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Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

STAFF: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. This is Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary here. Thank you for joining us for this background call today.

Joining us for today's call is (omitted) to give an operational update on what's happening on the ground in Ukraine. (Omitted) will be on background with attribution to "a senior military official." And actually, just before we get started, can I just make sure that everyone can hear me okay?

(UNKNOWN): We can hear you.

STAFF: Okay, great.

(UNKNOWN): (inaudible).

STAFF: Thank you so much. Thanks. So again, this call's on background. (inaudible) will be on background with attribution to "a senior military official." And with that, I will turn it over to him.


First of all, everybody, happy new year. First time I've been back since the turn of the year, so I hope you had good holidays, and that your year is starting off with a bang.

The -- so this is the 320th day of Russia's illegal and unprovoked large-scale invasion of Ukraine. I think -- you know, -- we're starting -- just, it's my fault we're starting a couple minutes late, so what I would tell you is that in terms of how it -- how the battlefield looks, not significant adjustments to the battlefield, quite honestly, over the last couple weeks. That said, there's been some pretty severe fighting in a number places, in Kreminna, as you know, and in Bakhmut in particular, and then I'd say Bakhmut, the area around Bakhmut, Soledar to the north of Bakhmut being some of the most significant fighting over the past couple weeks in particular.

Otherwise, the battlefield has not changed significantly, and so, you know, the maritime posture -- three ships underway, including Kalibr-capable ships, and in the air posture, you know, the air remains contested over Ukraine. I think you know, we may end up talking a little bit about that, as well. But in the interest of your time, why don't we -- why don't we go to questions?

STAFF: Great, thank you so much. With that, we will kick it off with Lita Baldor, A.P.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I have one specific question and one general question. Specifically, there are Russian assertions that they bombed a school and killed hundreds of Ukrainian forces. It was located in Hemistork (sic) as the target of the attack. I'm wondering if you can either confirm or deny the result of that attack, and whether you believe, or the U.S. believes that there were a number of Ukrainian troops killed.

And then my second question, more broadly, as you look to the winter months, what are the types of things that the U.S. is going to try to do for training and equipping the Ukrainian military? Do you see that the troops will be able to take time in order to attend the training? Will there be an effort to expand the 500-a-month training? That kind of thing. Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, no problem, Lita. First of all, happy new year to you, Lita.

The -- so on the first one, on the Kramatorsk, so we, just like you, have seen the report saying -- you asked for me to confirm or deny. I really can't do either one of those. I would tell you that, you know, we'll continue to work to determine what the particulars are. You know, we get our information, like you all, from folks on the ground. Sometimes that takes a little longer, and then depending on where it comes from, there's a different view of it. And I will -- you know, the strike, I don't know, 10 days ago that the Ukrainians made against the Russians, you know, the Ukrainian determination that it was hundreds of Russians who were killed, and as you heard the Russian said, it was in the tens. So I think we're probably going to wind up somewhere in between. I can't confirm that the strike took place. You know, we'll continue to work, like you all are, to find that, and if we do, I think -- you know, I'm happy to make more information available as we gain that.

You know, I guess the other piece, too, is, you know, in terms of where we take -- you know, where you believe your information, you know, I -- every morning I come in and I find out that the Russians have claimed to shoot something that we find out later that they did not. So I'd just -- I'd urge you to kind of take that with a grain of salt. And I'm not saying they didn't; I'm just saying, you know, their claims have largely been hyperbolic.

In terms of training and equipping, I think Laura Cooper was on here last week and talked about the most recent PDA. I think what's been really encouraging over the past 10 days has been the amount of international donor -- international donor momentum here. So certainly, the Bradley Fighting Vehicles as an example that the U.S. has offered to provide to the Ukrainians, that, in conjunction with French, with German, with others who have said that they will provide things like armored vehicles, is really encouraging, I think.

You know, what it really does is it demonstrates this continued commitment by NATO and by the, you know, forces that understand that, you know, this is -- the Russians who are wrong to do this. And so when the Russians talk about, you know, things slowing down, in terms of commitment, I think you can point to this.

Here we are, in the midst of the winter, and you have countries that, you know -- and I'm not the policy side of things, but, you know, there have been a lot of concerns about, you know, wavering commitment from the international community as we got into the winter, as it related to energy prices and otherwise, and here we are in the winter and we've got continued -- in fact, enhanced commitment by our allies and partners. So I think it's a big deal.

Now, that equipment is one thing. Using the equipment is another. And so you've seen, again, many of our allies but us, you know, step forward to offer some additional collective training, as it relates to the use of that equipment.

And I'm happy to talk about, you know, a number of those things as we go along, but I would tell you that what we think is -- you know, this gives the Ukrainians an opportunity to continue to work on what they've been doing over the past 10 years, in adjusting the way they fight to a more of a combined arms effort as opposed to just pounding one another with artillery, to look at different ways to maneuver, combining fire and movement to be able to do that, and this gives them a pretty -- pretty good platform in which to do that.

