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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing, April 12, 2022

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Yes, I'm not Kirby-late today. Wow! I knew I'd be facing your wicked stare-down, so I don't want to get the stink eye from Meghann.

All right, nothing much at the top except just to let you know that the secretary had a chance this morning to speak with the Ukrainian minister of defense, Minister Reznikov. This follows a constant dialogue and conversation that the secretary has with the minister. They talked about all the things that the United States is doing to help Ukraine defend itself. Minister Reznikov thanked the secretary for that support and offered his assessment of the situation on the ground, as you might expect. Secretary Austin highlighted, again, our ongoing efforts to deliver security assistance to Ukraine, as much as we can and as fast as we can, and our commitment to meet Ukraine's most urgent needs and evolving battlefield requirements. And obviously, all this is done in the context of what we continue see as Russia's re-prioritization of the east and the south. And of course, the secretary talked about our coordination efforts with other allies and partners. We'll have a full readout of the meeting a little bit later, probably before the briefing is over.

With that, we'll take questions. I don't see Bob or Lita, so okay. Idrees?

Q: Two quick questions. There were some social media reports about some equipment moving to the border, Russia's border with Finland. Have you seen anything? Any buildup? And secondly, on Mariupol, it does increasingly seem like it will fall at some point, and I was just curious. Is this sort of narrative being built up in Russia, that if Mariupol is taken by the Russians, it would be a massive success and it would change the tide of the war, and then they could refocus back on the west again? And I was just curious how your assessment is if Mariupol, not if, when Mariupol falls, what that would mean.

MR. KIRBY: Well, first of all, I don't think anybody here is ready to be fatalistic about what happens in Mariupol. But to your first question, no, I have not seen anything to confirm social media reports about Russian equipment, weapons or systems or forces near Finland.

Our assessment today is that Mariupol is still contested, and that the Ukrainians are still fighting to defend Mariupol from a Russian seizure of it. You've seen the images yourself. You've seen the devastation that Russian airstrikes have wrought on Mariupol and the city, but our assessment is that the Ukrainians are still fighting for it.

And look, it's obvious that the Russians want Mariupol because of its strategic location there at the south of that Donbas area and right on the Sea of Azov. It's a major port city, one; two, it would provide them unfettered and unhindered land access between the Donbas and Crimea; and three, because it's to the south of the Donbas area. If, in fact, what they say is true, that they want to secure for themselves that Donbas area, they claim is, you know, predominantly basically Russian provinces, then Mariupol, from a geographic perspective, you can understand why that would be important to them in terms of their efforts in the Donbas.

So it has significance on many levels. It also has great significance to the Ukrainian people because of what it represents to their economic lifeblood, and because it is their city and it's part of their country and they haven't given up on it, and we're not giving up on them, either.

Sylvie?

Q: Can you confirm that some of the U.S. Marines who participated in some exercise in Norway recently stayed in Europe? Can you tell us how many and where did they --

MR. KIRBY: We already talked about this, Sylvie. Yeah, there was a Marine exercise in Norway, Cold Response, and most of the Marine units that participated did redeploy back home, but I announced this last week. We kept some headquarters elements and we kept some F-18 strike fighter aircraft, you know, a few, half a dozen or so -- kept them in the region, so --

Q: (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY: We've already talked about this. Nothing new.

Q: Yeah, it was on the eastern flank, or did you keep them (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I'd have to go back and look exactly where they went, but it was, I think they were largely, we were going to reposition them or redeploy them into the Baltic region, but we can get you a better answer on that. I don't have their exact locations with me today, but this is not new. This is something we talked about at the end of the exercise. Yeah.

Tara?

Q: Thanks, John. I wanted to follow up on Idrees' question. To the extent that you can, why do you think that Mariupol is potentially in danger of falling, where Kyiv held? And was the Pentagon ever able to get weapons to Mariupol much like it was able to get fortified defenses to Kyiv in time?

MR. KIRBY: Were we able to get --

Q: Was the U.S. able to -- any of the weapons shipments that went in, the security assistance, did (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY: We don't designate where the Ukrainians use the systems that they're getting from us and from many other nations. We get them into Ukraine. The Ukrainian Armed Forces literally drive them in, and where they drive them to and how they're applied, that's up to Ukrainian Armed Forces. We don't get to decide and we don't dictate where our security assistance is used. That's really up to the Ukrainians. So I can't answer that question. Only the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense could answer the question about how much security assistance that were provided to them is and has been used in Mariupol.

