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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

May 19, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Okay, good morning, everybody.  Senior Defense Official again, day 85.

The truth is I do not have a whole lot of significant updates for you from yesterday.  I'll just give you a quick hit here and then we'll get right to it.

I don't have any updates on security assistance, I don't have any updates on training; all that continues but no major changes on those fronts.

We continue to assess that Russians are continuing their offensive in the northern Donbas.  Certainly areas that we're watching are activity in the direction of Slovyansk.  Again, we have been talking about their desires to move on Slovyansk in the past, but no major shift in territory controlled by either side at this point today.

But we do think that fighting along those same axis and along those same areas that we've been talking about will continue.  But again no major changes.

We continue to see the Ukrainians begin to claw back territory north and northeast of Kharkiv.  But again no major updates today.  Where they are along that border varies depending on the geography, but they continue to push the Russians back.

Down in the south, continued activity between the Russians and Ukrainians in between Kherson and Mykolaiv.  We see the Russians now conducting some harassing fires and some probing attacks in the direction of Mykolaiv.  But they're also at the same time reinforcing some of their defensive postures north of Kherson.

Again, I don't want to overstate that.  There has been a lot of kinetic activity between the two sides in between those two towns.  No major changes here. I'm just trying to put a little bit finer point on what we're seeing.  But there's no imminent major assault coming on Mykolaiv and we see no, certainly no indications from a naval perspective that they're going to move on Odessa anytime soon.

As a matter of fact, their ships continue to maintain a closer distance to western Crimea to avoid threats closer to the coast.

Also weather's been an issue over eastern and southern Ukraine so we also assess that their naval assets are hanging around Crimea a little closer also because of the weather in the Northern Black Sea.  And that weather has affected their flying operations.  I mean we've seen the Russia Sortie count decrease to about 140 over the course of the last 24-hours.

And we do think that there's a couple of factors there.  One is the weather for sure and another is that they pulled back dramatically the number of strikes they're conducting on Mariupol.  We're not seeing the same number of strikes on or near Mariupol and of course that we believe is tied to their view that the resistance has all but ended there.

Even the Ukrainians have admitted that the combat operations in Mariupol have ended.  So again, it would follow to make a certain logical sense that they wouldn't be striking Mariupol from the air very much.

Airstrike did continue though on and near Kharkiv, no surprisingly and around the Donbas.  They continue to strike in the Donbas as again the fighting continues there.

On the line coming from Donetsk towards Noika Novosilka, no major progress from yesterday.  They continue be wanting to move west out of Donetsk but no major ground gained over the last 24-hours on that line.

So in sum, not a lot of changes, still kinetic fighting in the north of the Donbas, airstrikes there.  Still pushing the Russians to the north and northeast out of Kharkiv and still active contact between Russian and Ukrainian forces between Kherson and Mykolaiv.  But outside of that not a whole lot of new developments overnight.

With that we'll take questions.  Lita?

Q:  Thank you.

One -- two things.  One, have you seen anything about Russia firing senior commanders who were considered to perform not very well in the war.  There's other intelligence that has suggested that.  I was wondering if the U.S. agrees with that assessment. And then I have a second question.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't have any specific cases to speak to, Lita.

We have seen indications where Russian commanders at various levels have been relieved of their duties.  But if you're talking about, you know, at senior, senior levels, I don't have anything specific on that.

Q:  Okay.  And on the embassy, now that the -- I know you sort of talked about this and this is a State Department decision, but has there been an Pentagon decision that the Pentagon -- the secretary does not want U.S. military Marines back doing active security at the embassy in order to avoid U.S. troops, sort of the -- the visual on US troops.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No.  No, there has not been a specific decision by the secretary one way or the other on this, and he certainly is not expressing the opinion that he does not or never will want to provide any military assistance should it be needed by the State Department.  It is a State Department issue to speak to, their physical security and I'm going to continue to defer to them to speak to that.

We remain in close contact with our State colleagues.  As you might expect that we would to talk about what their needs might be in the future.  And when there's something to talk about and a decision to make, we'll differ to them, I suppose, to speak to it but we'll be able to provide context on it.

But right now there is no U.S. military security component to their embassy security needs.  But that is not to say that that couldn't change overtime.  We're in constant communication with them.

