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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing, April 18, 2022

April 18, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Hey, good morning, everybody. I hope everybody had a good holiday weekend.

Sorry we're starting a little bit late this morning but been -- been a crowded day from -- for -- for me, Senior Defense Official, as before.

We're on day four -- 54 now. More than 660 missile launches since the start of the invasion. Not a whole lot of major changes to speak to since last time we talked on -- on Thursday.

In terms of total battalion tactical groups that we would assess are inside Ukraine, they're up to 76. So I know that's one of the first questions that was going to get asked, was have we seen more reinforcements in the east, and the short answer is yes, they have added, since last time you and I talked, about 11 battalion tactical groups.

Now look, I don't know where all them -- all -- all of them are, I can't tell you they're all in the Donbas, but all the Russian forces are in the east or in the south. That is where they -- they're -- physically have ground forces. But exactly how those 11 are spread out, I couldn't begin to tell you, but they have added to their capability inside Ukraine.

We have seen -- well, let me just start geographically. So around Kharkiv, we do see continued bombing in the vicinity of Kharkiv as Russian forces continue to blockade the city. We have seen fighting to the south and the southeast of Izyum, as we did last week. So that -- that is unchanged.

Our assessment in -- is Mariupol is still contested, the Ukrainians continue to -- to push back on Russian forces that are in the city, and certainly Mariupol remains under threat from the air, both from -- from missile strikes as well as bombs from the air but even, you know, of course, artillery.

Again, in the JFO, the heaviest fighting is -- is really -- that we've seen is around Donetsk and a town called Popasna. This -- this is -- this is where there -- there's a focus on artillery and -- and -- and airstrikes. So there's -- there's quite a bit of active fighting in -- in those areas.

I would remind you that the Donbas has never not been without active fighting, even over the last eight years and certainly since this invasion, but that's where we're seeing that -- that and -- and fighting around Izyum. In terms of the Donbas areas, those are very active areas right now. Mykolaiv down in the south has been now subject for the last several days to bombardment. Things had been quiet there for a while but we have seen now some -- some -- some strikes there, airstrikes and artillery.

I know you -- you may ask about the -- the -- the imagery and social media about the Moskva, on the -- the -- the ship burning. We've -- we've seen that video, we can't independently verify the -- the -- the -- those images, but the -- the images themselves comport with what we had assessed to be the damage done to this ship.

And then I know you've all seen the video of the -- of the crew -- the surviving crew of the Moskva. We -- we can't actually verify that that -- that that -- that that's who they are or even the date that that video was -- was taken. So we -- we can't tell you how many survivors there were or how many sailors fell casualty to -- to the ship sinking. We just -- we just don't know.

In -- in the air, we have -- since -- since the -- we've seen that Russia -- Russian long range aviation bombers have executed long range air launch cruise missile strikes on both Kyiv and Lviv over the last couple of days.

The -- the -- you know, we -- we don't know everything that was targeted or what the total damage was but our initial assessment is that they were going after -- they were going after primarily military targets or what they believed to be military targets, whether that's ammunition or -- or -- or hubs.

The Russians were -- over the last 24 hours, were flying a little bit more than 200 sorties. So again, not totally all that different than what we've seen in the past. Again, heavy airstrikes in Mariupol.

In the maritime environment, we still assess that the Russian Navy is maintaining a standoff distance from Odesa, not getting very close in the wake of the Moskva's sinking, and there's -- the -- the -- the Ukrainians have reported that they believe that Russia is making preparations to land Marines -- Russian Marines in the vicinity of Mariupol. We can't -- we -- we can't confirm that independently but we're certainly not in a position to -- to dispute it. They do have some amphibious capability certainly in -- in the Black Sea and in the -- in -- in the Sea of Azov. So it's -- it's certainly within the -- certainly within the realm of the possible there.

Let's see if I'm -- yeah, they could -- they've -- they've got -- based on what we can see this morning, they've got at least one LST, a tank landing ship in the Sea of Azov, but they certainly have others in the Black Sea. So we'll -- we haven't seen any movement on that, but it's -- the Ukrainians have been talking about that.

Just in terms of security assistance flow, based on the last $800 million that the president authorized, this was -- that we just announced last week, already there have been four flights from the United States arriving into the theater just yesterday with a various amount of equipment.

