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Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley Hold a Press Briefing, May 23, 2022

May 23, 2022
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley; Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Okay, everybody, as you know, the secretary hosted the second Contact Group on Ukraine.  He and the chairman are prepared to give you some opening comments, kind of reading that meeting out, and then we have time for just a few questions.  So I'll leave it to the secretary.

Sir.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:  Thanks, John.  Good afternoon, everybody.

We had a highly constructive morning here at the second meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.  I'm delighted that we were joined virtually by more than 40 ministers and chiefs of defense, and I'm especially glad that the Contact Group once again got to speak with Ukraine's minister of defense, my good friend, Oleksii Reznikov.  We're also joined by the deputy commander in chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces and by Ukraine's defense intelligence representative.

I'm also proud and pleased to see that several new countries attended today's meeting of the Contact Group, including Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Ireland and Kosovo, and we're delighted to have them aboard and we hope to continue expanding this important gathering of allies and partners. 

Russia's unprovoked and cruel invasion has galvanized countries from around the world, and the bravery, the skill and the grit of the Ukrainian people have inspired people everywhere.

Now, we've made important progress since the Contact Group was established after the Ramstein Summit last month, and today, together with Minister Reznikov and his team, we've gained a sharper and shared sense of Ukraine's priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield.  We also heard some very welcome announcements this morning about even more security assistance for Ukraine.  That includes some 20 countries that announced new security assistance packages, and many countries are donating critically needed artillery ammunition and coastal defense systems and tanks and other armored vehicles.  Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine's forces and sustaining its military systems.  There are too many countries to properly thank everyone here, but let me mention just a few standouts.

I'm especially grateful to Denmark, which announced today that it will provide a harpoon launcher and missiles to help Ukraine defend its coast. I’d also like to thank the Czech Republic for its substantial support, including a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks and rocket systems.  And today, several countries announced new donations of critically needed artillery systems and ammunition, including Italy, Greece, Norway and Poland.  And let me also recognize the United Kingdom for its leading role in helping to coordinate security assistance and for the significant quantities of British equipment that continue to flow into Ukraine.  I'm deeply grateful to these countries and to all the countries that have stood up today.

In the short four weeks since the Contact Group convened at Ramstein, the momentum of donations and deliveries has been outstanding, and after today's discussions I'm pleased to report that we're intensifying our efforts, and moving forward, we'll continue to deepen our coordination and cooperation so that Ukraine can sustain and strengthen its battlefield operations.

Our combined efforts will also fortify and modernize Ukraine's Armed Forces to help them deter future Russian aggression.

We had several important conversations today about the latest battlefield conditions, about progress towards meeting Ukraine's priority requirements, about de-conflicting security assistance deliveries on the ground and about how to help Ukraine maintain and sustain the self-defense capabilities that we've all supplied. 

Everyone here understands the stakes of this war, and they stretch far beyond Europe.  Russia's aggression is an affront to the rules-based international order and a challenge to free people everywhere.

Now, let me announce an item for your calendars, and we'll convene the Contact Group for our third meeting next month, and will gather in person this time on June 15th in the margins of the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels.  Of course, it won't be a NATO event, but we want to keep up the tempo of these meetings, and I wanted to use my travel to Europe to ensure that we're building on our momentum.  And my team will have more details for you on this in the days ahead.

So it's been a good day and an encouraging one, and we fully understand what Ukraine is up against, and the Contact Group, again, shows how much we can get done when so many nations of goodwill come together.  So we're going to keep it up, and we're going to keep supporting Ukraine as it defends its citizens, its sovereignty and its democracy.

Now, before I take your questions, I wanted to say just a few words about someone who everybody in this room knows well, and my friend, John Kirby.

Now, John and I go way back, and he's always been the kind of teammate that you want at your side.  And since the earliest days of this administration, I've been fortunate to have his judgment, his insights and his leadership.  John has been a wise and trusted counselor and a clear and eloquent voice for this department, its missions and its values.

And he's always understood how central a free and independent press is to our democracy.  So even when the questions were tough, even when the findings were uncomfortable, when John stood behind this podium, he always committed to truth, trust and transparency.

So John, thanks for your extraordinary, extraordinary service.  I know you're not going far but we wish you fair winds and following seas.  And so thanks for everything that you've done.

And so I'll turn it over to the Chairman for his remarks and then we'll be glad to take your questions.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY:  Thank you, Secretary.

And I would like to just publicly also thank John for his professionalism and expertise over the years.  He's done a tremendous service for those of us in uniform, and John, thanks so much for that.

