PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. A couple things at the top.
I think you saw yesterday, just to recap, the secretary had a chance over VTC to speak with the Ukrainian troops that were still in the States completing their training right before they went back to Ukraine. He had a chance to thank them for their service to their country and to wish them the very best as they went back in defense of that country, and it was a good exchange.
Speaking of exchanges, I think you saw this morning the secretary had a chance to meet bilaterally with the minister of defense of India, Minister Singh; exchange of views, as you might expect, on a range of regional security priorities, quite frankly, everything from what's going on in the Indian Ocean to East and Southeast Asia, all the way to Europe. It was a good discussion and a good precursor to the 2+2 ministerial that the secretary will be attending this afternoon over at the State Department with Secretary Blinken. There'll be a press conference at the end of that, so I'm sure each of the ministers will have a chance to talk to the press about that discussion and the -- and progress that we're making in deepening our bilateral relationship with India, and here at the Pentagon, focusing on this defense partnership with India.
Finally, in some personnel news, we're excited to welcome Ms. Rebecca Hersman. I think she's a familiar name to many of you. She's coming in as the director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, otherwise known as DTRA, D-T-R-A. As you know, she has previously served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, and of course, we owe our thanks to Dr. Williams, who has been the acting director of DTRA now for the past 15 months, and we're certainly glad to welcome Ms. Hersman back to the Pentagon.
I also have a personnel announcement here in Public Affairs. Today, we welcome Ms. Sabrina Singh, who came over to us from her duties at the White House. She'll be taking over a new position here in OSD Public Affairs called integrated campaigns. She's going to basically be helping us do a better job of stitching together all the different vehicles that are -- that we have available to us in communicating and making sure we're doing that more effectively and more efficiently, and we're really, really glad to get her here. We've been working for weeks to bring her on board, and we're really excited to have her here.
So with that, Bob?
Q: Thank you. On Ukraine, can you describe the extent to which you are seeing the Russians shifting their forces from the north to the east? And -- and also, to what extent are you seeing at -- any evidence that they are more aggressively going after Ukrainian air defenses in recent days?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, so again, with the caveat that we don't have perfect visibility into everything that the Russians are doing, we have seen some early indications that they continue to flow the forces that they had in the north of Ukraine around Kyiv, particularly, and Chernihiv, moving them north into Belarus. And then -- and we're starting to see early indications of movement eastward now, back into Russia.
We still believe that the goal here for them -- and so they have none of those battalion tactical groups that were arrayed in the north are now in Ukraine. Our view, our assessment, is that they're -- they've all left, and they're beginning this effort to move them further to the east. We think -- we think -- that they're going to use places like Belgorod and Valyuki uses to the north of the border with Ukraine as refit stations, as waystations for them to resupply.
Q: Have they already done that?
MR. KIRBY: We have -- we have seen some early indications, Bob, that -- that they are, in fact -- the Russians are, in fact, trying to resupply and reinforce their efforts in the Donbas. I think you guys have all seen imagery. I've seen it in some of your outlets of yet another convoy of vehicles that are heading south towards that town of Izyum. We believe that these are the early stages of a reinforcement effort by the Russians in the Donbas.
It's not clear to us how many vehicles are in this convoy, what exactly they're bringing. It does seem to be a mix of personnel-carrying vehicles, as well as armored vehicles. There may be some artillery, maybe some enabling capabilities. Not exactly clear, but this does seem to be an early effort by them to reinforce their efforts in the Donbas.
Q: But then on the air defense side of things?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, again, without getting into Russian targeting, because we don't have perfect visibility on that, we have seen the Russians hit airfields in the last couple of weeks, including one near Dnipro just over the last day or so. What exactly they're targeting at those fields is not perfectly clear to us.
But we -- I would just say this about Ukrainian air defense, they still have a lot of their air defense capability available to them. They, as you know, have been asking for more and so we are working with Allies and partners to help get long-range air defense systems into Ukraine.