And look, I mean, I can't speak with great specificity as to why they had a harder time in Kyiv than they appear to be having in Mariupol. They are two different cities, two different geographies, two different levels of effort by the Russians and by the Ukrainians. The point is, it is a strategic city for the Ukrainians too, and they continue to fight over it. And, again, we continue to maintain that it's contested.

Yes.

Q: A senior defense official today said the U.S. provides useful information to Ukrainians to defend themselves. Ukrainians are --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I've said that myself.

Q: And Ukrainians are massing tanks and artillery to east, to Donbas area. We saw them in the previous six weeks, they have waged a successful insurgency against Russians, but now they are going to a conventional phase -- a phase kind of fight against Russia. Do you think it's logical or wise militarily to go against Russians in terms -- like a conventional -- in a conventional operation?

MR. KIRBY: You're asking me to give a report card to your assessment of the Ukrainian military strategy, I'm not going to do that. And we're not going to talk about how the Ukrainians are deploying or using their forces or the systems and security assistance that they've been getting. That's for them to decide and for them to speak to if and when they are ready to speak to it.

They continue to fight bravely for their country. We continue to try to support their efforts to do that through truly an unprecedented level of speed. And that's what we're going to focus on.

Q: Also, of course I know that Ukrainians are taking care of the security assistance that you are providing. Do you track if the security assistance actually provided is being transferred to the east and is it not kind of (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, we get the stuff into Ukrainian hands, and we know that's happening. Minister Reznikov confirmed that again today. It belongs to them at that point. And where they decide to employ it, how they employ it, with what units they provide it, that is a Ukrainian decision to make. We respect, of course, their right and their responsibility to manage that assistance the way they see fit. It's up to them to decide.

Yes, in the back there. Sorry, who are you?

Q: Valerie Insinna with Breaking Defense.

MR. KIRBY: Oh, hey, hi.

Q: Hi. Nice to see you. Sorry to take focus away from Europe, but (inaudible), the Japanese newspaper, is reporting that the U.S., U.K., and Australia have informally asked Japan to become part of AUKUS. Can you confirm that report at all?

MR. KIRBY: I cannot. First I've heard of it.

Q: Okay. Then, if I could ask about Europe. Slovakia is considering giving its MiG-29s to Ukraine. Is there any talks within the U.S. about potentially speeding up the delivery of its F-16s to Slovakia?

MR. KIRBY: I have heard some reports about this potential Slovakian decision. I don't -- we don't have anything on that. Certainly we would refer you the government there in Bratislava to speak to that. That's really -- again, if that's true, that's a decision that only they can speak to. And I'm not aware of any discussions about accelerating F-16 sales as a result of this. I mean, I just -- I don't have anything on that, I'm sorry.

Barbara Starr?

Q: I wanted to follow up on your statement last night about reports of chemical munition use by the Russians in Mariupol. And you said in that statement that you've had, the U.S. has had, concerns about Russia potentially mixing riot control agents, tear gas, with chemical agents.

Can you give us a bit more of the U.S. assessment on that? Is this something, you know, relatively new that you have been tracking since the invasion and all the aggressive action by Russia, is this more something that you've been seeing for some time? Can you give us some context and perspective on this nation that they may be mixing up their own version of chemical agents?

MR. KIRBY: Well, look, I think as you know, we have tried to share with you intelligence that we see and that we feel that we can and we should make public. And this is something we have had justified reason to be concerned about that in the prosecution of this war that this could be a tactic they might employ, which is to try to mask a potential more serious chemical attack with riot control agents.

Again, it comes from a mosaic of information we’ve gleaned. It's related more toward what is unfolding in Ukraine rather than some, you know, long historical practice. Although I would add that the Russians have certainly proven more than willing to use chemical weapons when it suited them in the past.

This is a military that has a history here. But it's more related to what we've been picking up in terms of the invasion of Ukraine. I want to add though, Barb, as I also said in that statement last night that we cannot confirm these reports that have been emanating on social media about the use of potential chemical agents through, I think the social media reporting was through the use of a drone or something like that.

We just are not able to confirm it. We're obviously taking it seriously and we're monitoring it, we're trying to do the best we can to figure out what, if anything, happened. But we're not in a position to confirm it right now.

Q: Okay. Thank you.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the botched U.S. air strike in August in Kabul that killed 10 Afghans, including children. You had said before that it was the DoD’s intention to compensate family members or potentially bring them to the United States and we haven't gotten any kind of substantial update on that for months.

Should we assume at this point that those efforts have failed?

