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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

April 6, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, good morning, everybody. We'll get started. Don't have a whole lot to open up with.

Day 42 -- more than 1,450 missile launches. We would assess that Russian forces near Kyiv and Chernihiv have completed their withdrawal from the area to re-consolidate and refit in Belarus and in Russia. We are not showing Russian forces in or around Kyiv or to the north Kyiv, and we're not showing Russian forces in or around Chernihiv.

No real changes to speak to in east or the south of Ukraine. Mariupol remains isolated, but it has not been secured by the Russian despite some open-source reporting to the contrary of Ukrainians surrendering Mariupol. We do not assess that that has happened.

No changes in the air or the maritime environment. I know all of you are going to ask me about reinforcements. Again, we have now seen that the Russians have moved from the north into Belarus and to Russia for refit and resupply. We have seen indications that that refit and resupply is occurring, but I don't have anything to report with respect to a redeployment of those units into Ukraine. You'll probably ask me, how many units are we talking about? And you know, in the northwestern grouping, again, we're talking about around 20 BTGs, and that north-central grouping, which is the -- folks are kind of coming out of that Chernihiv or to the area to the northeast of Kyiv. You're talking around the same number, roughly 20. We don't have perfect knowledge of their manpower, but roughly 20 BTGs in each of those two grouping areas, and so we assess that they are now outside of Ukraine.

Of the total, like 100 and -- almost -- nearly 130 BTGs that they applied to this invasion, we still assess that they have, you know, a good many inside, you know, more than 80. So again, we don't have a perfect picture of every single unit, but that's roughly what we see.

Some of you are going to ask me about the nitric acid attack. I would just tell you that we're still monitoring that. We can't confirm the specific details of it. You know, we've seen the Russians claim that this was a Ukrainian attack on this. We do not believe that is true. We do believe that the Russians are responsible, but exactly what they used, when they did it, why they did it, what the damage is, we just don't have that level of detail, so I'm just going to rip that Band-Aid off before we even get to it in Q&A. We're still monitoring it.

I guess that's about it.

Lita?

Q: Thank you. Two things: one, there's been a lot of talk from you all over the last several days about what is expected to be a larger effort to go back into sort of the east, and we're already hearing reports of Russian troops more flowing into the east. Can you give us what you can of that picture, what you're seeing, and how long do you estimate it may be before? I know you can't paint a perfect picture here, but how long it might be before you see some of these troops in Belarus and Russia moving back toward the east.

And then secondly, just the atrocities in Bucha that has -- you've addressed before. Is there any intelligence or any suggestion that this was part of a message from Russian troops to -- to frighten people in the rest of the country, or is there an assessment that this was just, you know, fleeing Russian forces just frantic and trying to get away?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, on -- on your first question, Lita, again, we've seen indications that they are beginning to refit and resupply these units. We have not seen those units be redeployed. I couldn't possibly estimate what the timeframe would be.

Our assessment is that they won't want to spend too much time on refit and resupply because they have made a very public show of saying that they're going to, you know, prioritize their efforts on the Donbas region.

So they're out there publicly with that this is their new focus area. So our understanding is that, you know, they would not take a lot of time but exactly how many days, it's difficult to know. I think it's going to depend, quite frankly, Lita, on the -- on the units themselves -- how depleted are they, in terms of stocks and supplies and manpower?

But we have not seen an appreciable, tangible influx of additional personnel or resources applied on the ground any way into the Donbas. You know, all told, you know, we think that they probably have -- I mean, well, it's -- it's difficult to know with any certainty but the vast majority of the battalion tactical groups that they have dedicated to that region are in and are in the region. You know, more than 30 I think is a safe assumption.

But we don't have -- I just don't have that level of fidelity on actual units and how many they have -- we don't have anything that says that they're -- that -- of these units they've moved out, that they've moved them in. We have seen none of that yet.

And I know -- I get this question all of the time about reinforcements. Again, we've seen the Wagner Group in there, we have seen them prioritize their airstrikes more and more on the JFO and south of Izyum. That is true but I just don't have anything more for you on physical reinforcements.

We'll watch it as best we can, and when we feel like we can share that with you, we will. I mean, just like I did today. That honestly as far as we can go because it's as far as we know.

On the Bucha thing, it -- the truth is, Lita, I don't think we know. That's why we think these war crimes need to be investigated and that Russia needs to be held accountable. But we don't have investigators on the ground so we can't -- and we weren't there, obviously, when these atrocities occurred, so it's difficult for us to know how much of this was pre -- you know, was -- well, let me back up -- it's just difficult for us to know the -- what precipitated these atrocities.

I would just tell you, I mean, it -- just looking at the imagery, when you see individuals with their hands tied behind their backs and evidence of being shot in the head, that certainly appears to be premeditated, appears to be planned, it certainly appears to be very, very deliberate and it's -- but it's difficult to know, you know, what more motivation was behind this.