I am not going to detail every flight for you and what's on it. We're just not going to -- haven't done that and we're not going to start, but four flights have arrived in the region from the United States, and over the next 24 hours we believe that another one will arrive, so that will be five flights in almost as many days since that $800 -- $800 million, sorry, was announced.

And I think that's it. We'll go to questions. Bob?

Q: Thank you. Regarding the Russians, Russians appear to have or at least claiming that they have accelerated, expanded their airstrikes across the country. Does it look like they are setting the stage for imminent renewal and expansion of the ground defensive in Donbas or is there a connection there or are you seeing that developing? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think, Bob, as most of the airstrike activity and artillery continues to be in the east focused on the Donbas, Mariupol in particular. We did see some strikes in Kyiv and Lviv over the last 24 hours or so, but they were I would say by exception, and we're not seeing a lot of other airstrike activity elsewhere in Ukraine. Almost all the airstrike and artillery action is in the Donbas or in the south by Mariupol.

So it's difficult to say that that's some sort of sign that, you know, that there's an imminence here. We still believe that the Russians are doing a fair amount of shaping. They're still moving in command and control, artillery, other enablers into the Donbas. And as I've said since the last time we've talked, you know, they've increased their footprint by another 11 BTGs in Ukraine. Again, I don't know where all of them are, but all of their troops are in the east or in the south.

The other thing to remembers is that they've got quite a bit of ground forces in and around Mariupol because they're still fighting for Mariupol. And so, you know, should Mariupol fall to the Russians that would free up, you know, another almost a dozen battalion tactical groups to be used elsewhere in the east and in the south. That's a big if because the Ukrainians are still fighting very, very hard for Mariupol, but that's another source of manpower that they could use should it come to that.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes. Howard Altman?

Q: Yes, thanks. Ukraine claims that economic sanctions are having a crippling effect on Russia's ability to resupply its war effort. Are you seeing any evidence of that? And if so, what?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think right now the -- I want to be careful here even on background, but there has been an affect on Putin's ability to restock and resupply particularly in the -- in the realm of components to some of his systems and his precision-guided munitions. I think that's about as far as I'm willing to go, but they've already had -- they've already faced an issue in terms of replenishing their inventories because of components to some of those systems, and that's already had a practical effect on Putin.

The other thing that we, you know, we know that they -- that they're working through their own supply efforts and I should say the replenishment efforts with their own defense contracting process, and that that -- that the -- that they have concerns about how fast and how much they can ramp up their own domestic production of defense articles and that the -- the sanctions are having an affect on their ability to do that.

Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you, and I'll caveat this by saying I haven't seen where the source of this claim, but I saw on Twitter over the weekend claims that when the Moskva sank it had nuclear weapons aboard. Is this something -- can the Defense Department say whether it has any indications that the Moskva had nuclear weapons on board when it went down?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Jeff, we have no indications that there were nuclear weapons on board the Moskva when it went down.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes. Pierre?

Q: (inaudible), on one of the maps by the -- we can see that there is an area west of Mariupol, north of a city called Berdyans'k, but it is an area where you could see that the Ukrainians are occupying and area but they seem to be like seized or surrounded by Russians. Do you have any comments on this? Are they really in bad shape in this area?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Berdyans'k is down the coast from Mariupol. We have -- I'm not -- you know, we long ago assessed that Berdyans'k was largely in Russian control. I don't know how many -- if any I don't know how many Ukrainian troops would be there, and I just don't have that level of detail, Pierre, but Berdyans'k was -- as you know it was when they conducted their first amphibious landing several weeks ago they landed to the southeast of -- I'm sorry, southwest of Berdyans'k and moved upward the coast and took Berdyans'k on their way to Mariupol. We have assessed it in Russian control for quite some time.

Q: I do understand this, (inaudible), if you don't mind. What I'm trying to say is that there is an area north of this city where it shows there are Ukrainian troops and they may be surrounded.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I just don't -- I don't have that --

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- level of detail. I'm sorry, Pierre.

Q: Thank you. Don't worry.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes. Idrees?

Q: Okay. Two quick questions. There's some stuff with the Russian Defense Ministry claimed it shot down a plane carrying western weapons inside Ukraine. Any contingent of weapons that you've supplied that you've seen been hit by Russia? And if you can provide an update on where you are in terms of making a decision on training Ukrainians on some of the systems you're sending over.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, just I have seen no -- no reporting that we've seen that indicates that -- that western weapons on an aircraft were shot down by the Russians. So I have nothing on that. I have not seen anything on that.