And we're -- the secretary's working this personally, quite frankly, working with Allies and partners to see what they can do. We want to try to get them long-range air defense systems that we know they know how to use and can put into employment fairly quickly.
The Ukrainians, again, without getting into their order of battle, they clearly value their short and long-range air defense for good reason. And they're doing a very effective job of using it and marshaling those resources. And doing the best they can to protect them obviously.
Q: Two quick questions. Early today President Zelenskyy talked about what he said was the death toll in Mariupol. He said tens of thousands. I know you don't go into numbers, but does that scale sound plausible?
MR. KIRBY: It could be, Idrees, we don't know. And I don't think anybody's really going to know until Ukrainian authorities are able to get in there and look and see. It's still being fought over, so it's still contested -- it's still contested territory.
But if you just look at the imagery and you see how much the Russians have pounded Mariupol from the air, it's inconceivable to imagine that there aren't going to be civilian casualties and that it could be a significant number. But I think we just need to not be jumping to conclusions here while the city is still being fought over.
Q: And secondly, Jake Sullivan, over the weekend talked about the new Russian general to sort of lead the war effort. Is that in any way a sign that President Putin has accepted that it's not going well and he sort of needs to readjust in some way, shape or form?
MR. KIRBY: I don't think Mr. Putin needs many signs that it hasn't been going well for him in Ukraine. I mean, here we are, day 46, and again, he failed to achieve so many of his geographic and strategic objectives inside Ukraine. So, they're repositioning. They're refocusing on the Donbas. I'll let them speak to their personnel announcements.
But it wouldn't surprise anybody that they're trying to organize themselves better for a now more-geographically-confined and more-specific set of target objectives now in the Donbas specifically and in the south.
What I would just hasten to offer, is that the Ukrainians have been for eight years, and still are, fighting over that. That's still part of Ukraine and they show no signs of being willing to give that territory up, nor should they.
And so, we'll have to see, you know, how this plays out. But whatever the Russian plans are, whatever their goals for this new commander are, they're still going to have to reckon with a very stiff, very effective, very capable and quite frankly, I've used this word before, but very nimble Ukrainian defense.
Let me go to the phones just a little bit and we'll just keep working around. Barbara, I think you're online today?
Q: Yes, hi. I do want to follow-up on the general if I may. Is there -- he's obviously is someone known to the U.S. military from his operations in Syria and then the destruction of Aleppo.
What can you tell people, if anything at all, about his track record in having a disregard for civilian casualties? And then I wanted to follow-up on the next round of security assistance if I may.
MR. KIRBY: Look, I'm not going to detail his biographic details or his -- or pretend to think that we know perfectly how this particular general intends to lead. I would say this -- he and other senior Russian leaders have shown in the past, and you mention Syria as one example, have shown clearly in the past their disregard for avoiding civilian harm.
Their utter disregard in many ways for the laws of war, laws of armed conflict, and the brutality with which their conduct and prosecute their operations. There's a track record here, before Ukraine, of Russian brutality. And you've seen it on display every single day of the last 46 days, the brutality that the Russians are capable of.
We're seeing it today, as you and I are talking here, you can see it today. So, I think sadly we can all expect that those same brutal tactics, that same disregard for civilian life and civilian infrastructure will probably continue as they now focus in a more geographically-confined area in the Donbas.
You heard the chairman talk about this at testimony last week, that it was his assessment and we believe he's right, that this could auger in for a more protracted and a very bloody next phase here of this conflict.
And I don't know -- I wouldn't pretend to say that we know for certain that this new general is going to be the author of some new additional and more bloody tactics, but we can certainly say by what we've seen in the past that we are -- we're probably turning another page in the same book of Russian brutality.
And again, I'll say it, I know you get tired of me saying it, but I'll say it again. This war could end today. Mr. Putin could do the right thing now. He could sit down in good faith with President Zelenskyy immediately and this war could end.
