent Syria from using them against their citizens. Is there any sort of plan in place to kind of prevent war crimes in that sense, without U.S. boots going, you know, on the ground in Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: The United States is not going to be fighting in Ukraine. President Biden was very clear about that. What we are going to do is help Ukraine defend itself. And Ukraine and Ukrainian armed forces are defending themselves. David.

Q: Could you go over the reinforcements that you know of that are headed for the East? I can't remember what’s on background and what's on the record. But I think it's been said that 1,000 members from the Wagner Group have been sent to the Donbas. I think it's been said that Russia was preparing to send units from Georgia. And then, of course, they're all the ones in Belarus.

So, what can you tell us about reinforcements that have actually been sent into the East? And do you know anything about reports that battalions in Georgia have refused to go?

MR. KIRBY: So, we don't have perfect visibility into the Russian order of battle. How many troops they have, everywhere they have them. They already have a sizable number of troops in the Donbas. They did from the beginning. In fact, in many cases, they never left. They've been fighting there for eight years. We do have indications that the Wagner Group is trying to recruit fighters from -- mostly from the Middle East, to apply them in the Donbas.

And that is where the Wagner Group has been active for a lot of the last eight years. So not a big surprise that they would be focusing on that part of Ukraine, certainly given the Russians reprioritization of that part of the country. We have also seen indications that the Russian Ministry of Defense is looking for other ways to reinforce their manpower, bringing troops in from other places outside of Ukraine and in fact, from outside Russia.

But I don't have specific information that would -- that speaks to a certain number or a certain timeline, or even a location. Just as in my answer to Lita. Again, we don't have perfect thinking into Russian plans here. It's very clear to us though, that they do want to prioritize the Donbas. So logically, it makes sense that if they're going to reinforce, that's probably the place they're going to reinforce the most.

But David, we just aren't there yet to see anything real demonstrable when it comes to reinforcement. That said, again, what we have seen is more strikes in the Donbas. More offensive maneuvers by the Russians in the Donbas. Again, the effort of putting private military contractors more there, I mean, they are clearly prioritizing it.

And we'll just have to see as this unveils. And I think I missed another question.

Q: Evidence of units in Georgia have refused to go?

MR. KIRBY: I have not seen any evidence of that. No. Fadi.

Q: Thank you, John. With all the movements you've been watching for the last couple of days of Russian troops leaving Kiev region and Chernihiv more to the north toward Belarus. Do you think the threat of another Russian offensive towards Kiev is still there or has it diminished in one way or the other?

MR. KIRBY: I think certainly, what we've seen would indicate to us that the Russians have at least for the time being given up on a ground offensive against Kiev. But we've kind of been seeing that unveil over the last week or so. I mean, they kind of stopped advancing and started to dig in and have defensive positions.

And then last week, we started to see them sort of move some of those troops off. We're seeing more now, over the course of the weekend. We think actually, quite frankly, a majority of the battalion tactical groups that they had arrayed against Kiev, at least from the north and northwest, have now begin to move out to retreat away from Kiev.

Again, for what we think is refitting, resupplying, and then repositioning elsewhere. So right now, it certainly appears as if the ground threat, the potential occupation of Kiev, has diminished. That said, and there's always that said, we they can -- they can and have at least during the course of the last couple of days continued to strike Kiev from the air.

Now again, we see that prioritization, shifting more to the east. But Kiev is still vulnerable to air attacks by the Russians. And because we don't have perfect visibility into exactly what their long term plans are here, I don't think any of us is ready to say, well, the threat to Kiev is over. And I don't think the -- I don't even think the Ukrainians would say that.

So, we're just going to watch this as best we can. Let me get to the phones here. I haven't done that. Phil Stewart.

Q: Hi there. Jake Sullivan just spoke and talked about intelligence agencies collecting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Can you give us any sense of contributions by DoD, intel agencies?  And separately, you know, is there any, I know you said you wasn't clear whether the Wagner group was responsible. But is it clear to the Pentagon at this point that Russian forces are responsible for what happened in Bucha? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: I think it's fairly obvious not just to us but to the world that Russian forces are responsible for the atrocities and Bucha. Now, exactly who what units, whether they're contractors or Chechens, I don't think we're able to say right now. But we're certainly not refuting that these atrocities occurred and that they occurred at the hands of Russians.

And I don't have anything more in terms of context or color to add in terms of our contribution to a larger interagency and, frankly, international effort to make sure that these war crimes are documented. The DoD will participate as we can, but I'm not going to get into specific details of what that's going to look like. And again, and you heard Jake say this not long ago. I mean, all of you, the global media are doing a lot of this documentation as well.

Just in terms of the imagery that you're that you're seeing and that you're reporting on as you're producing and distributing. All of that will help contribute to the investigative efforts that are ongoing. Helene Cooper.

Q: Hey, Kirby. Thanks. I know you said, just to follow up on Phil's question that you don't know -- you know that, you assume that Russian -- what happened in Bucha was at the hands of Russian forces. So, you don't know who, but does the Pentagon have any information about which Russian military unit was in Bucha? Which Russian military unit was occupying Bucha? Was it conscripts or mercenaries?

MR. KIRBY: I actually don't have that level of detail for your Helene. I don't have -- we don't have the order battle to that level of specificity, at least not that I'm aware of.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Howard Altman.

Q: Hey, John, question for you on the concerted effort by the Russians to strike Ukrainian fuel supplies? How long do you think Ukraine can hold out and continue to fuel its forces? And where do you think they can store them that they might not get hit?

MR. KIRBY: You know, I don't have a good answer for how long they can -- their fuel supplies will hold out, Howard. The truth is there hasn't -- you know, most of the strikes that the Russians have conducted have been against infrastructure, not necessarily fuel supplies. Now we did see some, a fuel depot hit in Odessa over the weekend. And I think the Ukrainians have spoken to the degree to which that, that depot is now out of commission.