MR. KIRBY: No. 

Carla?

Q: If I could follow up. And obviously the Secretary of Defense has initiated this review of policies on civilian casualties. Are these types of efforts to pay victims or family members of victims, is that going to be part of this review process and is DOD looking to come up with a better way that allows it to make these types of payments? Because obviously you're going to be --

MR. KIRBY: You're talking about the ex gratia payments. I mean look, as you know, we do have a process in place now. The Secretary stood up a civilian harm and mitigation response program. They're going to look at the panoply of things that we do or don't do as well as we should to avoid civilian harm.

And I don't know to what degree they're going to look at the value of ex gratia payments but I would certainly think that that would factor into their decision making in terms of lessons learned and what maybe we need to do better or do more of or do less of. I don't know.

So I would say yes, in terms of the umbrella of things that that group's going to look at, ex gratia payments will probably be a part of that, but they're just now starting their work. 

Interestingly -- I mean I'm actually glad you asked the question because it is still relevant to us.And for a lot of reasons, not just about what happened at the end of August, and no we don't have an update on the Ahmadi family, but I can tell you we haven't given up on this idea of trying to get them back to the United States and certainly do right by them financially. That process is still working and we're very actively going after that. I know there’s not a lot of progress to show you right now but it doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of work being done. That's a difference right there between the United States and a country like Russia.

We actually take it seriously. We actually morn the deaths that we cause and while we're not perfect in terms of how we've investigated them or how we've talked about them, we do investigate them and we do talk about them.

Sometimes we have to be driven to a better answer, sometimes by media coverage. But at least we stand up here and we take the questions about it. It matters to us and we actually do want to get better at it and we acknowledge that we're not always perfect when it comes to civilian casualties. Lots of chinks in our armor and we admit that. What do you hear out of the Russians today? What do you hear out of Moscow? What do you hear out of Putin just last night- ‘it's the west.’ We're throwing bodies on the street and making it look like it was an attack by the Russians. No acknowledgment that they have caused a single civilian death.

And certainly no remorse, certainly no talk about investigating it or owning up to it or making right by it or trying to learn lessons from it. That's a big difference here. And unfortunately it's the people of Ukraine that are paying the price for Russia’s complete disregard for the right of innocent civilians to live their lives freely without having to worry about being killed. 

Carla?

Q: Thank you. I just want to follow up on what Barbara was asking about but not specifically to Mariupol because I know you can't confirm the chemical weapons attack so I don't want to do a hypothetical but just if you could give us some understanding in general of the considerations that the administration is taking in preparing for a response to a chemical weapons attack.

Like can you tell me if the scale of the attack is going to determine that or if it's going to be the type of chemical agent used? What are some of the thought processes that you guys are going through when you weigh response to a chemical attack?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, it won’t surprise you Carla that I'm not going to get ahead of where things are right now. We're reviewing this. We're doing the best we can to analyze it. We don't have a definitive conclusion one way or another and I think we just need to talk about where things are and now where things might be in the future.

The president has been very clear and he's talked about this on numerous occasions, as has Secretary Austin, that the use of bio or chemical weapons against the people of Ukraine would elicit a response not just from the United States but from the international community.

What that response would like from us or from anybody else, we just don't know right now and I don't think it'd be helpful for us to try to get ahead of where we are right at this moment. Okay.

I know it's not a great satisfying answer but it's a truthful one.

Meghann.

Q: A Virginia law maker announced he was going to resign today over some comments he made on Facebook recently, some really horrifically racist comments he made about the secretary.

MR. KIRBY: I'm aware of them.

Q: Does the secretary have any response to that situation or to his resignation or to having to field those comments while he's trying to work on diversity and inclusion initiatives here?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I think where I'd put this is just the secretary is very proud of his service to the country, proud of his ability as an American to go to West Point, to become an Army officer, to serve this country in combat for much of the last 10 years and he's certainly very, very proud of his ability to lead the department here as Secretary of Defense.

People matter greatly to him. I've known the man for 15 years. Everybody matters to him. No matter who you are, no matter where you came from, no matter what your background is, he believes that if you're qualified and you want to serve this country you should be able to do it. And you should be able to do it without fear of discrimination or harassment.

And in his view, there's no place in the Department of Defense for comments like that, for the actions that come from comments like that. And that's why he's working and continues to work so hard to continue to improve the readiness of the force, which he believes is directly tied to our diversity, that that's a part of who we are. It's one of them things that makes this military so great.