Good morning, everybody, and I want to echo Secretary Austin's statement from this morning.  This meeting was a great opportunity to coordinate our efforts to provide timely and effective support, military aid, to Ukraine.

We had 47 countries participate this morning.  That's really significant.  And although I regularly speak with all my NATO chiefs of defense counterparts, some very often, some almost daily, this contact group is a unique assembly of voices and resources that span the globe and enhance our collective capability.

I just returned, as many of you know, from NATO, where I met with my NATO counterparts, and this meeting this morning expands on that effort.  Together, our task is to provide sustained support.  I speak to General Zaluzhnyy every few days, several times a week.

I want to emphasize that the Joint Force -- the U.S. Joint Force, our role is to continue support to the Ukrainian military as long as directed, and we intend and have the capability to do so.  All of this is important and because the Ukrainian military and people are fighting not only for their country but they're fighting for principles, as the Secretary mentioned, about the rules-based international order that affects all of us.

The Secretary mentioned that the progress we made at Ramstein a month ago was a follow-on to today -- or it was a predecessor to today.  The United States military comprises one of the key components of U.S. national power -- diplomatic, economic, informational, and of course, military, and our task is to protect the homeland and stand ready to defeat the enemies of our country and to sustain the defense of the American people.  We stand ready as part of a whole of government approach for the United States, and really, a whole of alliance approach and partner effort that you saw this morning.

Last fall, the United States military had about 78,000 in EUCOM -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Space Force.  In a few short months, we've bolstered that by over 30 percent.  So this morning, we've got, roughly speaking, 102,000 U.S. troops in the EUCOM area of operations in many, many countries.

At sea, we have over 15,000 sailors in the Med and the Baltics on 24 surface combatants and four subs, up from six surface combatants back in the fall.  In the air, we have currently 12 fighter squadrons and two combat aviation brigades.  And on the ground, we have two corps, two divisions and six brigade combat teams, along with a variety of enablers.

These capabilities from the United States augment the tremendous security assistance donated by other countries, and together, we have put forth to the Ukrainian war effort.  The Ukrainian military's capacity to defend their homeland against Russian attack is directly tied to the quality and quantity of the assistance they are receiving.

And lastly, let me just say that the Secretary has all of us in this building, throughout the military, focused on managing risk and the potential for escalation.  We are watching this factor very, very closely and we have been able to open -- reopen communications at the military-to-military level, as you know, and I made a call to my Russian counterpart.  I don't share the contents and detail of that discussion but that it was done is important and it was purposeful and worthwhile.

So we remain committed and resolved and united in our assistance to Ukraine, we remain committed to manage escalation, and we'll continue to support as long as we are directed.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Okay, so now I'll go ahead and take some questions.  And we'll start with Lita.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that today you got a sharper sense of Ukraine's requirements.  Can you talk a little bit about what the Ukrainian officials have told you they needed?  And one of the things that they say they need, I believe, is HIMARS or MLRS.  Is the U.S. or any other country prepared to send those major systems to Ukraine?  And if that's true, are there any limits on how they can be used, either in Crimea or in the Donbas?

And then General Milley, can you -- the Army the other day said it's going to take about 18 months to replenish some of the stocks that they've sent in the drawdown, specifically Javelins.  What is the risk to the U.S. military as it goes forward on weapons systems and other things that may be now going to Ukraine that the U.S. needs?  And as you send more complex weapons into Ukraine, is there a need to send U.S. Special Forces or other trainers either into Ukraine to help train them or in other locations?  And if not, what are the consequences?

SEC. AUSTIN:  I think that was about 12 questions, Lita, but I'm not sure.

(Laughter.)

Okay, all right.  Well, listen, first, I'll get to the questions that you had up top there for me. 

Let me reiterate that I believe that today was a very successful meeting, and you heard the Chairman talk about the numbers of countries that were involved.  You heard me, you know, speak about the number -- the types of donations that some-20 countries came forward with today to announce.  That's real progress which is needed for real problems.

And so we're very, very satisfied that we had a very productive meeting but we recognize that this is a work in progress and we will need to continue to remain focused on this going forward.

Now, in terms of what their needs are, they really are pretty much the same as they were the last time we talked, and that was long range fires, armor, in terms of tanks and armored personnel carriers, some UAV capability.

And so that has not changed.  The nature of the fight, as you've heard us describe a number of times, is -- the fight is really shaped by artillery in this phase.  And we've seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks.

Regarding HIMARS, I don't want to get ahead of where we are in the process of resourcing requirements.