It -- whether it was a message attempt or not, clearly, a message was sent to the world of Russia's brutality, and that's the message that should not be forgotten here. And clearly, we've seen no lack of motivation as a result of these atrocities by the Ukrainian forces in defending their country.

The other thing I'd say is while Bucha certainly and rightly has captured the world's attention, it's not the first time in these last 41 days or 42 days of conflict where the Russians have been committing war crimes and it's not the first example of brutality, as brutal as it is. So I think we just need to keep that perspective.

Tom Bowman?

Q: Yeah, I just want to clarify, as far as Kyiv -- now, are -- there are no Russian troops anywhere around Kyiv and also Chernihiv? Is that correct?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We are assessing that they have completely withdrawn from Kyiv and from Chernihiv.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- there are some indications that, you know, they left behind, you know, mines and things like that. So the Ukrainians are being somewhat careful in some areas north of Kyiv, as they begin to clear the ground and clear the territory and reoccupy it, because they have to be, but we're assessing that -- we are assessing that all of the Russians have left.

Q: So -- Okay, so no troops left behind?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That is correct.

Q: Okay. And a --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Okay. Bouncing off of what Lita was asking -- so there's no sense at this point with these civilian deaths -- and as you say, hands tied behind their backs, shot in the back of the head -- that these were ordered by commanders or is this just sort of a freelance thing by soldiers fleeing? We really don't know that yet, correct?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We don't know specifically what exactly occurred here, in terms of who ordered what or to what degree, you know -- we just don't know, Tom.

Q: Okay, great. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Phil Stewart?

Q: Sorry, there was a delay there. Real quick on the withdrawal -- when exactly was it completed? Was it completed as of today?

And again, I know that you've given this number in the past but exactly how many units you believe will be redeployed into Ukraine? And does that mean all the BTGs that were pulled out of the Kyiv region are going to be sent back in? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I couldn't give you a time hack on the clock here, Phil. Just over the course of the last 24 hours, we came to this assessment, but I couldn't give you more specifics than that.

I don't know how many -- we don't know how many of the BTGs that have left are going to be put back into the fight. We are working under the assumption that the majority of them, if not all of them, will, but again, we have to see what we see. We just don't know.

Some of these units have been much more depleted than others and it's possible that the Russians could combine units to make new BTGs as a result. We just don't know. It's not a satisfactory answer but it's an honest one.

Barbara?

Q: Hi. I wanted to come back to Bucha. So you're saying -- and I think for the first time -- you know, it's difficult but that it appears to be premeditated, planned, deliberate, don't know exactly who ordered what. And as we know, Russian forces may have quite different views of the value of life than others do but they're not known for just going around, you know, unless they have orders to do something.

So I'm wondering, can you take the next step with us?

Is the U.S. assisting the Ukrainians in looking for evidence that orders were given to engage, as you say, and point out people's hands being tied, people being shot, atrocities.

Are you now looking for that evidence that it was ordered?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Barbara, we're not aiding, you know, specific investigative efforts to that level of fidelity -- at least, not -- speaking for the Department of Defense, we are not assisting the Ukrainians to that level of detail here.

Q: Do you have anything further on what Russian or irregular units you believe were in Bucha at the time, through some of your analysis?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have that, no.

Q: And one just very quick, on a slightly different topic, there have been so many strikes against Ukrainian fuel depots, fuel points. Is there any indication from the Ukrainians that they're going to seek additional fuel supplies? Any indication that you have to supply them with additional fuel?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I will just tell you that we have had discussions with the Ukrainians about fuel needs and fuel requirements. And those discussions are ongoing. And I'll leave it at that.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Karoun from The Washington Post?

Q: Hi, thank you. So I was just wondering if you could go into any detail about what you're seeing about how this pivot is happening to the east? Are the Russians running into any sort of logistical challenges as they try to move over to that new sphere?

And also, for the Ukrainians, I mean, obviously they don't have to go up and around the country, but how -- are you seeing that they are able to, kind of, recalibrate, reorient themselves, or is this potentially going to be like a -- a rocky road to do so?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I mean, they've been recalibrating themselves since the beginning. But, certainly, you know, as we've talked about the -- I don't even remember when -- but, you know, the withdrawal of Russian troops from the north around Kyiv wasn't a relaxing stroll in the park for these guys. The Ukrainians were hitting them as they were moving away. So they were adapting in real time to Russian decision-making and taking full advantage of it, and further depleting these units as they were leaving the country.

And again, we now assess that they have control over Kyiv and of the suburbs to the north -- well, all around Kyiv, quite frankly. They do have some mine-clearing they've got to do, to the specific north of Kyiv, but they have adjusted. Elsewhere as well, as they have beaten back the Russians, or as the Russians have left, they are re-occupying that ground and making their own assessments about what their force posture ought to be in that particular region going forward.

