Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

April 8, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: OK, good afternoon, everybody. I appreciate your flexibility today. I know normally, we do these things in the morning, but it's just been that kind of a Friday, so we'll get right at it.

Day 44. I know everybody's interested in this missile strike on the Kramatorsk train station. Obviously, we are not buying the denial by the Russians that they weren't responsible. I would note that they originally claimed a successful strike, and then only retracted it when there were reports of civilian casualties. So it's our full expectation that this was a Russian strike. We believe they used a short-range ballistic missile, an SS-21, and we'll leave it to local authorities to speak to the casualties and the damage. We don't have perfect visibility into that.

Some of you may ask, "Well, why that train station and what was the reason?" We -- as we've said before, we don't have perfect visibility into the Russian targeting process, but it is a train station and it is located -- if you look at the map, it's located not very far from Izyum, just to the south, right on the edge of the line of contact between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas area. It's a major rail hub, so I think I would just leave it at that. That -- I think that says a lot right there.

As residents are beginning to return to Kyiv and some of the surrounding suburbs, we continue to see Ukrainians clearing the area of mines and booby-traps, but they -- all the Russian forces are gone, as we said before. We believe that they are -- these forces are transiting into and through assembly areas in Belarus and Western Russia to be refit and resupplied. 

In general, we see some units making their way to Belgorod, and indications that some other units will be making their way to a town called I will butcher this, but I'll spell it for you -- Valuyki -- V-A-L-U-Y-K-I, which is -- which lies to the southeast of Belgorod in Russia. It's right near the border with Ukraine and that northern part of the Donbas. We think that that area is going to serve as one of these resupply/refit areas for these troops, and we have seen indications that some units are moving in that direction as we speak.

As for where we're seeing the fighting -- continues in southern and eastern Ukraine, including near Kharkiv, still being fought over. Izyum, we've talked about Izyum now for many, many days; along that joint force operation area, again, that's where this train station is, along the edge of that JFO. Obviously, Mariupol is still seeing heavy fighting, and we continue to see fighting around Mykolaiv, even though we don't hold the Russians actually in Mykolaiv. 

In the air, Russia's sortie count, it came in over the last 24 hours at between 240 and 250, so roughly in line with what we've seen in recent days. The overall, overwhelming weight and focus of their strikes over the last 24 were on Mariupol and in that JFO, so clearly, they are focusing a large part of their strike activity on that eastern and southern part of Ukraine, again, in keeping with what we believe they're going to try to do. 

No significant maritime activity to speak to today. Let's see -- oh, and then on the missile count, we now have observed more than 1,500 missile launches since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And with that, we'll get to questions, so Bob?

Q: Thank you, (inaudible). On the -- your description of the Russian troops that are moving -- some of which are moving toward the Belgorod area for refit and resupply, do you have any sense of how long a process that might be before they're likely to be moved into the Donbas area in terms of days, weeks or longer?

And secondly, on the secretary's announcement, his statement this morning about the S-300 that -- actually, about the -- the movement of the Patriot missile battery to Slovakia, are you in discussions with Bulgaria or other countries about making similar arrangements? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: On the refit, Bob, we don't know for sure how long this is going to take because some units are much more devastated than others. We've seen indications of some units that are literally, for all intents and purposes, eradicated. There's just nothing left of the BTG except a handful of troops, and maybe a small number of vehicles, and they're going to have to be reconstituted or reapplied to others. We've seen others that are, you know, down 30 percent manpower, or even higher. And so it's going to depend on -- and I don't want to speak for the Russians here, but it's going to depend on the health of these units and what the Russians want to do to get them combat-ready again. I suspect that with some units, they'll be able to move much faster than with others. 

But I would say this: We believe that they have not solved all of their logistics and sustainment problems; that those problems did not just exist inside Ukraine. They existed outside Ukraine, and still do exist. And so our sense is that they will likely not be able to reinforce the eastern part of the country with any great speed. I know that's not completely satisfactory. I couldn't give you days or weeks. It's really going to depend on the unit and how ready they are to get back into the fight. But we don't believe that in general, this is going to be a speedy process for them given the kinds of casualties they've taken and the kind of damages they've sustained to their units' readiness. 

On the second question about S-300s, I would just tell you that we continue to have conversations with allies and partners who have these kinds of long-range air defense systems, and I don't want to get ahead of that process.