And as for the training, I would just tell you that General Wolters continues to work this very, very hard. There are -- without getting into the details of it I mean we -- we do have some -- we have made some progress in terms of -- in terms of setting up some training for Ukrainians, these are train the train the trainers.

So training trainers outside of Ukraine in coming days on the -- on the howitzers specifically. So that's going to move forward here very soon and we're obviously exploring other options for other systems as well.

And even if there needs to be additional training for the howitzers we're certainly looking at that as well. So there's a range of options that are still being explored. But their -- but what we do expect to be able to move forward here in -- in the next few days on training trainers on the howitzers, again, outside of Ukraine and that's about as much detail as I'm really willing to go into at this point.

Barbara Starr.

Q: You said that you have nothing on an aircraft U.S. or western weapons being shot down. But in the airstrikes that we have seen on sight inside Ukraine, do you have information that any of the weapons you -- the U.S. or the allies had provided had been in -- in store -- not out in the field being used but either in assembly point storage or if they move in to Ukraine, have any of those been targeted by the Russians and targeted successfully?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Not -- not that we know of, Barb. We -- we do think that they were aiming for military targets in Lviv and for -- and Kyiv but no indications that they hit any storage or any shipments of western assistance going in.

Q: But were they targeting them, do you think?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think -- you know what I have been -- I have been very careful to not talk about Russian targeting. I mean we don't -- we just don't -- we're not inside that decision move, Barb. We -- we don't know what --

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- how they're targeting in advance. All I can do is tell you what we see in the moment and we saw strikes in Kyiv and Lviv. We -- we believe that they were against military targets but how successful -- as I said at the beginning, the -- the damage assessments we don't know and I don't -- I -- it's -- it's difficult for us to get specifically into the Russian mindset here, in terms of how -- what they choose to target.

Q: And just to be clear, when you were talking about training on howitzers, to make sure I understand, you're saying it will, could, whatever but it -- it'll start happening in the next few days?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We believe we're going to be able to start this training in the next several days. It'll -- it'll be just the initial -- initial efforts. There -- there may be additional ones in other places and at other times but we said we knew what we needed -- we said that we were going to move out quickly on this and we have. And there will -- you know we'll explore other options going forward but we expect within the next several days to begin some training on -- for trainers, Ukrainian trainers, on the -- howitzers specifically.

Q: And we'll put in a bid for press coverage at that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm sure you will. Heather?

Q: Thank you so much. I was wondering if you could say anything about the idea of who might have shot down the Moskva if it is in fact the Ukrainians, or if it was a fire as the Russians said? And if the shelling on Kharkiv and Kyiv were as a result of the Russians attempting to get back at the Ukrainians?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I am not -- I'm not going to get into more detail about the sinking of the Moskva, what -- or what caused it, Heather. And -- and I can't say with -- with certainty what -- what prompted or inspired their or as I said to Barb, what -- what the rationale was behind the strikes they conducted in -- in Kyiv and Lviv in terms of, you know, your question about whether that was sort of a retaliatory strike.

Again, I -- we -- we -- we don't have perfect visibility into the Russian mindset here. David Martin?

Q: Have you seen any attempt by the Russians to recover the Moskva? And during the time when it was -- after it was hit and trying to make its way to port, did you observe any lifeboats and if so, you know, what kind of -- how many could they hold?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I have no -- we -- we've seen no efforts by the Russians to try to as you put it recover the Moskva. I mean, this is a cruiser of some 600 feet. That -- that would be an enormous engineering task to -- to try to bring that ship up to the surface. We've seen no indication that they have -- have shown any interest in doing that.

I would tell you that just -- yes, we did see indications that there were some survivors off of the Moskva. There were lifeboats put in the water. And there was sailors in those lifeboats. But we -- we -- we're not able to give a perfect count of -- of how many. And it was just a snapshot in time, that doesn't mean that there weren't additional lifeboats put in after we had a chance to look.

Or what became of -- of those survivors. So we -- we just -- we just don't know. We -- we -- we do believe that there were survivors from the ship, and it -- it's hard to look at the damage that was done without generally assuming that there were also casualties. That she lost sailors, how many we just don't know.

Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy.

Q: Hey, (inaudible), I'm wondering how the Pentagon is characterizing the fighting outside of Izyum? There have been reports of Ukrainian counterattacks possibly taking initiative and even stressing Russian road access. I'm wondering if you're seeing that from -- from your vantage point?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: What we are seeing is -- is a good bit of -- of -- as I said at the top, Jack, a good bit of heavy fighting to south and southeast of Izyum. Now, that's been fairly consistent over the last few days. I mean, even on Thursday when I last talked to you guys we talked about the fighting around Izyum.

This is a -- is -- if you just look at the geography, it's important to the Donbas region because it sort of lies almost at the -- the western edge of it.

And -- and -- and you -- you -- they -- they have wanted to move through and to the south and southeast of Izyum, towards Sloviansk and Popasna -- and Popasna, we talked about there being heavy fighting there. So it is of a piece of the Russian effort to kind of cut off that northern part of the Donbas and to fix Ukrainian forces there.

I -- I can't tell you, Jack, with any certainty about counterattacks. I mean, I -- I didn't -- we just don't have that level of fidelity, but again, I -- I -- I hasten to remind that the Donbas region has been a hot war for eight years, both sides have traded geography with some violence over the last eight years, and the Ukrainians do have a -- a not insignificant force posture there and they are -- and they are fighting.

So it is certainly not out of the realm that the -- that there could be -- that there were Ukrainian counterattacks near Izyum, given the fact that we do believe there's been a lot of heavy fighting there. I just can't, you know, specifically verify, you know, a counterattack in a certain neighborhood or a certain region, but there has been a lot of active -- active fighting there.

Q: Thanks. And then just one really quickly on -- on Mariupol. I -- I know you said that the Russians would free up 11 BTGs if -- if they were to seize it. Is -- is this campaign taking away any energy from -- from the Russians possibly going after the Donbas or forcing them to spend more time on -- on shaping operations that you've described?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It's difficult to know, Jack, and that's a great question. What we -- you know, we don't know if -- if the Russians are thinking linearly, like, in a -- in a linear way, like, "Okay, we've got to get Mariupol first and then we can start turning all our energy on the Donbas," or if they're trying -- or if they're -- they're thinking more in parallel. We -- we -- you know, I -- I -- I know it's not satisfying but we just don't know the -- the Russian thinking here.

They do have about a dozen BTGs committed to Mariupol, both in and out of the city, and should Mariupol fall to them, then clearly they would not -- they would not need those dozen BTGs to stay there and they could apply them elsewhere, but as to what their planning is, we just -- we just don't know.

Kasim?

Q:(Inaudible), thank you. So I have actually a question about -- a follow up on Moskva. On -- on Friday, a defense official confirmed that in -- the ship was hit by two Neptune missiles, which points fingers to Ukrainians. Do you have any insight what triggered Ukrainians to strike that specific ship? And did it come up with the mil-to-mil communications between United States and Ukraine? And I have another one.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- I don't -- I -- I -- I don't have anything more to offer on the Moskva sinking today, Kasim. Go ahead, what's your second one?

Q: And -- yeah, I -- was there any kind of U.S. contribution or input -- tactical input with respect to striking of Moskva?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I do not have anything more to offer on the Moskva sinking today, Kasim.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, moving on. Tony?

Q: Hi, (inaudible). I have a -- a non-Moskva question here. Have the sources of the 155 howitzers been identified? Are these going to be Army or Marine? And when they might start actually being shipped?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, they have been identified. It'll be a mix of Army and Marine. And I'm not going to get into the -- I -- I just -- I'm not going to get into a daily blow-by-blow on -- on what flight they're getting on, Tony, but I can assure you that -- that -- that we are moving with all haste to get them there and -- and we expect that they'll be moving soon, but they'll be coming from different locations in the United States from Army and Marines and we'll -- we'll get them there as fast as we can.

Q: Okay. On the -- on the $300 million Ukrainian security assistance initiative that you guys announced on April 1st, I noticed that AeroVironment, the maker of the Puma UAV, got a $20 -- $20 million contract on Thursday. Is this the first contract from the $300 million initiative fund? And if yes, when do you expect more to be signed? Possibly this week for -- like, for Switchblades and laser-guided rockets, et cetera?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tony, I'm going to have to take your question there cause I just don't know the answer to it. So we'll -- I -- we'll -- we'll see what we can find out.