They still have a lot of forces dedicated to the east, as they have over the last eight years. Again, I don't want to give their force dispositions here. But they have a lot of capability assembled there in the east and then in Donbas. And they are absolutely adapting and adjusting in real time to Russian efforts now to increase their activities there.

Again, we haven't seen wholesale additions and reinforcements in the east come in. So I can't speak to something specific that the Ukrainians have done to deal with an influx of Russian personnel. We just haven't seen that happen. What we're seeing happen right now is that the Russians are refitting and resupplying these units. And we haven't seen them redeployed back into Ukraine yet.

But the Ukrainians are -- you know, they're not waiting. I mean, they are already adapting to increased Russian activity in the Donbas region and doing the best they can.

I think one of the reasons why you saw us describe this $100 million drawdown package last night as an urgent need for Javelins was in fact because of the activity in the Donbas and the Ukrainians wanted to make sure that they're ready for increased Russian activity there.

So lots of adjustment in real time.

Wafaa?

Q: Hi. Does the Pentagon share the European assessment about the possibility of a re-invasion of the Kyiv region?

And I'll have another question.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We've consistently said that Kyiv is still under threat. And it still is under threat. Even though we haven't seen a lot -- you know, air strikes there in the last 24, it doesn't mean that they still -- the Russians still couldn't hit Kyiv. So it's not like Kyiv is just somehow immune from further attack.

And, yes, it's true there are no ground elements around Kyiv any more, so the threat of ground invasion is clearly gone for the moment. But that's what we've been saying, "for the moment." The Russians are clearly re-prioritizing in the east. But it's not clear what their longer-range goals are here. Do they just want Donbas as a negotiating chip at the table?

Do they just want the Donbas and the southern part of Ukraine, period? Is that the end goal?

Or do they want that, and then they'll re-apply elsewhere in the country? It's just not perfectly clear.

Q: Since this war might last for years, is the U.S. prepared for this long conflict?

What implications does this open-ended commitment to Ukraine will have on the Pentagon commitments elsewhere in the world?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'll tell you what we're focused on is the fight that the Ukrainians are in right now and in our efforts to bolster NATO's eastern flank. That's where our head is.

I don't think anybody can predict with perfect certainty how long this is going to last. Clearly, we don't want it to last one more day. And there's no reason for it to last one more day. But, as the Russians re-prioritize to the Donbas, it could -- that could indicate a longer fight here than even the Russians had originally estimated that they would be in when they invaded in late February.

But as to how long this goes, we just don't know. What I can tell you is that -- and we've said this many, many times -- we're going to continue to help Ukraine defend itself for as long as they need that help. And they still need that help. And we're still at it. And that $100 million that we announced last night is proof of that.

Carla?

Q: Hey, thanks. Just, I wanted to clarify, your audio kind of, fluctuated and modulated, and I don't know if that happened to anybody else. But did you say 1,500 missiles had been launched into Ukraine since the start, or did you say more than 1,400 again?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: More than 1,450.

Q: More than 1,450? Okay, thank you.

And then, just going back to what Tom was asking, is there any indication that any of these refit and resupply groups that are heading to Belarus -- are they going to go back to Russia? Have you seen any indications that any of the troops are going back home?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hi, a couple of factual questions. The battalion tactical group, we keep mentioning that term of art. Roughly how many Russian soldiers are in one of those groups? I mean, I just don't know that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It depends on the BTG and what its purpose is. Some are infantry, some are defense. I mean, that's how they organize their army, but roughly, it's about 800 to 1,000 Russians. But again, it varies depending on the purpose of the BTG.

Q: That's fair enough. Good. And the other thing, the $300 million you guys announced last -- on Friday night, how much of that is actually physically on contract now, like the Switchblade anti-armor drones? And how will those contracts be announced? Will those be on defense.gov? Will the companies be allowed to say that they received these contracts for transparency purposes?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'll check on the transparency thing. I would assume that we would run them like any other contract. I don't know that there'd be a need to be super-secretive about it. I don't know what the status is of the contracting process on that $300-. I'll try to get an update later today on that.

Q: That would be useful. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yup.

Mike Brest, Washington Examiner?

Q: Thanks for taking my question. The Mariupol City Council warned earlier today that Russian troops are now using mobile crematoriums to get rid of bodies, and their implication was that they're doing this to hide alleged war crimes. So it begs the question, has the U.S. seen any indication of the use of mobile crematoriums in Mariupol or any other part of Russia?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, not that we can confirm, no.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yup.

Heather from USNI?

Q: Thanks so much for taking my question. I was wondering if you can confirm any reports of merchant ships being hit by missiles or sinking in the Black Sea.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, we're aware of one foreign cargo ship that was sunk by what we believe to be a Russian naval missile while in port in Mariupol.

