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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  OK.  I don't have any announcements to make at the top.  I do want to take just a moment to congratulate all the winners of the Pulitzer Prize yesterday, all the prizes yesterday, lots of great reporting that was the justly rewarded.  I want to highlight two in particular, one, the award that went to the journalists of Ukraine, the Ukrainian reporters who are doing such a masterful job telling the story of their fellow citizens during this invasion and this war.

It's tough to read, tough to watch, but, you know what? It should be, based on what Mr. Putin is doing.  And the bravery and skill that they are showing every day is truly inspiring, just as the work of the -- the fighting of the Ukrainian soldiers is.

I also would be remiss if I didn't also congratulate the staff of The New York Times for the Pulitzer that they won in their coverage of civilian casualties caused by the United States military and military operations.  That coverage was—and it still is—not comfortable, not easy, and not simple to address.  We know that we had more work to do to better prevent civilian harm.  And we're doing that work.  We knew that we had made mistakes, we're trying to learn from those mistakes.  And we knew that we weren't always as transparent about those mistakes as we should be.  But their reporting reinforced those concerns and in some cases gave us cause for additional concerns.  And it made us ask ourselves some new and difficult questions of our own, even as it forced us to answer their difficult questions.

I cannot say that this process was pleasant.  But I guess that's the whole point.  It's not supposed to be.  That's what a free press at its very best does, it holds us to account and makes us think even as it informs.  It changes our minds and it helps us make -- it helps us better at our big job of defending this nation.  The talented staff and reporters of The New York Times, some of whom work in this very press corps alongside you, have done all that.  And, yes, we are grateful to them for it.  We know they're happy for the Pulitzer, but we hope that they are also content in the knowledge that they made a real difference on a real and very challenging issue.

And with that, I'll take questions.

Lita.

Q:  Thanks.  Can you address the uptick in violence in Odesa?  You talked a lot over the last week or month or more about ongoing shipment of weapons, et cetera, into Ukraine.  But has this increased tempo in Odesa made any of those shipments more difficult?  And there’s been conflicting reports about whether or not there were hypersonic missiles fired into Odesa, can you address that also?  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  I have no evidence to speak to with respect to hypersonic missiles being fired at Odesa.  We have seen the Russians use hypersonic missiles in the past over the last 75-plus days, largely to hit buildings, essentially.  But it hasn't been a preponderance of the missiles by any stretch used by the Russians.  And there has been no impact to the—at least none that I am tracking or that we're tracking—no impact to the flow of—and shipment of material into Ukraine, either as a result of the strikes on Odesa or the strikes anywhere else.  That stuff continues to flow every day.

Dan.

Q:  President Zelensky told the congressional delegation that visited Kyiv recently that the government wanted multiple rocket launchers, more advanced drones, and anti-ship missiles.  And the multiple rocket launchers would obviously have a longer range than the artillery that the U.S. and others have given them.  Is that something that you are seriously considering?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get into our deliberations with the Ukrainians, Dan.  I mean, we get a version of this question almost every day.  We are in constant communication with the Ukrainians about the fight.  In fact, the secretary spoke to Minister Rezinkov just yesterday about the fight.  We're in a constant conversation on multiple levels with the Ukrainians.  And as we continue to put together packages of drawdown authority going forward, it is very much informed by what the Ukrainians need in the fight and what we can provide in the fight.  I would just tell you that we are trying to focus and have since the very beginning on systems that they already know how to use and don't need any ramp-up times.

Short of that its -- these systems that are at least somewhat compatible and not totally alien to them so that they can -- again, the training is not onerous, it's not too lengthy, doesn't require too many people taken out of the fight and that these are system that we know that they can have an immediate impact.

I'm not going to get ahead of decisions that haven't been made with respect to future authority or what systems might go.  All I can tell you is that we're hearing directly from them.  I mean I understand that they also make similar arguments in public and also make similar arguments to lawmakers.

It's not as if we're not talking to them about this in real time ourselves and we do the best we can to fulfill those needs.  And if we can't than we're working hard with Allies and partners who also have access to some systems that the Ukrainians desire and or are comfortable with to take to get them to help provide it as well.

And we're even involved in helping coordinate the shipments of that other material that isn't American into Ukraine.  Go ahead.

Q:  There's been an uptick it appears in Russian sorties.  Is there any change in the air space?  Do the Russians have more control in the air, are they closer to air superiority or no?