Q: All right. Can I get one more on -- that you might be able to answer? There's been a lot of speculation that the Donbas fight is going to be like a World War II classic type of armor formations. Are you seeing massed armor along in Russia, ready to strike into the Donbas area, or is the Pentagon thinking mostly that tanks or armor formations would basically come from those in the battalion tactical groups?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, I -- I -- it's not that -- we're -- I -- I -- I wouldn't say that we're seeing massed, you know, columns of tanks on the -- on the -- on the other side of the border. What we have seen over the last few days is them continue to try to set the conditions. We called it "shaping operations." They are moving in -- they are moving in heavy artillery, they're moving in command and control enablers, they're moving in aviation, particularly rotary aviation support.

They are -- it appears as if they are trying to learn from the failed lessons of the north, where they didn't have proper sustainment capabilities in the area they were about to operate. We do assess that, be -- because of the geography in that part of Ukraine, that -- that there will be a reliance on armored capabilities and -- and artillery, but I -- I don't have, you know, individual movements of -- of tank columns to -- to speak to. Again, they've already got quite a lot available to them.

And -- and again, I -- I think I'd just -- would leave it at that. They've moved in an additional 11 battalion tactical groups into Ukraine over the last few days. We -- we have to assume, Tony, that some of them have armor capabilities that -- that -- that are not -- that they are -- that they are -- that -- that they represent combined arms capabilities and not just -- you know, not just infantry or not just armor or not just artillery.

But again, we just don't have a -- a -- a lot more visibility than -- than that.

Q: Okay. Thank you very much.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. Eric Schmitt?

Q: Can you give any more detail about these 11 BTGs? Are they some of the units that came out of the north that were either replenished or reconstituted or perhaps are they augmented by some of these new conscripts that have been called up? Any more detail about just the elements that make up these 11 BTGs and just how combat ready you guys assess they are?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, we don't. I mean, we don't -- we -- I -- I can't tell you how -- how -- how they -- who these guys are, where they came from, whether they were refit from other ones that were more depleted. I -- we -- we just don't have that level of -- of detail.

We do assess that there's still about 22 BTGs that are not committed, that are -- that are probably, in some form or fashion, going through refit and resupply to the north of Ukraine, but I -- I couldn't tell you more detail about how they manned up these 11 and where they came from.

Tom Bowman? I'm going to have to scoot here just a few minutes’ guys. Tom Bowman?

Q: Yeah, getting back to the long-range bombers, are they flying over Belarus or Russian airspace or the Ukrainian airspace, number one? And also, with Mariupol, is the city completely surrounded or are any supplies getting in, perhaps, from the north to the defenders?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't know about supply lines into Mariupol, I don't have anything on that, Tom. And I could not -- I'm looking here to see if we have where the long-range aviation, you know, what -- what their flight path is. I just don't have anything on that either, I'm afraid. I'm sorry.

Q: Yes, but as a far -- is Mariupol, is it surrounded? Do we know?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, it's -- it -- it -- the Russians are all around the city and they're in the city. I mean, it's -- it's -- it's not about surrounding it. They are -- they are fighting in the city.

Q: Right.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: And it's being pretty well continued -- continue all to be shellacked by airstrikes and artillery. We would characterize Mariupol as both contested and isolated, let's put it that way.

Q: Got it. Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, Luis Martinez. I think, Luis, you're going to have be my last one today. I'm sorry.

Q: Thanks, (inaudible). Since we were talking about social media earlier, there's, you know, some videos out over the weekend that showed some Russian Tu-160 bombers flying at low-level flights over Ukraine -- I mean over Russia.

Some people are intend -- think that's a message, others think it's just practicing for the May 9th victory parade. What's your take on it? And have Tu-160s been involved in launching missiles into Ukraine as a stand-off position? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I am not seeing Tu-160s involved in the air ops. I've not seen that video, so I can't verify what it means or what that pertains. But, of the strikes that we've been talking about over the last several days we are -- we are not accessing that they came from Tu-160s.

Okay, everybody, I'm afraid I'm going to have to call it quits there. I think we're up at the podium later today. Sorry I couldn't get everybody; I only missed a few of you, but it's just been that kind of day and I've got some commitments here I've got to get to.

So, we'll see you a little bit later. Out of here.