Tom Bowman?

Q: Yeah, as far as the Russian troops heading to Belgorod and that other town you mentioned, do you have any sense of the way -- I know they're refitting it and so forth -- any sense of the way ahead once that is done? Do you think they'll drop down into Kharkiv or will they swing around into the, you know, far east of Donbas and then head in west?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So again, it's going to depend on the unit and what this unit is equipped to do and what they want to do. And I want to be careful here because some of what we know -- you know, we don't want to put out there, but we do think that one of the -- we do think that one of the reasons they're looking at this town called Valuyki -- it's very close to the border with the Donbas, just to the north of it. And so we have every expectation that, should they refit there, that the most likely course of action would be for them to move immediately south, right into the Donbas right from there.

(CROSSTALK)

...there’s no need to swing around. You could go, you know, right across the border there.

We have seen that the northeast grouping of troops -- the grouping that originally was applied against Kharkiv, coming out of Belgorod, that grouping now, we have seen them plus up by just under 10 BTGs. So we have seen that grouping increase in size, in or around the Donbas area. It's hard to say exactly where each of these are but we have seen them increase.

But exactly what line of access they're going to use, we just don't know that right now, Tom.

Q: And do we -- do you still believe that what the plan for the Russians is to continue to try to block the Ukrainian Army in by coming south or north along that axis and block them in?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We still believe that one of their objectives is to fix Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Donbas and then engage them in combat to occupy the Donbas completely.

But they certainly -- we believe another objective is to fix them there so that they can't be used for the defense of the country anywhere else, including, you know, moving down towards the south. But again, I want to stress that right now we believe that the Russian locus of energy and effort is going to be in the south and in the east.

So fixing those troops there is a part of it but they have shown less desire now to go after further targets to the west. They are clearly focusing their efforts on the east.

Q: OK, great. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yep. Felicia?

Q: Hi. Thanks. Is the number of troops in the east still about 30 battalion tactical groups? Has that changed?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We actually think it's -- as I said, we think they've increased it now. So we believe it's probably up over 40.

Q: OK. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yep. Tom Squiteri?

Q: Hey, (inaudible), thanks a lot. My two questions are off the hearing yesterday before the Senate Committee. 

General Milley talked about the -- enthusiastically talked about the Ukrainians' prowess using land mines and --, where did they get them? Cause the United States is only one of 12 nations that produce them. Where did they get them from? Did -- did the United States supply them with land mines?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't know, Tom.

Q: Would you take the question then?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'd have to go research that one.

Q: Thanks. OK.

And my second one is -- is somewhat related to that. One year ago -- one year ago, [inaudible] the Pentagon was analyzing Esper’s decision on changing the land mine policy. And I asked earlier this year and that research is still going on. Is this something that's sort of lost into the ether over there, that we won't get a final decision on whether you're going to stick with the Trump land mine policy or go back to how it was?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think we're still looking at it, we're still reviewing it, and I wouldn't say that it got lost in the ether, that we're not going to continue to review that policy.

Q: OK. But you'll take the other question? Thanks, I appreciate that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. Pierre?

Q: (Inaudible)? Hello?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, go ahead.

Q: Can we assume that the next phase of this war in Ukraine is going to be focused more on Ukrainian trying to liberate lands and have more tools to defend against missiles coming into their land?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, the next phase of -- for Ukraine?

Q: Next phase of this war would be Ukrainian trying to liberate more lands and have more tools to defend themselves against missiles being launched from the Russian side?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't know if I'd say that's the next phase. I mean, it's what they've been doing for the last month and what we're trying to help them do going forward.

I mean, they have gone on the offense in places down south and in the north, and quite frankly, they're fighting very, very hard in the east, as they have been for eight years. So they absolutely continue to show every desire to take back from the Russians occupied territory inside their own country, and I think we can expect to see that they'll continue to do that.

Likewise, we're seeing energy applied by the Russians to occupy the Donbas and the south of -- in the south of the country -- and that includes, of course, Crimea, which they have been in for now eight years.

So we're seeing the Russians, again, try to occupy more ground in the south and the east. It's difficult -- what we don't know is that the sum total of Russian objectives now or whether this is to get leverage at the negotiating table or whether it's to establish a more firm footing from which to launch attacks back further to the west in the country. We just don't have that level of visibility.

Idrees?