Q: All right, thank you so much.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yup.

Courtney?

Q: Hi. A couple things: I just want to be clear. When you talk about the troops that the Russian troops that were around Kyiv and Chernihiv that have moved out from now and haven't redeployed, so they're in this sort of a resupply/refit stage. When you say they haven't redeployed, does that also mean they haven't started moving east, like, towards, potentially, some kind of a new offensive in the eastern part of Ukraine? Like, not just that they haven't gone into Ukraine, but they haven't been moving towards the next phase?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I can't say with perfect certainty that some of these units may be on the move inside of Belarus or Russia. I just don't have that level of detail, Court. We believe that they're all out and that they are focused on refit and resupply. But look, it would depend on the unit. Some units might not need that much refit/resupply, and could be on the move further to the east inside -- outside of Ukraine, but I just don't have that level of detail.

Q: Okay. And then two other quick ones. You mentioned that there haven't been any air strikes in Kyiv in the past 24 hours. Are they still focusing, the Russians, on strikes on sort of the Izyum area? Has that shifted at all? And then do you have any sense of when the announcement last night about the -- the Javelins, when those might start actually moving into the country? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, look, I would say on air strike activity, we see the preponderance -- well, not preponderance -- we see a sharper focus by the Russians on conducting air strikes south of Izyum, along that axis that we've been talking about for a long time, and in the JFO, the joint forces operations area, basically, the Donbas. That's where the majority of activity has been.

I want to be clear on Kyiv. I can't say with perfect certainty that there's been nothing striking in Kyiv over the last 24 hours. We just haven't seen much evidence of that. So I just want to be more specific on that. What we have seen evidence of is greater air strike activity around Izyum, to the south of Izyum, and then in that JFO. That's where the preponderance of activity seems to be; also, Mariupol, of course. That hasn't changed, either.

Q: And then just the Javelins. Do you have any sense when the Javelins are going to be --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Oh, I'm sorry, the Javelins.

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, look, I mean, we're going to get them there as fast as we can, obviously. I mean, we just announced this last night. Typically, we have been able to, from the time a drawdown is signed until a shipment arrives outside of Ukraine is about four days. That's been the typical timeline. Again, I'm not -- I can't speak with perfect certainty about this latest one, and on average, that's been our timeline. That's incredibly fast, just incredibly fast. And then once they get into those trans-shipment areas outside of Ukraine it only takes between 24 and 48 hours on average for that material to be packaged up onto trucks and delivered to the Ukrainians. So for -- anywhere from, you know, four to six days has been the average of getting stuff from literally, from taking off from the states and getting into Ukrainian hands.

So I can't be perfectly predictive about this latest package, but I can tell you that we are going to move with the utmost speed to get it there, and if it can get there faster and if there's a way to do that, we'll certainly do that. We understand that time is definitely of the essence here.

David Martin?

Q: Just to run some of the reports by you of banned weapons, there are new reports of thermobaric weapons, one apparently a photo of an unexploded thermobaric munition, new reports of cluster munitions, and then, of course, the reports of anti-personnel mines being left behind. Do you have anything to confirm any of those? And do you have any information on exactly what kind of protective equipment against chemical or biological attack has -- has or is being provided?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I can't confirm thermobarics or cluster. The Ukrainians have said themselves that they believe that there are anti-personnel mines that have been placed in the area north of Kyiv, and that they are attempting to clear those areas. We're in no position to refute their assertions on that. And I don't have an update on chem/bio material, but I'll take the question.

Okay, last question for today goes to Jen Griffin.

Q: Thanks. My question has to do with training in the U.S. of Ukrainian forces. Secretary Austin was asked about this and weighed in twice yesterday during the hearing. And I'm just curious where is that training taking place, what's the nature of it, what was he referring to?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, what they were referring to was a very small number of Ukrainians that were already here in the United States going through some professional military education, a very small number, and we took advantage of the opportunity to pull them aside for a couple of days and provide them some training, particularly on the Switchblade UAVs. That is a system that is not organic to the Ukrainian military, and so although it's not a very difficult system to operate, we took the advantage of having them in the country to give them some rudimentary training on that. And there may be some additional rudimentary training while they're here that we may avail ourselves of while they're here.

I'm not going to get into specific locations or what all those systems are going to be but again, they were already here for professional military education, a small number, less than a dozen, and we took advantage of it. And our expectation is that these individuals will be heading back into Ukraine relatively soon, as they were originally anyway.

Okay --

Q: And are you providing Switchblades -- so sorry, -- with regards to the Switchblades, are you providing the Switchblade 600 or 300?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into the specific variants here. They are getting Switchblade UAVs and I'm going to leave it at that.