MR. KIRBY:  No, we would not assess that the Russians have air superiority over Ukraine and we would still assess that the aerospace is contested and one of the reasons it's contested is because Ukrainians still have a viable air force of their own and they also have a very effective air defense capability both short and long range air defense capability.

And we know that it's having an impact on Russia because not only do they not have air superiority but because of the kinds of flight profiles that they're flying.  Most of their sorties never even leave Russian air space.

So we're going to continue to stay focused on making sure that the Ukrainians have, again, that their -- that air defense remains -- remains effective.  Yes, Sylvie.

Q:  You might be speaking about the Ukrainian forces that were deployed along the Donbass front line.  Is it your assessment that they are still holding this line or did they move from this line?

MR. KIRBY:  Oh my goodness, Sylvie.  There's movement everyday in the Donbass but the Ukrainians still have a force presence in the Donbass.  I'm not going to detail where it is or how many.  Again, that's force disposition data and information that I don't think we need to be publicly talking about.  But they are still in the Donbass.

They are still putting up a very stiff resistance and they have prevented the Russians from achieving many of the objectives that they had in the Donbass region.  They're still there, still fighting hard.  Tara.

Q:  (Inaudible) that Russia is running through its stockpile of precision-guided munitions.  Do this also include hypersonics?  And does the Pentagon assess that Russia will be able to reconstitute this stockpile at all?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have an update on their hypersonic inventory, Tara.  They have not fired, from our assessment, a whole lot of hypersonic missiles.  And again, it's a bit of a head scratcher why you would use a hypersonic against a building.  But I'll let the Russians speak for that.

They -- and I've talked about this many times from the podium, we do assess that they are running through their precision-guided missiles at a pretty fast clip.  We know that in Mariupol for instance, their use of munitions has migrated from almost all precision-guided to a significant number of what we would call dumb bombs, non-precision-guided munitions in Mariupol.

And we believe that the sanctions are part of this because it's harder for Mr. Putin to get the kinds of components that make up precision-guided munitions and his defense industrial base is having trouble keeping up with that.

I'm sorry, there was another question there.

Q:  I just --

MR. KIRBY:  How long it's going to take, I don't know.  I can't predict how long it would take or what efforts Mr. Putin is making to replenish his supplies.  I mean that's a question only he and his ministry of defense can answer.  But we know that already the sanctions are having an effect on his ability to wage war.

Q:  But if they're having to rely more on dumb bombs, wouldn't those aircraft have to enter Ukraine airspace?

MR. KIRBY:  I didn't say they were never entering Ukrainian air space.  But they're -- but they're not -- but the preponderance of them are not.  I mean and when they do they don't stay in Ukrainian air space very long and that's because Ukrainian air defenses are still so effective.  Yes?

Q:  Thank you, John.  Because it's a public interest in Ukraine, I have to return to my question I tried to discuss with you last week, it was too early, obviously.  Right now after President Biden signed the Lend Lease for Ukraine Act, what's the consideration from the Pentagon point of view?  Do you have any plan how, you know, the aid will be separated between the foreign military sales and possibly --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, we're still -- I mean I think -- look, still analyzing the Lend Lease Act to determine exactly specifically what authorities and what capabilities it will help us provide.

I would remind that in many cases it's going to require some bilateral agreements between the United States and Ukraine.  That's what Lend Lease is about.  And Lend -- through Lend Lease when an item is given to a country they're responsible for either returning it -- maintaining it and returning it and or providing compensation for it should it not be able to be returned.

And so there's -- for each item under Lend Lease you've got to work through -- you got to work through that agreement.  So we're analyzing it, all the authorities now that the act -- now the law -- will give us and we're certainly going to act in accordance with the law, certainly in the spirit and the intent of it but it's just too early to know with granularity exactly what that's going to mean.

In the mean time, however, we continue to urge Congress to pass the president's supplemental request, which he asked for $33 billion, $5 billion of that would include draw down authority -- additional draw down authority -- so that we can continue uninterrupted, providing things out of our own stocks.  Yes.  Go ahead.

Q:  (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  Hi, Mike, how are you?  It's hard with the lights sometimes to see everybody's face.  What's going on?

Q:  Can I ask you sort of a general question.  What do you think is the -- are the U.S. strategic objectives in arming Ukraine with billions of dollars of arms apart from defending -- helping Ukraine to defend itself?