Q: Hey, super quick question -- two questions actually. One -- one on the SS-21 -- is it a single missile -- was it a single missile or was it a single missile containing cluster munitions, like the Ukrainians have claimed?

And secondly, you mentioned some Russian troops going from Georgia to Ukraine. Have you seen them move and what are the numbers that you're seeing if you have?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't know -- I think we're still analyzing this missile strike on the railway so I don't think we have an answer on whether there were cluster munitions in that strike. 

I don't have an update for you on where the troops coming out of Georgia went. Again, I mentioned at the time we're not going to have perfect visibility on all their movements but we have said before that they're going to reinforce the east, and they have. They're up over 40 BTGs in that northeastern grouping of troops that are or will be soon applied to the east. We see them moving now towards Belgorod and this town called Belgorod and this town called Valuyki, for refit. And so, I mean, all the things we've been talking about, you're actually seeing bear out. 

We can even, you know, talk about one unit in particular that we know, the 18th Motorized Rifle Division, they're being transferred to the eastern borders of Ukraine. It's a new division that was formed only in 2021, consists of three mechanized infantry regiments as well as an armored regiment. 

And our assessment is that they're expected to be applied in eastern Ukraine in the Kramatorsk area, in the area near where that train station was. So, we're seeing the movement of units and the application of force, more force in that part. 

Now, again, we don't have a complete total picture of every unit and where they are on any given day. We're just picking up these continuous indications that tell us that that’s the sort of level of effort they're applying. 

Dan, from the Washington Post.

Q: Hi, thank you, (inaudible). A follow-on question on landmines. Can you elaborate on what the Pentagon is seeing in terms of both Ukrainian and Russian landmine use in Ukraine? How much of a concern it is long-term? And what the -- what the lessons would be that the United States has taken away as its deliberating its own policy?

And then more specifically, images are starting to emerge that would suggest IEDs are on the battlefield as well, possibly from both sides. Do you have any read on what's happening there?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have anything on the IEDs. On the landmines, you know, we certainly saw indications of the Russians using landmines. And as I said, the Ukrainians are still clearing out landmines and booby traps to the north of Kyiv. They're being very judicious about that. 

You heard the chairman talk about the Ukrainians use of landmines yesterday, so we know that they're in their arsenal and their inventory. And I don't have a good sense of where they've put them and to what effect. 

Now how this all will feed into our policy review, I think it's too soon to tell, Dan. I mean, that policy review is ongoing. I would certainly expect that it could be informed by this conflict, that there's a lot of sense there that we would want fold some of what we're seeing into that. But the effect it will have on the policy going forward I think is just too soon to tell. 

Jeff Seldin?

Q: Thanks very much for doing this. Two quick questions. Of all the forces Russia originally had arrayed against Ukraine, how much manpower, how much capacity has Russia lost over this past month and a half or so? 

And also, is there any update on the status of Wagner mercenaries and also non-Wagner foreign fighters from Syria, Libya, Africa, elsewhere that we heard about being possibly brought in to help Russian forces? Do you know how many have come in? Where they've been deployed? What impact they're having? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have anything on other foreign fighters. We do assess that the Wagner group is about at 1,000 people, and they are focused in the Donbas. We know that they're there particularly in and around Donetsk. But, I don't have any update on the other foreign fighters. 

And look, on the losses, I think -- I really -- like I said, I'm not going to get into casualty assessments. And I know that you weren't asking for that. But, I would just tell you that we haven't really talked about this stat for a long, long time. 

But, of the assessed available combat power that they had available to them before the invasion, that they had arrayed against Ukraine for this purpose, of the total assessed combat power that they had, we estimate that they are between 80 and 85 percent of what they had. 

And it depends on, you know, that goes up or down depending on what individual factor you're looking at. Tanks, fighter aircraft, missile inventory, troops, I mean, but the aggregate tells us that they are under 85 percent of their assessed available combat power when they started this invasion. 

OK, Kasim?

Q: Yes, thank you. And in the statement on the position of Patriots to Slovakia, Secretary Austin says the deployment length has not yet been fixed as we continue to consult with Slovakia governments about more permanent air defense solutions. Is there an ongoing work to sell or donate Patriot missile systems to Slovakia as a backfill? Or what does that mean really? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It means exactly what it says today. This is a temporary deployment of a Patriot battery as we continue to work with Slovakia on what long-term solutions make the most sense for Slovakia and we're just not there yet. 