I'd just like for you to know that we are not only talking to the Ukrainians today but it's every day. As the Chairman pointed out he's talking to his counterpart routinely, I talk to Minister Reznikov at least once a week and probably more than that in most weeks.

So we'll continue to refine their requirements.  We'll engage the international community to make sure that, you know, we can get as much capability against those requirements as possible.  But again, I don't want to discuss specific systems in this forum.  So.

GEN. MILLEY:  So, Lita, the -- you asked about the replenishment piece.  Overall, U.S. military as a entity, all of the various munition stockages that we have, the secretary's got us looking at those very, very carefully to make sure that we don't drop below levels but become moderate, significant, high-risk, and we're doing that.

So right now the risk to ourselves is relatively low.  It's not something that we're going to get overly excited about.  We have a category called critical munitions and preferred munitions, we're solid in all of those.  And Javelins is not in that category.

So your small arms, your anti-tank weapons, some of your MANPADS, Javelins, et cetera as opposed to say, for example, other, you know, smart munitions and PGMs, et cetera.  So we're okay, we're doing okay, and our risk is being managed appropriately.  With respect to the training, we are doing training in several different countries right now.

Along with other NATO and partner countries are training Ukrainians in various countries, I'm not going to go into all the details of it but it's -- that's ongoing.  Not in Ukraine but outside of Ukraine.  But the United States doesn't have any trainers right now in Ukraine.

And some of the things that may have been out there in the media, those are planning efforts that are underway at a relatively low level.  Have not yet made it into the secretary, or myself for that matter, for refinement of courses of action and what's needed.

At the end of the day, any reintroduction of U.S. forces into Ukraine would require presidential decisions.  So we're a way’s away from anything like that, we're still developing courses of action and none of that's been presented yet to the secretary.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Courtney.

Q:  Thank you.  I want to read a question that President Biden got this morning on his trip in Asia.  He was asked, "You didn't want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons.  Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?"

His answer was, "Yes, that's the commitment we made."  So the reason I wanted to read the question is, it indicates, and his answer would indicate that the U.S. is prepared to do more to defend Taiwan than what the U.S. is already doing to help Ukraine defending against the invasion from Russia.

Which as we know, as you've been saying here today, is provide a tremendous amount of equipment and support and even intelligence to Ukraine.  President Biden said today that the U.S. is willing to do more to help Taiwan.

So my question for you, Secretary Austin, is, is the U.S. making a commitment to send troops to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China?  And General Milley, I have a follow-up for you as well.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Courtney, as the president said, our One China policy has not changed.  He reiterated that policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.  He also highlighted our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to help provide Taiwan the means to defend itself.  So again, our policy has not changed.

Q:  I think the Taiwan Relations Act is -- the U.S. is committed to ensure Taiwan has resources it needs to defend itself, but it doesn't require U.S. military intervention.  So again, I just want to ask, is the U.S. making a commitment by saying that they are willing to defend them militarily for U.S. troops to be involved in that military response?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Again, Courtney, I think the president was clear on the fact that the policy has not changed.

Q:  And then General Milley, could -- since you -- you know, you're talking about the risks with Ukraine.  Can you walk us through what you see the potential risks that would be a part of a U.S. military defense of Taiwan, should China invade?

GEN. MILLEY:  Yeah, I actually won't do that, Courtney.  I appreciate the opportunity to not answer a question.

(Laughter.)

There's a variety of contingency plans that we hold.  All of them are highly-classified, Pacific, Europe and elsewhere, right?  And it would be very inappropriate for me on a microphone to discuss the risk associated with those plans relative to anything with respect to Taiwan or anywhere else in the Pacific.

Q:  So I'll give you the opportunity to not answer one more question, is that would you support sending U.S. troops to Taiwan?

GEN. MILLEY:  I will render my advice at the moment in time to the president and the secretary of defense.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Felicia, Felicia Schwartz.

Q:  I’m over here.  Thanks.

Just going back to the HIMARS, if you do send them, would you be okay with those weapons being used to push Russian forces out of Crimea and the Donbas?

And then to General Milley, how important is it that -- to reopen Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, and what is the U.S. doing to help?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Again, Felicia, you know, as I said earlier, I really won't get involved in discussing any specific requirements and how we're going to address those requirements, and we don't have any announcements to make in that regard.  And because of that, I won't -- I also won't entertain that hypothetical, so --

GEN. MILLEY:  And on the port, you're talking about Odesa.  I think you're talking about Odesa.  And obviously, Odesa is a major port for Ukraine.  It's their access to the sea and the outside world, and it becomes a significant vehicle by which grain, for example, is exported and other commodities coming out of Ukraine.  And Ukraine is the largest, or one of the largest grain producers in the world.  And thus far, because of mines, because of the Russian fleet, because of the risks associated with it, that has not happened here now going on almost 90 days.