MR. KIRBY:  That is the strategic objective is to help Ukraine defend itself against this unlawful and unprovoked invasion.  I gather that the question is kind of getting at what does victory look like and victory is -- needs to be defined by the Ukrainians by President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine, not the United States.

So what we want to do is make sure that we are giving Ukraine the advantages they need on the battlefield and at future negotiating table to be able to define for themselves what victory is going to look like.

Q:  So there isn’t, as it were, an extra-overarching objective --

MR. KIRBY:  An extra overarching objective such as?

Q:  Such as vis-à-vis America and Russia?

MR. KIRBY:  I think, look, we obviously don't want to see, as you've heard Secretary Austin say, we don't want to see Russia in a position to be able to visit this sort of violence on their neighbors again but this is not about the U.S. versus Russia, Mike.

I mean, as much as Mr. Putin would love to make it about the west versus Russia and NATO versus Russia, U.S. versus Russia, this is about Russia against the people of Ukraine.  And what we're focused on is making sure Ukraine can defend itself.  That it is placed in positions of advantage on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.

This is not about the U.S. versus Russia.  It is very much about trying to help end this war, and to give Ukraine the advantages that it needs to do that. Yeah, Tom.

Q:  Hi, John.  Just on the issue of lend-lease, it's very interesting should you have an open evening sometime to go back and see which nations actually have repaid the United States for lend-lease acts in World War II.

MR. KIRBY:  Have you?

Q:  I have, it's interesting.

MR. KIRBY:  And the number is?

Q:  One.

MR. KIRBY:  One, who?

Q:  Great Britain.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.

Q:  The Soviet Union, now Russia has not, parenthetically.  My question is not about land-lease, however.  Yesterday you -- you...

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any open evenings, either, so.

Q:  I know that.  So I guess it was a rhetorical offering.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q:  Yesterday you talked about why the conflict was not necessarily a stalemate.  Today I'm going to ask you about another word, and that's the word proxy.  You just said this is not about the U.S. versus Russia and I did hear that.

MR. KIRBY:  Right.

Q:  But you know, proxy war is that when one side supports someone in the conflict but is not directly engaged in the conflict.  But acting on behalf of other parties would you call this a proxy war from the -- on the part of the United States and some NATO nations?

MR. KIRBY:  No.

Q:  And why not, please?

MR. KIRBY:  It'sa war that Russia started, a war of choice.  A war against the people of Ukraine.  And it's a war that's being fought by the people of Ukraine.  Now, look, have they engendered, and rightly so the support of the United States and so many other nations in this fight for freedom that they are fighting?  Yes, they have.

But that doesn't make it a proxy war.  Again, that's the Putin trope, that's exactly the narrative that Mr. Putin would love to have out there.  That it's the United States fighting Russia, that we're somehow, you know, trying to diminish Russia as a nation or force him out of power.

None of that is true, and you can listen to those tropes throughout his speech yesterday.  This isn't about Nazism, there's no Nazis in Ukraine, it's not about the west, it's not about the United States.  It's about a completely fabricated justification that Mr. Putin put forth about his own national securities being put at risk by Ukraine.

That's what started this war, that's what this war is all about.  And I think it's, you know, useful to remind that Ukraine threatened absolutely nobody to include Russia.  Anything else?

Abraham.

Q:  Hey, John.  Two questions.  One, I wondered if you could preview British Defense Secretary Wallace's visit tomorrow?  Why is he coming?  What does Secretary Austin expect to chat with him about?  Is this like sort of getting close to the next Ukraine contact group?

And then secondly, on what you mentioned at the top about the Times story and the civilian casualties, I don't want to rehash old news but can you talk about any ongoing changes that are being implemented now?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, we're in the middle of working through the - you saw the Secretary stood up a civilian harm mitigation team and process and they've started out a 90-day initial process of getting themselves started and manning up and that's ongoing.  And their whole purpose is to look for innovative ways to help us get better at civilian harm mitigation and to be able to come back on a routine basis to the Secretary to advise him on a better process, these better techniques, better polices to help mitigate civilian harm.

So, yes, I mean we've taken away not just from the reporting but from recent experiences that we know we have to get better at this, and we are.

And I think you're going to see even before their 90-day initial assessment period is up, I think you're going to see the Secretary speak about this as well.  I mean it's something we take seriously.  And it's something that we're not afraid to admit that we take seriously and that we want to do better unlike Russia, unlike the unmitigated violence and destruction that they're causing on the people of Ukraine and without care, without acknowledgement.