Q: And then another question, you said fighting continues in Mariupol. Do you see Russians trying to take the city or are they trying just to keep the blockade around the city?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I would say both. I mean, part of their desire to occupy Mariupol is to surround it and circle it. With basically a siege mentality and that continues.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: David Martin?

Q: Two questions. On the units that are refitting, but have been badly reduced because of the earlier fighting, are replacement personnel and replacement equipment waiting for them in Belgorod and Valuyki? That's one question. 

And the second question is, in describing that train station, you called it a major railhead located right at the line of contract in the Donbas. It sounded like your point was that it would make sense for the Russians to target that, but you sort of just kind of left it hang. So, what is the import of that rail station's location? And the other question is about the refitting. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, so on the refitting, I mean, we have seen a -- I don't know for sure, I couldn't tell you that there's Russian-ready replacement troops sitting in Belgorod and Valuyki waiting for them. We don't think that's the case. But again, we're seeing antidotal evidence that some of these battalion tactical groups are doing what they can to try to replace manpower on their own. And they're exploring the option of combining BTGs with one another and they hope to get refit / reinforced by new conscripts -- there's a whole new conscription schedule coming here in May. Their conscripts serve for one year. 

We also have indications that the Russians have already begun this mobilization of reservists, and there's some indications that what they're hoping to do is to recruit upwards of 60,000 troops for this -- during this mobilization phase. 

Now again, it remains to be seen how successful they'll be on this and where those reinforcements would go, how much training they would get. I mean, we don't have that level of visibility. 

But I don't think that we are thinking about -- I don't think -- let me put it this way, we haven't seen any indications that there are fresh reinforcements fully trained, fully armed, fully ready to join and these more depleted BTGs arrive in places like Belgorod and Valuyki. We just see indications that that's where they're heading, and then we believe that that's where the Russians are planning to do their refitting. 

And then on the train station, I mean, again, I want to be careful here that I'm not getting ahead of where we are and what we know about Russian targeting. We don't have perfect visibility on what they're planning to hit and why specifically they're planning to hit things. All I can do is be factual. 

It is a major rail hub in the eastern part of Ukraine, a rail station. And it is in a very strategic location if you look at the map and you see, it's just south of Izyum and we've been talking now for days and days about how Izyum was so important to them because it lies almost in the middle of the Donbas region to the east -- I'm sorry, to the west of it. 

And we've seen them on this line of axis coming out of Izyum to the south and southeast to try to move in deeper into the Donbas and to fix and hold Ukrainian armed forces there. Well, if that's your goal and you look just a little bit to the south and you see Kramatorsk where there's a rail station. 

And again without speculating about what the Russians are doing, if one of your goals is to cut off the supply of additional Ukrainian forces, or hold Ukrainian forces in place then transportation hubs like railway stations, you could see where there might be a logic there to why you would hit it. 

But again, that is speculative, it's based on looking at the map, and looking at the capabilities there, and looking at what we believe to be the Russian goals. And I don't want to get much more detailed about what they're -- what Russian targeting is really looking like. 

Mosh? 

Q: Thanks. On the U.S. Patriot that was repositioned from Germany to Poland, can you give us any more detail on how long the Patriot will remain in Poland before it's moved to Slovakia? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I can't, Mosh. It's a temporary deployment. And we're not slapping an end date on it right now. 

As we continue to work with Slovakia about more long-range -- sorry, longer term more permanent solutions. And that's why the secretary worded it the way he did in his statement. 

But it is not meant to be a permanent solution, let me just put it that way. 

Mike Glenn. 

Q: Thank you, (Inaudible). Was just wondering, I know you said that you all believe that the Russian's next plan is to hold, fix Ukraine in place and prevent them from maneuvering around. That's a very tall order for any military to do. I mean, do you really assess that they're even capable of doing that? I mean, they can shoot a missile at a train station, but they've been spectacularly failing to conduct even the most rudimentary ground operations. Do you think they're even able to do that? Does the Pentagon...

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think we need to remember that the Ukrainians get a vote here, and that they've been very successful on the ground in pushing the Russians out -- pushing them back and defeating them in many places. And they will, my every expectation, will fight hard over the Donbas. 