But I don't have an assessment for you of how much has been -- how much fuel has been taken out of the hands of the Ukrainians or how long that they'll be able to subsist. Obviously, we will continue to do the -- the international community will do what we can to help them sustain themselves in the fight. Jeff Schogol.

Q: Thank you. The New York Times is reporting satellite imagery has shown for weeks that people in Bucha had been murdered. I'm wondering, can the Defense Department say whether it has also seen evidence, while the Russians were still in Bucha, about -- of dead bodies, mass graves that prove that the Russians carried out these executions?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I think I've kind of already talked about this today. I mean, we certainly -- we've seen much of the same imagery that you have. Obviously, we are in touch with our Ukrainian counterparts. We're certainly in no position to refute that these atrocities occurred, that they occurred on the scale that the Ukrainians have said they've occurred, and that Russians are responsible for that. And I think I'll just leave it at that. Elsewhere in the room, Luis.

Q: I have two questions. Jake Sullivan said that it appears likely that Russia is preparing to deploy dozens of battalion tactical groups. Does Russia have the capability to redirect dozens of battalion tactical groups to the Donbas?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, yes.

Q: And how -- and where were those come from? I know, it's pretty standard that they're going into Belarus. But I mean, at what point do they become battalion tactical groups again?

MR. KIRBY: Some of those units are nowhere near the original strength because of casualties and surrenders. Some of them are in better shape than others, in terms of manning and quite frankly, systems, weapons, equipment, vehicles. I can't speak for how the Russians are going to reorganize or refit, right? I mean, they could take the remnants of two or three BTG's and make a new one if they wanted to.

Or they could just keep the original three and reinforce them with new people and new stuff. We just don't know. But we do believe that as they go back across the border, whether it's Belarus into Russia, that they will find a way to refit them, resupply them, and then reapply them into the fight. We think the most logical place for that given what the Russians have so far shown that they're willing to do with respect to prioritizing the Donbas, that that would be the place.

But I couldn't give you an example of each battalion, tactical group and whether or not it's going to remain a whole unit going forward or be combined with others. But just in terms of sheer manpower that they have still available to them, it's very possible that what Mr. Sullivan said is accurate that it could be dozens of BTG's. We just don't know.

And we're just going to have to watch this as it -- and monitor in real time. And we'll obviously keep you as apprised as we can, in terms of what we know. We do think they're going to put a lot more effort into the Donbas region. And it's not just manpower, I know that's the focus today I get that. But it's about where their strengths are going to go. And it's about the priority of ground operations, and maneuver, and artillery.

One of the things we've been seeing as they come south out of Izyum, they're trying to focus that southern push more on the ability to use artillery in the Donbas. So again, we'll have to watch this as closely as we can going forward, but it's just not perfect. It's not -- we're not able to perfectly predict exactly how they're going to reform their units.

Q: The other point was, Mr. Sullivan kept describing the Russian movement as a retreat. Is that an accurate assessment of what the Russians are saying?  He described it as a commonsense description that they had gone in there (inaudible), and now they had been failed and been beaten backwards, and so therefore they're retreating.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I think that's accurate. Particularly what we've been seeing over the last several days. You know, late last week, we only seen a small number of Russian units begin to, to move back from Kiev. And we've seen that number increase. Now we think it's the majority now have begun to move out of Kiev. And as they're moving out, Ukrainians are attacking them.

And I'm not a military strategist, or historian, but my understanding of the retreat is that you're moving back as you're getting pushed back. And that's what's happening. Yes. So, I think that's a very accurate description of what's going on. But he also said, and this matters just as much, if not more, what we've been saying here that they -- we expect they're going to reposition into Belarus or Russia refit, resupply, and then push those troops back in.

We don't believe that this is a complete withdrawal from the war effort. These guys are not going home, I guess is the main point. Yes, they're retreating out of Kiev. But they're not being sent home. We see no indication of that. Yes, Ryo.

Q: Thank you. I want to ask you about India's purchase of S-400s missile defenses from Russia.


Q: Is there any changes in the U.S. position on acquisition of such system?  And is the Biden administration open to sanctioning India, if India operationalizes this 400 system?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything on the sanctions to talk to you. We've been very clear with our Indian partners about our concerns over this purchase and encouraging them, as we encourage many others, not to purchase Russian equipment.

And we remain encouraged by India's continued diversification of their defense equipment over just the past decade. So, we'll continue to have that conversation with the Indians. Yes.

Q: Just a follow up. So, do you think purchasing such a sophisticated defense system from Russia, is consistent with the Quad basic principle and objective of maintaining rules based order?

MR. KIRBY: Ryo, I think we've made it very clear to India, our concerned about this particular purchase. We've been very clear about that. OK. One more.

Q: Two questions. One, you have been – some have openly said that NATO has not been so united in recent memory after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. But we start to hear some types of pushbacks from Germans and some allies about sanctions on Russian gas.

And then we start to see some types of slowdowns among the NATO allies providing aid to Ukraine, while the U.S. continues to that. Do you think that the sense of unity in NATO is getting weaker as days go by?


Q: And then, the other thing on India's purchase of S-400s. You said that, while you are encouraged by India's effort to diversification of its military or defense articles. The same case was also true for Turkey. Turkey was also trying to diversify its defense capabilities and they purchased S-400s.

MR. KIRBY: And we expressed the same concerns to them and that's why we had to make a decision on the F-35. Because we believe that that capability, that air defense capability was fundamentally incompatible with them also having F-35s. And we were very clear with our Turkish allies as well. OK. Thanks, everybody.