No investigations, no transparency, no effort to even not cause civilian harm much less the war crimes that their soldiers are committing on the ground.  Now look, I'm now saying that we have everything in order, we don't, and we know that.  And here's the difference, we're willing to admit it, and we're willing to investigate and we're willing to stand up teams to go look and get better at it.

I'm willing to stand up here at the podium and talk about it and so is the Secretary.  And we're willing to acknowledge that sometimes your reporting, the reporting that all of you have done, not just the New York Times but all of you have done on civilian harm, we also take seriously.  And when you ask us tough questions we answer them.  You're not seeing any of that from the Russian Ministry of Defense, none, zero.

And you know what? You're not going to see it going forward.  And I'm now - I'm all lathered up and what was your first question?

Q:  I want to drill down a little bit on that, does the Secretary anticipate there would be work with the U.S. Air Force since airmen were involved in - they're involved in some of the strikes?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, look, I mean it cuts across services, Abraham, I mean and it's not about looking at a service specific.  But often times in the last 20 plus years of warfare when we have caused civilian harm it's because of joint operations.  So sometimes it's the result of people on the ground, sometimes it's the result of people in air ops.  I mean it's - and sometimes it's kind of both.

I mean you can find examples where coordination and communication wasn't as good as it should have been and intelligence analysis wasn't where it should it have been.  So I mean it cuts across.  It wouldn't be fair to say well it's - we're going to go after the Air Force on this.  I mean we're going to go after ourselves, all of ourselves on this and try to get better at it.

Q:  So the first one was on Wallace and the Ukraine contact group.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Yes, well we look forward to having Mr. Wallace back at the Pentagon.  I this will be his second meeting in the Pentagon with Secretary Austin.  Of course he's no stranger to the Pentagon, he was here in the previous administration as well.  Great Britain as always a terrific partner and such a staunch ally.  So it's a real treat for us to be able to have Mr. Wallace back here in the Pentagon.  The Secretary's very much looking forward to the conversation.

Look, I think it goes without saying that Ukraine will be a major topic of discussion.  And the British have been leaders and strong, strong contributors in terms of providing security assistance to Ukraine and in helping coordinate that assistance as well.   So I think there's a lot to talk about in terms of support to Ukraine. Minister Wallace was at the Ramstein Contact Group.  Now we're calling it the contact group—the consultative meeting back in Germany.

There will be another one this month, most likely a virtual meeting.  The May -- the secretary wants to do these monthly.  So, the one in May will most likely be virtual.  We don't have a -- we don't have it locked in right now. It will be later this month.

And I have no doubt that the secretary and Minister Wallace will have a chance to talk about sort of what the agenda on that first contact group, second consultative meeting looks like and feels like.  But there's going to be a lot to discuss and we're absolutely delighted to have him back.

Q:  Thanks, John.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Rio.

Q:  Thank you.  I wanted to ask you about Taiwan.  The U.S. warship, the USS Port Royal transited the Taiwan Strait today, but this is the second transit over the last two weeks.  Are there any particular concerns about the Chinese military activities around the Taiwan Strait?  And what does the U.S. want to demonstrate by stepping up the maritime activities now?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't know that I call it stepping up, Rio.  We've conducted Taiwan Strait transits before.  It's not -- it's not atypical for us.  And you're right, this was another routine transit conducted today, on the 10th, through international waters and in accordance with international law.

The ship transited through a corridor in the strait that is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state, which is the way we do this.  And the Port Royal's transit demonstrates -- you ask what it demonstrates -- it demonstrates our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

I want to stress again, we will continue to fly, sail and operate where -- anywhere international law applies and that's what this was about.  This was the application of international law and our right to operate inside of the law.

I mean, we believe in a rules-based international order, international law is part of that rules-based international order.  OK?  Let me go over to the phones here.

Idrees?

Q:  Hi, John.  Earlier today during the hearing the head of the DIA described the war as a stalemate.  Yesterday when you talked, you wouldn't go that far.  And I was just wondering if you now agree with him.  Is there a different definition maybe of stalemate?  I'm just trying to, you know, is there a square the of the circle between the two comments.