And so, even in light of those truly irresponsible, mean-spirited, indeed wicked comments, he's going to be focused on leading the department forward and trying to continue to set an example going forward. That's where his head is.

Yes? I already got you. No, I can get you later.

Heather?

Q: Thank you so much.

I was wondering if you could talk about the maritime affects on Mariupol; if you're seeing any strikes coming in from ships in the sea as they continue to bombard Mariupol.

MR. KIRBY: Look, I don't have perfect knowledge of every missile or long-range fire that the Russians are firing into Mariupol. It continues to be under attack from air strikes. We have seen that the Russians have focused a lot of their air strikes on Mariupol and on the Donbas area. That's where the preponderance of their air activity seems to be centered.

We have seen, in the past, Heather, I can't speak for like, you know, today but we have seen in recent days and weeks the Russians using their surface combatants in the Sea of Azov to fire cruise missiles onto shore. But, I couldn't tell you how many have landed, you know, in Mariupol or what the specific targets were.

But it has been their practice to supplement their air strike activity with cruise missiles fired from surface combatants at sea.

Yes, Goyal?

Q: Thank you.

There's two questions and one on India and one on Pakistan. As (inaudible) India concerned that U.S. India relations are (inaudible) just had 2-plus-2.

MR. KIRBY: Yes we did, yesterday.

Q: Defense ministers and foreign ministers of India were here and met with Secretary Lloyd Austin and also Secretary Blinken. So, is there any breakthrough as far as the U.S.-India military-to-military relations are concerned because after the Ukraine, what India wanted clearly (inaudible) at the U.N.?

MR. KIRBY: All the ministers had a chance to summarize the visit yesterday, the meeting. And I'd point you more specifically to the transcript of the press conference, because they all talked about the things that they talked about.

The secretary was very proud to announce that we signed a new space situational awareness agreement with India just yesterday. He had a chance to talk to the defense minister, Defense Minister Singh about advanced capabilities and technologies, working with them on A.I. for instance and 5G and space and cyber capabilities. All that was part of it.

I'll leave it to you to decide whether those are ‘breakthroughs’ or not. But, clearly what we saw yesterday was more concrete examples of the ways we're going to continue to work with India to strengthen this defense partnership.

And you heard the foreign minister speak for his country’s views and policies with respect to Ukraine. I'd leave it at that and point you to the transcript on that. I think he was very candid about their own concern about the conflict going on in Ukraine.

Q: And, John, any new agreement as far as the military-to-military with India yesterday? And also if Secretary of Defense is going soon to India?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any travel to announce today, Goyal.

But in terms of specific military-to-military agreements, again, take a look at the space situational awareness agreement that we signed just yesterday. So, yes, there was something new yesterday and it was that agreement and the secretary talked about that. And we're very proud of it and looking forward to working on space situational awareness with India going forward.

Q: And, John, as far as crisis in Pakistan, are you concerned now about Pakistan having a new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, of course, the brother of ousted prime minister Mr. Sharif? And former prime minister Imran Khan, until the end of his ouster by the parliament, was blaming U.S. and the U.S. military for his ouster. My question is, is anybody in touch with the military-to-military in Pakistan at all as far as his claims that the U.S. is responsible for his ouster? And now the future of the U.S.-Pakistan relation under the new leadership?

MR. KIRBY: I think you can understand that we're not going to comment about domestic politics inside Pakistan, Goyal.

I don't have any conversations with the new prime minister or his government to speak to today. I mean, this obviously all just happened.

We recognize that Pakistan plays a key role in the region. We recognize that Pakistan and the Pakistani people are, themselves, victims of terrorist attacks inside their own country. We recognize that we have shared interests with Pakistan with respect to security and stability in that part of the world. And we do have a healthy military-to-military relationship with Pakistani armed forces. And we have every expectation that that will be able to continue to be the case.

Q: And John, finally, because a crisis is still going on in the streets that deals with the former prime minister and also with his very large crowd of supporters and the military may intervene because of those things going on, is U.S. ready in any case if something like this happens in Pakistan?

MR. KIRBY: I don't foresee any U.S. military role here. And I'm certainly not going to, again, wade into internal domestic politics in Pakistan.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes?

Q: Thanks. 

MR. KIRBY: Hey.

Q: Hey, it's good to see you.

MR. KIRBY: Long time.

Q: Yes. How much have DOD stocks of Switchblade drones been drawn down as a result of the security assistance to Ukraine? And what plans are in place to replace those?