Q:  Hi. I was just wondering if you'd seen any evidence of Russia having further mobilization or doing anything to mass more forces with -- with the Donbas offensive continuing.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No, Jack.  Still we hold 106 operational BTGs in Ukraine, and so no major changes over the last few days and we're not seeing any, you know, mobilization efforts of a mass scale.  I mean, clearly the Russians continue to try to resource themselves, but nothing of a major strategic, at that level.

Q:  And do you -- do you have any sense of the shape of the forces just when they -- when they come back into combat or are these still patched-together BTGs or are they full strength?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  It depends.  I mean, again, I want to stress we don't have readiness metrics for every BTG.  We just don't have that fingertip feel.

I would tell you that we have generally assessed that as they pulled out of Kyiv and Chernihiv and tried to do resupply and refitting, that they did push some units back in to the Donbas that were not at 100 percent.  I couldn't quantify that for you, but we just had indications that not every BTG they put in was at the same level of readiness as before the war.  Some BTGs were so depleted that they simply disbanded them and combined them into others.  Some were relatively still in good shape.

So it really depends from battalion to battalion.  And again, I couldn't give you a sense of each and every one of them.

The second thing I'd say, Jack, is that there has been active fighting now.  Since they repositioned everybody in the Donbas and focused on that part, they have been in an active fight every single day.

So even BTGs that may have gone in at 100 percent or near 100 percent combat capability have probably taken some losses.  It's war.  And so they continue to experience casualties every day.  They continue to lose equipment and systems every single day.

So, again, I couldn't tell you each of the 106, but I think it's safe to assume that they are continuing to experience readiness issues because it's an active fight.

It is also true that they haven't fixed all their other problems.  We still don't see great command and control.  We still don't see a really robust logistics and sustainment efforts such that they are comfortable being very aggressive in moving large formations over long distances in a short period of time.  They're just not able to mount that kind of effort.  And we still see, you know, indications of unit cohesion issues, morale issues.

So it's war and it's difficult to come away from looking at this every day and assume, you know, that every one of these 106 BTGs is in fine fighting trim.  We just don't believe that that's going to be the case across the whole force.

Dan Lamothe?

Q:  Hey, good morning.  Thanks for your time.

A number of outside analysts and retired generals have suggested Russia could be running up (inaudible) in the Donbas region at some point in the next week or two or three.  Be curious if you would also agree with that assessment that Russia is sort of reaching the end of its possible offensive and -- and just sort of running out of military capability and what that would mean itself.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I think, look, we're going to be very careful here about making predictions, as we have since the very beginning, 85 days ago.

They have not fixed all their issues.  They are continuing to meet a very stiff and very nimble Ukrainian resistance.  And as they have concentrated their efforts in a smaller geographic area, they are in a very intimate fight with the Ukrainians.

And whether we look, Dan, at Kharkiv and their lines moving away or we look at the Donbas where lines are shifting every day, or we look in the south where there's really no shift but a whole heck of a lot of fighting between Kherson and Mykolaiv, this is a knife fight and in some cases units are close enough where it's very intimate.  It's difficult to know where this is going to go over time and we're going to be careful.

I do want, in terms of making predictions, I do want to stress again that while we are absolutely committed to making sure Ukraine has what they need to defend themselves, including training on some of the capabilities that we're providing them, and that they are performing very, very well on the battlefield, their unit cohesion is not an issue, their command and control is not an issue, their logistics and sustainment has been nothing short of historic, that the Russians still have available to them a significant amount of their amassed combat capability from back in the fall.  They still have a numerical advantage, they still have a lot more in military capability available to them.  I mean, we just need to bear in mind that the Russians do have a significant amount of their combat capability left to them.

Now, again, combat capability itself doesn't win wars, you've got to have the will to fight, you have to have good leadership, you have to have command and control, and they're suffering from that. But all of that combined with the fact that we're talking about an area of Ukraine that these two sides have been fighting over for eight years we just continue to believe that this could be a prolonged fight.  And I think that's really as much of a prediction that I think we'd be willing to stake right now. Tom Squitieri?

Q:  Hey, good morning. I was wondering if you could tell me when there's training for the artillery, and I -- I -- forces on a range of artillery fire to the Ukrainians I ask this because the Russians have posted videos showing them taking out some of the howitzers and other artillery supplied. Is that part of the training on distancing, on shooting, or is that just more training on how to use the weapon? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I'm not an artilleryman but I think --

Q:  I -- I know, I thought I'd take Mike Glenn's spot here.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I think both are true.  Like, I mean, we, obviously, want to train them on how to use the M777.  Which is not that alien a system to them and our artillery piece that there's not that many differences.