MR. KIRBY:  We were talking yesterday about what's going on in the Donabas, which is the focus of war right now.  We still believe it's a very dynamic environment.  That it's a very kinetic flight and villages and towns continue to change hands.  And the Russians have not made much of any appreciable progress.  But, that's not to say they've made no progress over the last few days and week or so.  So, I'm comfortable with the way I couched it yesterday.

Let's see, Howard Altman.

Q:  Thanks, John.  Let's change the pace a little bit.  Next week Congress is going to be holding the first hearing into UFOs in 50 years.  There's going to be two people from the Pentagon testifying.  Can you comment about that?  But also, can you tell us any update on the Airborne Objects Identification and Management Synchronization Group, otherwise known as AOIMSG?  Any update on what they're doing?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have an update for you on the UAP group that you're talking about.  We're still working to sufficiently staff that organization and get them into a battle rhythm.  But, I don't have any updates for you.

And I could not hear your first question.

Q:  Yes, can you comment about, next week Congress is going to hold the first hearing in 50 years on UFOs, UAPs. I was wondering if you could just comment on that since two people from the U.S. military will be testifying there?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  No, look, we're looking forward to the upcoming opportunity here to engage members of Congress on this very important matter.  I'm not going to get ahead of that testimony.

But, we are absolutely committed to being as transparent as we can with the American people and with members of Congress about our perspectives on this and what we're going to try to do to make sure we have a better process for identifying these phenomena, analyzing that information in a more proactive, coordinated way than it's been done in the past.

And that we also are doing what we need to do to mitigate any safety issues as many of these phenomena have been sighted in training ranges and in training environments.  And so, we're very much concerned about safety of flight. So, we're looking forward to the opportunity to talk to Congress about this.  I won't get ahead of the hearing, though.

Q:  How concerned are you about these --

MR. KIRBY:  Let's see, Mike Brest?

Q:  Sounded like Howard had a follow up.  If he wants to ask, he can go ahead.

Q:  Yes, thanks.  Just quickly.  How concerned is the Pentagon that these might be some kind of adversary, you know, objects from somebody like China or Russia, et cetera?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have -- we don't have a view on that, Howard.  I mean, we're -- been enough of the sightings in terms of -- particularly in terms of training ranges -- that we do have, we think, legitimate safety of flight concerns here.  But, the department hasn't come to a conclusion about what all these phenomena are, what they represent.

That's why we're putting this group together, so that we can do a better job of just collating the information.  It's been sort of ad hoc in the past, in terms of a pilot here and a pilot there seeing something and the reporting procedures haven't been consistent.  So, what we're trying to do with this group is get together a process here.

And I know process isn't very fun for you to report on and probably not very fun to talk about.  But that's what we need.  We need a better process.  That's what this group is going to do for us.


Let's see, Jared? -- I'm sorry, Mike, go ahead.

Q:  Thank you.  To follow up on Abraham's question, OSD said back at the end of February that General Michael Garrett's investigation into the 2019 strike in Syria was in its final stages and we haven't heard anything about it since, so I thought I'd ask.

MR. KIRBY:  And I think, you know, that work is complete and the secretary is working his way through General Garrett's report.  And I think you'll probably hear more about that soon.

Jared.

Q:  Hi, John.  Thank you.  Just wanted to check if you can confirm, the King of Jordan is in town for visits at the White House and among lawmakers.  Just checking if he's going to be visiting the Pentagon this week and then meeting with senior officials.  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have anything on the schedule to announce right now, but when we do we will.

OK, I got time for a couple more.  In the back.

Q:  Yes, there's a report that Belarus has sent the Special Forces down to the border and has said that it was due to the 20,000 Ukrainians that are currently on the border at Belarus.  Can you collaborate that information at all?

MR. KIRBY:  I cannot.  No.

Q:  And also, is there any update on the number of Ukrainian soldiers -- or soldiers that are still at the plant in Mariupol?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have an update for you.  I don't think the numbers have appreciably changed.  But I would let the Ukrainians speak to their force levels in any one location.  We do assess that they are still there.  They are still resisting.  And the proof of that, that the Russians know they haven't taken Mariupol is they're continuing to bomb Mariupol.  And they still have force levels outside Mariupol themselves and in the city.

Did you have one?

Q:  I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to this Russian media report that's saying that the U.S. and NATO have military equipment lined up on Finland's border with Russia.  Is that just a bogus Russian claim or is there any truth behind that?

MR. KIRBY:  Bogus.

OK.  Thanks, everybody.

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