I probably talked for a long time there, Lita, and didn't say much for you but I hope I did.

Q: No, that's good. I -- thank you.


STAFF: Go ahead.

Q: So I just wondered specifically if you could address how much can the Ukrainians spare troops at this point with the fighting conditions as they are today, to send them to training?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, so, you know, just like us, I think, you know, what they have come up with over time is a way of making sure that the folks that they have on the front lines don't stay -- those folks in the front lines haven't been there since 24 February not replaced and not removed for things like R&R, recuperation, additional training. And so the Ukrainians have figured out ways to pull organizations out of the fight to allow them a period of time to continue to train.

I think what they've realized is that, you know, they have places that they're able to -- you know, to stabilize and to move folks around and recognize that, in the long run, this collective training will be extremely beneficial to their ability to promulgate the fight. Over.

STAFF: Great, thank you. Next, we'll go to Joe Gould, Defense News.

Q: Hi, thanks so much for taking my question. Ukrainian officials, over the last few days, have warned that Russia's planning a mobilization of 500,000 troops this month for a new offensive in February and March, potentially through Belarus. Does the Pentagon share that assessment?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So I am not particular on the -- Joe, I'm not particular on the mobilization. I can't give you a lot of background on the information related to the mobilization. You know, we do know that the Russians and the Belarusians are going to train together. We are not seeing any indications that Belarus has the intent to enter into the conflict. We just believe it's continued training between the Belarusians and the Russians. Over.

Q: Then as a follow-up, can I just ask what's the -- can you say a little bit more about the timing of the combined arms training, the provision of the armored vehicles now, and, you know, to the degree that sets the Ukrainians up for an offensive or potentially, you know, defense, if the Russians do plan some major mobilization? Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, I would -- you know, I'm not going to give you the particular dates. I'd just tell you it's -- you know, these are all things that are in the works to occur over the course of the next several months.

STAFF: Thank you. Our next question will be from Carla Babb, VOA.

Q: Hi, thanks for taking our questions. I had a couple of follow ups since you mentioned the training. General Ryder said that the expanded training in Germany would be starting in January. Can you confirm that that expanded training of 500 Ukrainians has begun in Germany already?

And then if you don't mind, kind of giving us a better picture of what's going in Bakhmut, what's going on there? We've been seeing a lot of imagery of the craters and everything. Who is winning right now in that area? How would you describe what's going on with the intense fighting?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, Carla. So on the first one, as General Ryder said, it is set to begin this month. I can't tell you if we've started already but I can tell you we'll start this month. And that's for a portion of the collective training.

The -- in terms of Bakhmut, you know, if you think of Bakhmut as a triangle -- I want to -- and if you'll wait -- if you'll give me a minute, I'm going to pull up a graphic that I've got because I think it will help, in terms of defining for you some size and space. Just one second, I'm sorry.

Q: That's okay, take your time.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Hey, I'm sorry, Carla. So I can't find the graphic. The team's going to look for me while I'm doing it. What I was hoping to do for you is kind of describe to you the -- what the battlefield looks like, in terms of size and space, to give you some perspective, particularly back here in D.C., for those who are in the D.C. area.

The bottom line is if you look at -- if it's a triangle the northern portion of that triangle is Soledar, and then you work your way south, again, through Bakhmut and then down south of Bakhmut -- Andrivka is the other town on one of the axis, and then Chasiv Yar -- if you come out to the northwest to Chasiv Yar and then you drive that thing back to the northeast, over to Soledar, that would give you the triangle that I'm talking about.

Throughout the past and you all have watched this as well as I have. In fact, there may be people on the line now that have been there who will have better SA on this than I do -- but essentially, over the last couple of months, as you know, this fight in Bakhmut has been just really savage.

And what I mean by "savage" is you're talking about thousands upon thousands of artillery rounds that have been delivered between both sides. In many cases, you know, you're looking at, you know, several thousand artillery rounds in a day that are being exchanged.

I think I mentioned the last time I did a presser, where I talked about the comparison between World War I and, you know, I had a picture, a graphic, and that graphic was from Bakhmut. And essentially it showed, you know, the devastation that's been or the devastation that's resulted because of that.

You also, as a result, because of the trenches and because of the rain, and this is rolling terrain. So, you've got -- if you were able to zoom in on the terrain itself, you'd find that there are a number of valleys and as a result a number of spurs or larger pieces of high ground that also transport them -- or that are a part of this portion of this triangle.

And so, you had, and you have trench lines and others across all of these to the point where over the course of a day you may see an exchange of 100 meters. You may see an exchange of 300 or 400 meters. You'll have a platoon position, and this is on either side, you'll have a platoon position that is overrun -- or overrun's a wrong term, but platoon position that is taken by one or the other and then the next day you may see that platoon position change hands again. So, over the last 10 days or so we've seen some movement in the north on Soledar.

And so, Soledar itself is a town which is at the base of one of these draws I was talking about, has been contested now pretty significantly. So, we do think that there are a good portion of Soledar that the Russians have in their hands and the Ukrainians do as well. And these exchanges are -- and as I mentioned, savage. So, when you -- they have these rolling volleys of artillery fire and then the Russians we know will follow that with all sorts of people that are not their best fighters.