So that's why the training can be done as quickly as it can be done.  But in the training of the M777, the Ukrainians often do pose to their instructors, you know, hypothetical scenarios about how you would use it in this case or that case.  And so, I mean, they know what they're up against.

We're pulling the artillerymen out of the fight to learn these howitzers and then putting them back in.  And so, they actually bring to the training a sense of perspective and curiosity about the howitzers that our instructors are finding interesting, and trying to help them with the battlefield scenarios that they're facing.  Which is including, you know, proper ranging.  So I mean, I think it's all happening at once.

We're not just bringing them out and saying, Okay, you know, here's the mechanical solution to how to use it.  It's how to use it yes, but also how to use it in the fight that they're going back to.  And that's all part of the training.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah. Alex Horton.

Q:  Hey, thanks for that. So yesterday we were told about sort of the -- the -- the shift to smaller unit fighting among the Russians.  And I was curious if you could expand on that a little bit? You know, do you -- do you assess that this shift is -- is leading to more -- more gains or more, you know, modest wins on the battlefield?  What do you think led to that strategy?  And how do you see it shaping in the next few days or weeks?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I would say it's not leading to more gains or more losses.  They are going after smaller objectives.  And sometimes those objectives are only maintained for a short period of time before the Ukrainians take them back. So they're just being more modest in what they're trying to go after.  Now we're talking about the Donbas area, I want to be clear bout that, the north Donbas.  What's leading to it, difficult to know exactly but we think that it is part, we think one explanation for this is the very stiff and very active Ukrainian resistance.  That they have tried to move larger formations against the Ukrainians and have been unsuccessful.

So their adjusting and trying to use smaller formations, achieving smaller objectives to try to get a more piece meal approach to progress.  But the Ukrainians are fighting right back.  And so, we think that they just haven't been able to, even on a smaller scale make much progress.

We also think that it's part and parcel a representation for the difficulties that they've had with their own, again, command, control, logistics, and sustainment.  It’s easier to support a company-sized element in the field than a whole battalion element.  It's just more practical.

And when you haven't solved all your logistics and sustainment issues, when you haven't solved all your command and control, operating and maneuvering smaller forces in the field is a simpler, more digestible way I guess to deal with your operational progress.

Q:  Yeah, and just to follow up, did it move in tandem with like the -- the shift to the artillery fight?  You know, because I imagine maybe they're more a little bit concerned about --

 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Again, Alex, I'm not an artilleryman but I don't think I'd describe it as in tandem.  I think it's come to some degree as a result of the use of artillery by both sides. Because the, you know, what we saw the Russians trying to do at the top of this was, you know, just pounding away at what they believe the line of contact was of the Ukrainians in large artillery barrages.  And then trying to move against them in frontal assault after that, and were being rebuffed. And so, I think what you're seeing is a result of their failure to make much progress using large artillery barrages against larger units.  And putting larger units then in frontal assaults.  I think they're adjusting because their previous tactics have been unsuccessful. Sylvie?

Q:  You know, I have two questions.  First I wanted to know if you see -- If you have any information about the situation around Lyman and Syevyerodonetsk.

Do you -- can you confirm that the Ukrainians -- that the Russians are surrounding these two cities or towns?  And also, the Russians have said that they want to cut off Ukraine from the nuclear plant of Zaporizhzhya.  And do you assess that they have the capacity of doing that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The town of Zaporizhzhya is different than the Zaporizhzhya Power Plant.  You know that?

Q:  I'm speaking about the power plant.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, as far as we show the Zaporizhzhya Power Plant has, you know, remains in Russian control and has for a while.

Q:  But to ask -- but -- but it -- they control it but the -- the power goes to Ukraine.  And they want Ukraine now to pay for it, and the Ukrainians are saying they cannot control it because, I mean, the installation is made for all Ukrainians to get --


SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have anything on that, Sylvie.  Look, fighting near Lyman continues, that's one of the areas in the northern Donbas where, you know, they have been, again, trying to make that line between Izyum and Lyman and towards Slovyansk that they, as I said earlier, they still want to move on Slovyansk.  Which means being able to move through and in Lyman.  So we continue to see quite a bit of fighting on that axis.  Our view is that it's possible the fighting could intensify near Lyman as the Russians try to regain a sense of momentum there.  But we just haven't seen that yet.