He had diplomatic options on the table, he chose to ignore them. And here we are, day 46. He has not achieved the strategic objectives that he wanted to achieve. This is the perfect opportunity for him to negotiate in good faith with President Zelenskyy and the war.
Q: Okay, very quick, can I follow up security assistance, if I may?
As you shift into the south and the -- as Ukraine shifts into the south and the east in newer, heavy-rounded combat, and you look at security assistance, can you -- how do you -- what your best thought, the U.S.'s best thought about how to get artillery, armor, long-range air defense, all the things that you've said they need for that arena to them, when they do not have U.S. versions in their current inventory and they need things quickly that they can take advantage of and use? Can you help people understand the next round of security assistance?
MR. KIRBY: Well, we are working very, very hard every single day to continue to get security assistance to the Ukrainians. I mean, you know, 8 to 10 flights a day are coming into the region, not just from the United States, but from other nations as well. And that stuff isn't sitting around, Barbara. It gets to these trans-shipment sites. They're put onto trucks, and they're moved into Ukraine very, very quickly.
In some cases stuff coming from the United States takes no more than four to six days from the time the president authorizes drawdown authority to it gets into the hands of the Ukrainians. That's an incredible rate of speed, and we aren't slowing down.
Regardless of the Russian refocus on the Donbas we're not slowing down. That stuff continues to move. It's going to continue to move. We've said as much as we can as fast as we can, and we made it. And the reprioritization of the Russians on the east hasn't had an effect on our ability to help coordinate the delivery of massive amounts of security assistance from the United States and other nations into Ukraine. That flow still continues.
Q: Sorry. My question's been answered if you hear me. My question's been answered. Thanks.
MR. KIRBY: Well, thanks, Court. Go ahead, Sylvie.
Q: You said that the fighting is continuing in Mariupol, but the pro-Russian troops in this region just said this morning that they took the port. And the Ukrainian Army said that are still in Mariupol, said that they don't have any more ammunitions. So do you -- is it your assessment that Mariupol is falling?
MR. KIRBY: I told you our assessment as of this morning was that the city was still being fought over. I don't have more up-to-date information than that, and that -- and nothing of what you just read out to me necessarily disputes our assessment this morning that it's still being fought over. Yes?
Q: I'm wondering about the -- in what we've seen like in Bucha the possibility that the Russians have executed captives. I'm wondering if there's some concern that this could change international norms or put U.S. troops in some danger in the future that some other nation may see Russia acting in this way and that if U.S. troops are taken captive that they may be treated in the same way. Is there any concern that Russia's actions could, you know, endanger U.S. troops in that way or change the international norms?
MR. KIRBY: Look, I would just say that our expectations are that prisoners of war are going to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law, period. That's the way it needs to be, and we've been -- you know, we've been very open about that.
Q: Have there been any developments in -- had DOD been helping in any specific way now with the effort to kind of collect the data and what the Russians have actually done and maybe charge Russians in the future?
MR. KIRBY: I would just say in general because we're not going to talk about everything specifically that we're doing as part of the interagency effort here of the United States government, but in general we'll pitch in and do our part to try to help with the collection of evidence of the war -- of war crimes being conducted for use in investigative procedures going forward. I mean, we're focused on doing what we can to help document that.
It's also fairly transparent for the world to see the -- again, the brutality and the war crimes that Russian forces are conducting.
Q: Can you say at all what DOD has done and any example or anything? Like satellite imagery or anything like that?
MR. KIRBY: No. I'm not going to get into that. I mean, but we are helping to collect the evidence and document things. Some of that will be through open source imagery as well, but I won't go into more detail than that. Yes?
Q: Today China's Foreign Ministry confirmed that it had sent a large supply -- military supplies into Serbia over the weekend. It didn't detail exactly what were in the shipments but that it was multiple shipments, and that they also claimed -- China is claiming that it had nothing to do with the current situation on the ground in Ukraine. Is that also the U.S. assessment? Is there any fear of what China might be doing here?