MR. KIRBY: As I have with other systems, I'm not going to get into quantifying the impact on our stocks. I would just tell you that this is something we're watching every day and the secretary's comfortable that our own readiness, across all the systems that we're providing to Ukraine, our own readiness has not been hampered.

This was not a system that we had bought in large quantities. I will just go so far as to say that.

But those first 100 have been shipped. The vast majority -- I shouldn't say vast majority. A significant number of those first 100 we know have gotten into Ukraine. I suspect the rest of it will not take very long.

And I'm not going to get ahead of the potential for additional drawdown packages, but again, President Biden's been clear, we're going to continue to look for ways to help Ukraine defend itself, so I certainly wouldn't rule out additional shipments of those kinds of systems in the future. 

Q: Is DOD planning to buy more of those to replenish its own stocks? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, again, I'm not going to get into replenishment issues or supply issues on our own. I mean, obviously we will do what we need to do to (A) help Ukraine continue to defend itself with systems we know that they can use, or will use, or are using and make sure that our own readiness also can be preserved across those systems as well. 

Yes, Ryo?

Q: Thank you. 

I want to follow up about the U.S.-India 2+2 meeting. Secretary said yesterday...

MR. KIRBY: But you got a question yesterday...

Q: OK, but I have a follow-up now. Yes, the secretary said yesterday the U.S. will consider a range of options to make the U.S. systems, U.S. military equipment more affordable. Could you tell us a little bit of specifics about what systems the U.S. military has in his mind and how the U.S. will make it more affordable? 

MR. KIRBY: No, and no. I think we're going to have these conversations with India going forward. I'm not going to get more specific than the secretary was yesterday. What matters here, Ryo, is that we have an important defense partnership with India and we're going to look for ways to continue to improve that going forward. 

But I'm not prepared to speak to specific systems or affordability at this time. We are committed to India's modernization needs, their efforts to build, and to field a more modern military, we're committed to helping them do that. 

Q: A quick follow up, so do you consider acquiring the U.S. missile defense system to India for affordable price to encourage India to...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I think I'm just going to leave it where we did yesterday, Ryo. Yes. 

Q: We just got the readout of the call, it did go out, and...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Excellent. I told you it would come out while we're in the briefing. 

Q: You were right, yes sir. And it says that the minister was able to share his assessment of the situation on the ground...

MR. KIRBY: Which I said in my topper.

Yes sir. 

Q: But I'm just curious, did he also share any assessment about how Ukraine's fighting forces are continuing to do? There's been so much focus on the equipment that's been sent in, are the forces - are they still able to go in with the same strength that they had at the beginning of the war? Has there been any concerns that this fight - they won't have the same manpower they did at the beginning? 

MR. KIRBY: Well look, no question they've taken losses. Losses to troops, losses to systems and capabilities. There's no question, I mean, this is war. The Russians too have taken not insignificant losses, but I don't want to get into more detail than the readout in terms of the discussion. 

But yes, of course Minister Reznikov gave the secretary his assessment of the situation there, and of, just in general terms, how Ukrainians are responding themselves to this new focus by the Russians on the Donbas and in the south. So the short answer to your question is yes, that was part of the discussion. 

But I would just like to remind that, and you certainly can't make up for the loss of a soldier or an individual civilian, so many innocent people have been killed, you can't replace that, you can't make up for that. And we grieve along with the families that are effected by those losses. But in many, many cases you can help make up for inventory losses either though usage, or damage, or strikes by Russians - you can make up, and we are every single day. 

There are more weapons and more systems flowing into Ukraine, and they’re the kinds of weapons and systems that we know they're using. Minister Reznikov reinforced that again today, it’s the kinds of things that they know how to use, or if they don't, like the switchblade, we're getting them what they need to know to use that. It's not a very complicated system, but we're getting them there as fast as we can so that they can replenish and can stay in the fight, and they have stayed in the fight. 

I mean, I understand we're, as we should be, rightly focused on what's happening in the Donbas and in the south, but let's remember where we were just a few days ago when it wasn't clear whether the Russians were really going to give up the efforts to take Chernihiv, and Kyiv, and Lviv and they have - and that's not by accident. That's not just due to the fact that the Russians failed on their own accord, and they did. 

It's also due to the what the Ukrainians were able to do to defend their country, to defend their capital, to push back on the Russian advance, even attacking them as they were retreating. That too wasn't an accident, that was borne out from eight years of good training from the United States, and the U.K. and other allies, and the security assistance that they're getting. So while certainly they are expending resources, we are doing the best we can to fill those coffers back up as fast as we can. 

OK, thanks everybody. Got to go.