And then Donetsk, I mean I don't really have anything specific about Donetsk other than we continue to see them wanting to push west, the Russian push west out of Donetsk towards that town Velyka Novosilka.  And they have made -- we haven't seen any appreciable progress over the last 24-hours in that direction.

Q:  Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  David Martin?

Q:  You said this switch to smaller units is sort of confined to the northern Donbas.  Is there any explanation for why units in the south and in the southern Donbas are still operating in larger formations?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't have an answer for you on that.  I can just tell you what we're seeing.  And I'd have to refer you to the Russians for how they're organizing their forces.  Again, we're just trying to tell you what we're seeing.  And we're seeing in the northern Donbas smaller objectives, smaller units engaged in more geographically contained areas. And we think that that's a function of the geography quite frankly.  There's just a lot of smaller towns, villages and hamlets there.  But I couldn't, I'm afraid I'm not qualified to answer that question. Tara Copp?

Q:  Good morning. A couple questions.  Are there any other embassies where there is not currently a U.S. military Marine security detachment?  Is that decision always made by the State Department?  And are there any other embassies that are unprotected at this point?

And then secondly, the President is heading to Asia later today and there's talk -- he's meeting actually with the Finnish and Swedish leaders pretty soon, there might be extra security assistance provided to those countries.  With all of the effort in Ukraine and this need to potentially protect both Finland and Sweden, as they try to get into NATO; is the U.S. still able to maintain its kind of switch to the Pacific as it is now having to meet greater demand in Europe?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The answer to your second question is yes.  And I think the President's trip is proof positive of that as well as everything else we've been doing in the Indo-Pacific.  Everybody's focused on Ukraine and we understand that but that doesn't mean that we have stopped working with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.  It doesn't mean we stopped our air and naval activity in the Indo-Pacific.  And we've been talking about that throughout the last 85 days.  So the short answer is yes.

And on the first question you asked, I'm afraid I'm going to have to refer you to the State Department, Tara.  I don't have a list of every embassy in the world and what the security detachments look like there.  I would remind you that the State Department themselves have said that they have in-place security protocols for the embassy in Kyiv.  And we continue to talk to them about what that could or should look like going forward. But I'd have to refer you to the State Department to talk about that more specifically.

Q:  Just as a quick follow-up, though -- a quick follow-up, though.  On the trip to Asia question, with all of the weapons that have been sent to Ukraine, are there certain things that have become more difficult or the timeline has slid to the right a little bit to be able to transition to the Pacific?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No.  But again, I think we need to remember a couple of things.  One, what we're providing to Ukraine is largely through Presidential drawdown authority.  We're taking things that are off our inventory shelves and giving them directly to Ukraine.  Most of the military capabilities, the systems, the weapons, the platforms that our allies and partners in the Pacific use they get it through foreign military sales, which again is the province of the State Department.

We're not using PDA to provide equipment to Indo-Pacific allies and partners.  It's a completely different set of priorities, a completely different set of sources.  So if you're asking me because of all the material we're providing Ukraine we are putting at-risk material that's going to Indo-Pacific allies, the answer is no. Heather from USNI?

Q:  Thanks so much.  I know that you mentioned there's really much maritime update and that those ships are mostly staying around Crimea.  But I wanted to see if there's been any changes to the numbers of the ships that are from the Russian fleet?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No, not really.  I mean it still ranges in terms of what they have at sea and available in the Black Sea to somewhere between 15 and 20 and that's about where we are right now. Phil Stewart?

Q:  Hey. Just wanted to get back to a question you dealt with earlier on.  The Brits have actually put out a pretty detailed list of folks they say were fired.  They said a Lieutenant General Sergey Kisel, who commanded the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, was suspended.  They said that a vice admiral who commanded the Black Sea fleet has likely been suspended.  They're -- and these are on the record comments.

So I'm just wondering do the -- are these two people unfamiliar to the -- to your folks?  Or is it just that you don't want to be in the habit of commenting on personnel issues and staff in general?  I'm wondering --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, I'm not pushing back on what you're getting from other sources, Phil, I'm just saying we have seen -- we have seen military leaders be relieved of their jobs.  But I didn't have anything to confirm in terms of senior levels.  I'm not saying it's not happening.  I'm not saying that it is with great specificity. I'm just saying I don't have anything to add.

Okay.

Q:  Yes.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  All right, thanks, everybody.