MR. KIRBY: We can't confirm those reports. I've see the press reports, but we're not in a position to confirm that idea that China might be sending systems into Serbia, so it'd be difficult since I can't confirm it for me to speculate as to what the purpose might be.
Q: They confirmed it. The Chinese admitted they were the ones that said it. I'm just curious, though, is there any concern with them sending weapons into Serbia?
MR. KIRBY: Look, I mean we would certainly not want to see anything flow in that could be of an advantage to the Russians, okay? Mike?
Q: Yes, Mike. Is there still confidence -- go back to the India thing, is there still confidence that India can remain a defense partner in the Indo-Pacific region when their actions in regard to Russia and the invasion of Ukraine are so at odds which much of the rest of the world?
MR. KIRBY: Look, I think I said it right at the top, and you'll hear it later this afternoon. We have a strong defense partnership with India, and we are going to continue to look for ways to deepen that defense partnership. India is an important partner in the region, in the Indo-Pacific region, and we're going to continue to look for ways to improve that partnership.
And India should be able to speak for their own national policies with respect to what's going on in Russia and Ukraine. We've been very honest about where we are on this and the actions we're taking and the things that we're doing, but the other things that we're doing are looking for ways to make sure we deepen that partnership with India. David?
Q: How would a Chinese military shipment to Serbia help the Russians?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not saying that it would, David. I'm not confirming it. I'm just saying that if that's the intent, if it's some sort of potential option of getting assistance to Russia, obviously we would not consider that helpful, but I'm not confirming that it happened, and I'm not -- and as I said before, I'm not confirming what their intent is.
Q: Have you seen any evidence that China has provided any support -- any military support for Russia and the Ukraine?
MR. KIRBY: No. Let's see. Jeff Schogol.
Q: Thank you. The Defense Department says it has shipped hundreds of switchblade drones to Ukraine. Is it possible do you have a rough number? 200, 300?
MR. KIRBY: I’ll leave it at hundreds, Jeff.
Q: How many hundreds?
MR. KIRBY: There's hundreds have been committed. That doesn't necessarily mean hundreds have been shipped. We know that 100 have been shipped, and they are in the region.
Heather from USNI?
Q: Thank you so much.
So I know these – that the senior defense official earlier said there was no maritime updates, but I was wondering if you have any information about the dozens of naval ships in the Black Sea and if there's any anti-mining activities going on near Odesa?
MR. KIRBY: I don't know of anti-mining activities near Odesa. We know that there have been mines in the waters off Odesa, but I'm not sure of any anti-mining efforts. You're -- I think you're probably talking about Russian minesweeping, and I just -- I can't readout Russian naval activity with any great level of specificity.
They still have roughly a couple dozen or so ships in the Black Sea in the Sea of Azov. We think a large part of their focus is replenishment and resupply. Again, that follows suit to what we've been talking about coming out of the north. This is yet another convoy, but we also think that from the south they want to use some of their naval vessels to help resupply and restock their forces in the south -- to the south of the Donbas.
Q: Sorry if I missed this. Is there any attribution on the strike in Syria the other day?
MR. KIRBY: No, not yet.
Q: Is that something that you expect to have at some point?
MR. KIRBY: I think at some point we'll probably be able to get into more detail on that, Gordon, but we're still working with our Iraqi partners on that. No specific attribution.
I mean, these things are of a piece, though, of the kinds of activities we've seen out of militia groups in the past, militia groups that are backed by Iran. But I don't want to get ahead of where the investigation is.
Q: Yeah, can you confirm the journalist report that the USAREUR commander is going to be the next SACEUR in NATO?
MR. KIRBY: I have no personnel announcements to speak to or decisions to speak to today.
Okay, thanks, everybody.