So how important it is -- I think it's quite important to the economy of Ukraine and well beyond.  Many countries in the world depend on Ukrainian grain.  So that's an example of the importance of it.

As for what we're doing about it, right now, we don't have any U.S. naval vessels in the Black Sea.  We don't intend to unless directed.  And right now, it's a bit of a stalemate there between the Ukrainians wanting to make sure that there's not any sort of amphibious landing against Odesa and the -- and the -- right now.  So it's a no-go zone for commercial shipping.  What that'll be in the future is unknown right now, but it is an important access to the sea.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Tom Bowman?

Q:  I'm hoping this is a question both of you could answer.  General Petraeus famously said of the Iraq War, "Tell me how this ends."  So with the Ukraine War, how does this end?  Is it pushing the Russians back to pre-invasion borders?  Is it pushing the Russians completely out of Ukraine, as British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said?  Or is it somewhere in the middle?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Tom, our effort is to do everything that we can to strengthen Ukraine's hands on the battlefield, and also at the negotiation table.  And so we're going to stick with doing everything we can to make sure that they achieve their objectives.  At the end of the day, you know, what this looks like, what end state looks like, will be defined by the Ukrainians, and not by us.  And so we'll leave that up to President Zelenskyy and his leadership to talk about, you know, how this transitions.

GEN. MILLEY:  Yeah, I would just echo exactly what was said.

Q:  (inaudible) --

GEN. MILLEY:  The end state's defined by the political leadership, and in this case, President Zelenskyy's going to define the end state inside the boundaries of Ukraine. For the broader -- we want to continue to support Ukraine defending their country.  We want to make sure NATO's unified, and we want to uphold the concept that there's a rules-based international order and the powerful and the big can't just destroy and invade the weak and the small.

Q:  But if it weren't for the U.S. and NATO, the Zelenskyy government couldn't even exist.  So my question is, does NATO have a voice at all in this effort about how this ends?  Because this could go on for years, as some have said.

SEC. AUSTIN:  I stand by what I've said earlier, Tom.  If this'll -- the way that it transitions, the way that it ends will be defined by the Ukrainian people, the Ukraine --

Q:  But again, if they say ‘we want all Russians out of our country,’ would you both abide by that? 

SEC. AUSTIN:  What we will abide by is what our president decides that we will do going forward.  That will be a policy decision.  But again, I think this is Ukraine's fight.  It's not the United States' fight.  We are doing everything that we can to make sure that we are supporting them in their effort to defend their sovereign territory.  The rest of the international community's doing the same, Tom.  And again, since it's their fight, it's their country, I want to make sure that they have the say-so in terms of, you know, what end state looks like.

MR. KIRBY:  I think you've got one more for (inaudible).

SEC. AUSTIN:  Oren ?

Q:  Thank you, sir.  Thank you, Chairman.

On Ukraine, for both of you, what is your assessment on whether Vladimir Putin has shifted his strategic goals from inside Ukraine to outside Ukraine?  In other words, instead of trying to take Kyiv by force, to what extent has he shifted, and is now trying to use energy, grain, for example, immigration as economic tools to undermine Europe's strategic stability?  Is that the long game for him now?

SEC. AUSTIN:  It's hard to say, and I won't speculate what's going on in Putin's mind, but we've seen him use a number of different levers from the very beginning.  At the very outset he envisioned using overwhelming force and speed and power to very rapidly take down the capital city and replace the government.  They failed in that respect, and their forces were pushed back by the Ukrainians.  They took Kharkiv, the Russians took Kharkiv for a short period of time.  The Russians count -- excuse me -- the Ukrainians counterattacked and took Kharkiv back.

And so we've seen them really proceed at a very slow and unsuccessful pace on the battlefield, and you would expect that he would seek to use other levers of power, other instruments of power, and he's doing that.  But in terms of what his overall strategy is, that's unknown.

I would say, though, that you know, one of the things that he could do, Oren, is end this fight today, you know, and you've heard me say it a couple of times.  This is a war of Putin's choice, and not a war of necessity.  So we continue to encourage him to do that, so --

MR. KIRBY:  Thank you, sir.

That's about all the time we've got right now.  Thank you, sir.

Thanks, everybody.