So, read, you know, the prisoners from Wagner Group, read mobilize soldiers. And then once those folks go up and, you know, essentially take the brunt of whatever Ukrainian response there is, then you have better trained forces that move behind them to claim the ground that these individuals have walked over. And if you go back in Russian history, you'll see that there are plenty of examples of the Russians trading individuals for bullets and we're seeing that in this area.

So again, really severe and savage fighting that's occurring along this series of axis. I think the different -- or the distance from Soledar, and again, I'm still working on this graphic, but the distance between Soledar and Bakhmut I think is really somewhere around 7 kilometers. It's not very far. But, so anyways, back and forth fighting here and, you know, forces are rolling people into the line as quickly as they can, in some cases to preserve what they have on either side.

Talked for a long time there. And I'm certainly welcome to talk some more.

STAFF: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Idrees with Reuters.

Q: Just on Belarus, can you say how many Russian troops are currently in Belarus? And is your expectation that once this joint aviation drill wraps up some Russian troops and equipment will stay or do you believe that all of this will go back into Russia?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Idrees, I'm not sure on either one of those. In terms of numbers or what the Russians will leave behind. As you know, the Russians have talked in the past with Belarus about particular weapon systems that they have left with the Belarusians. But I just -- I couldn't hazard a guess on what they might leave at the end there. 

Q: Just a follow-up, do you believe they won't -- or they'll take -- they won't take everything back because you've seen something that suggests that? Or is it just unclear right now?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: No, I don't have anything that would suggest that they would leave anything other than we know they've done that in the past.

STAFF: Great. We'll go to Oren with CNN.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. I just had a question about given Russia's ongoing aerial barrages from cruise missiles and Iranian drones, I was wondering if you can give us a sense of how you view the state of Ukrainian air defense? Do they the capabilities to continue pushing back against these and intercepting a high percentage of them and just how you see that capability holding up as we hit -- as we near the one year mark.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yes, you know it -- this is interesting that you asked that, Oren. I think -- you know I said this last summer. Last summer we were talking about the Ukrainian withdrawal from Severodonetsk and I mentioned that I thought at some point we would probably study the Ukrainian's ability to conduct, you know, withdrawal under contact.

I think we will do the same thing as it relates to air defenses. If you look at the way the Ukrainians have created an air defense network of all sorts of different types of air defense and you look at the success that they're having against not just cruise missiles but in particular against the UAV situation. It's really staggeringly positive.

And so the question will be, you know -- again, it's not like -- it's not unlike any other stuff. I mean how long until the Russians decide that, you know, this is a kind of fruitless effort on their part. And you know recent decisions by the international community, again, to support the air defense aspect of the site I think are only going to enhance the Ukrainian ability to sustain themselves from that regard.

STAFF: Great. We're going to have time for just two more. Waafa with Al Hurra.

Q: Yes, General. So the British government is considering sending tanks to Ukraine. How significant this move will be, especially that the -- that Ukraine will be receiving this NATO standard tanks for the first time?

And is the U.S. considering sending tanks in the near future -- considering this option in the near future? Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Let me start with that part and work my way back. So you know (inaudible) used to work out the ability to provide Bradley Fighting Vehicles. I think we'll -- we'll stick with that. And you know, we continue to assess everything. 

If you know, Waafa, in terms of how we're providing armaments and otherwise to the Ukrainians. As to -- as to the Brits, I'll leave that to the Brits to give you some thought on the particulars.

But you know, I listen. Any time our partners make a significant contribution, it's hugely helpful to Ukraine. And so, you know, it kind of -- where I started at the beginning, I think what that does, if nothing else, it demonstrates to continued commitment of the -- you know the NATO alliance in this case and our allies and partners generally to stay with Ukraine and reinforce success.

STAFF: Thank you. And our last question will go to Lara Seligman with Politico. Lara, you there?

Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. Can you give us an update on the situation on the ground and -- hi, can you hear me?

STAFF: Yes, we can hear you now. 

Q: Can you hear me?

STAFF: Sorry about that.

Q: I don't think they can hear me. You can hear me, okay. I just wanted to ask for Kherson.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Lara, swear to God, as soon as you said they can hear me, we stopped being able to hear you.


Q: --- on the situation in Kherson and specifically --


STAFF: Keep going, Lara. Just you're kind of cutting in and out.

Q: Can they hear me? Sorry, I'm just asking about Kherson.

STAFF: Okay.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So Lara, no significant adjustments to what we're seeing in Kherson. The -- you know, the Ukrainians continue to receive shelling from across the river from the Russians and they continue to try to resolve the situation the Russians left behind, in terms of armaments and booby traps, mines, you name it, but no other major adjustment.

STAFF: Great. Well, thank you all for joining us today. We're going to let our Senior Military Official get back to work but really appreciate it.

Again, happy new year, all, and if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out. Thanks.