But I don't think anybody's prepared to predict an outcome at this stage, and it would be imprudent to do that. But we see every indication, including in our conversations with the Ukrainians. The secretary spoke with Reznikov yesterday; every indication that they will fight very hard for the Donbas, and they continue to make everyday difficult for the Russians. 

So I'd kind of just leave it there. 

Q: OK. Thank you, (Inaudible). 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sam LaGrone? 

Q: Hey, (Inaudible).  There were some reports yesterday that Harpoon anti-ship missiles might be part of the aid package, particularly from the British. Can you elaborate to see if there's any other sources for those? Thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I haven't seen anything about the Brits sending Harpoons. The Brits have agreed to send coastal defense cruise missiles, but I've seen nothing that say that they're preparing to send Harpoons. And as you well know better than me, Sam, the Ukrainians don't -- they can't outfit their small coastal craft for Harpoons. But again, I just haven't seen that. 

Kellie Meyer from News Nation. 

Q: Hey, (Inaudible). I know I asked about the weapon shipments, but I was curious if as this shifts to the southeast, how will this impact the ability to get the weapons in Ukrainians hands as quickly as we can? And what would be the best weapon now that the terrain may be shifting, or for this kind of environment that you need to supply them with? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, we continue to be able to flow things into Ukraine on the ground, obviously we don't talk about the routes, and we move the routes as appropriate. That's happening even as we speak. There's not a day that goes by where shipments aren't being moved on the ground into Ukraine from the United States as well as many other nations. 

And we're going to -- as I said before, we're going to keep doing this as much as we can, as fast as we can and that flow continues. And the movement of the locus of the effort to the south and the east, that in and of itself we do not believe will effect transshipments -- the geographic focus to the south and east will not affect transshipments, and so again we're going to keep at this. 

As for systems, I mean, it the panoply of systems that we continue to look to get them. One of the reasons why the president signed out another $100 million in Javelins just the other night was because we know how important the Javelins are going to be in this knife fight that's about to occur -- actually has been occurring in the Donbas. And the application of force that we believe the Russians are going make there. So we wanted to make sure we that we frontloading that anti-armor stuff. 

And same goes with short-range air defense. Because, again, right at the top of my briefing I told you about the air activity really being focused on Mariupol and the joint force operation area, basically the Donbas. That's where the preponderance of Russian strike activity is occurring. And air defense is going to be critical. 

And look I'm not going to detail where the Ukrainians are going to apply these resources but we're going to keep focusing on getting them what we believe and in talking with them what they believe they need in the fight that's right in front of them. 

And the other thing and I said this the other day but it bears repeating. Small arms and ammunition, particularly ammunition for small arms is vital. And the message that they keep sending is to keep that coming. I know it doesn't get the headlines that fighter jets and tanks and Javelins and Switchblades get. But millions of rounds of small arms ammunition continues to flow in and it is -- there is a life blood quality to that small arms ammunition that they are getting everyday. And they make that clear. 

Again, it doesn't grab headlines but it's critical. And even in the last 24-hours huge shipments of that kind of ammunition got into Ukraine.

Last question to, Sylvie?

Q: Hello, (inaudible). You know, (inaudible), the Chairman said yesterday that during -- the Donbas would be very different from the one in the north. Is it an advantage to the Russians because they tend to use their tanks principally?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean I have to confess to not being a topographical expert on Ukraine. So I don't think I'm qualified to actually answer that question. I would just -- a couple of large points, one is they've been fighting over this area for eight years. I know the focus is on it now and understandably so. But the Russians and Ukrainians have been focused on the Donbas for eight years.

And for eight years the Ukrainians have been able to stymie Russia's larger objectives in the Donbas. Now they are there and they have been there and there are areas where they are in -- that they remain in more control than the Ukrainians, they're trying to expand that. 

But the fighting has been bloody, it's been stiff, and it's been pretty consistent for eight years. Now it's heating up now clearly. But this is an area of Ukraine that both armies are familiar with. They know the terrain, they know the population centers, they know the avenues of both rail and highway. And they both have lines of communication. 

So that's why I think the Chairman spoke about it in such dark terms yesterday. Because this is -- this will be a knife fight. This could be very bloody and very ugly. 

And because they're going to concentrate their efforts there, the Russians are, they're limiting their geographic aims. And they still have a lot of combat power available to them. As I said, less than 85 percent but still a lot. There's the distinct possibility that this, as the Chairman said, this could go on for a long time.