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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Media Availability With Reporters During Travel in Middle East

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:  First of all, let me thank you for joining us.  I don't know how many — how much time each of you has spent in Jordan before, but it is truly a special place.  Jordan is a great partner, and they've enabled our work in the region in a number of areas over the years.  And so I've known His Majesty for some time, as you would imagine, and we had a great opportunity to visit yesterday.  And you've seen the readout of that engagement.

I hope you had a chance to see some of the training facility here and talk to some of the troops, as well.  My view is the troops look pretty gosh darn good, and they're pretty excited about what they're doing on a daily basis, so with that, I'll turn to you for questions.

STAFF:  We'll go to Idrees first.

Q:  Just very quickly on Ukraine, because that's the red-hot topic globally, how imminent is the fall of Bakhmut?  And are you concerned that if it does fall, it might be a sign of Russian forces getting momentum and taking more territory?  And then I have a follow-up on that.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, thanks for the heads-up on the follow-up.

Idrees, as you know, I never make predictions about fights. This has been a contested area for several months.  The Russians have desperately tried to seize Bakhmut, and over several months they have not made much progress.  I attribute that to the courage, the valor of the Ukrainian forces, and how this goes going forward is left to be seen.  I think both sides are really leaning into this in a major way.

If the Ukrainians decide to reposition in some of the terrain that's west of Bakhmut, I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback.  I think, you know, there is some very defensible terrain in that area.  I think Bakhmut — I certainly don't want to discount the tremendous work that the Ukrainians' soldiers and leaders have put into defending Bakhmut — but I think it's more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value.

So the fall of Bakhmut won't necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.  I mean, I think it will continue to be contested, and quite frankly, as we've seen in the past, the Ukrainians tend to counterattack when the opportunity presents itself.  So how this will eventually turn out is left to be seen.

What I do see on a daily basis is the Russians continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops, and those troops are very quickly meeting their demise.  I think we'll continue to see that with the Russians going forward.  The Ukrainians are fighting to hold their own.  At the same time, they're building combat power. They're training troops.  They're receiving new platforms, and we've talked about some of those, you know, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which is a really good capability, Strykers, Marders and CB90s.  And that training is going on all around Europe, and a number of countries have a part in this.  And so I think at the end of the day, the Ukrainians are going to have some pretty good combat capability when all is said and done.

Q:  Okay, and a very quick follow-up:  How indispensable are Wagner forces to the Russian military effort?  And how do you assess the fissures between Wagner and proper Russian military?

SEC. AUSTIN:  I think the fissures are there.  You know, you see that playing itself out in open media from time to time.  I think in terms of effectiveness, I would say the Wagner forces have been a bit more effective than the Russian forces.  They've used convicts, prisoners to kind of lead their charge routinely, and I don't think they're recruiting from the prisons anymore.  But those types of techniques have just been really interesting, quite frankly, unthinkable, and we've seen a lot of convicts meet their demise fairly early on, but you know, they're a bit better than the Russian forces.  Now, having said that, we've not seen exemplary performance from the Russian forces writ large.

STAFF:  Let's go to Felicia, Financial Times.

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  The allies that you're visiting in the Middle East this week are worried that the U.S. is distracted by Russia and China.  How can you reassure them that the U.S. is in this region for the long term?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, you know, we can say a lot of things, but you can judge us by our actions.  And quite frankly, Felicia, we know that today, we have some 34,000-plus troops in this region.  We have a large Air Force capability and a naval fleet that's in this region.  We have substantial air defense capability.

And so we've said over and over again, we've reassured our allies that we're going to be here for the long haul.  This is an important region, and not only to us, but to the world.  And we will continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure that as we move forward, we're better integrating their capabilities so that we can have better domain awareness in the air domain and the maritime domain, and that we can share information and work in an interoperable fashion.  So that'll be our focus going forward.  Again, we still have a substantial amount of capability here.

Now, I would also say that we've demonstrated over and over again that we can rapidly surge capability to any part of the globe that we need to, but especially here in the Middle East because we've operated here for, you know, 20-plus years, in and out, and so the platforms to enable us to deploy rapidly, I think, are very mature.  And again, our allies and our partners in the region are very much used to working with us.  So as I go around to visit our friends in these various countries, I'll reassure them that we remain committed to this region.

Q:  And one follow-up, if I may.  Others in the administration have and, I guess, across the administration, there have been warnings that China is considering giving lethal assistance to Russia.  I guess since you last spoke about this, has anything changed?  Are there any signs that China's going to do that?  And what kinds of assistance?

SEC. AUSTIN:  What you heard me say last, Felicia, was that we've not seen China provide any materiel assistance to Ukraine but they haven't taken that off the table.  And what I would say today is that, you know, my assessment has not changed.  We've not seen that to date, and again, we would certainly discourage them from doing that, and so.

STAFF:  Let's go to Liz Friden, Fox.

Q:  Thank you.  So with Iran no longer bound by the JCPOA, what is the U.S. doing to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threat?  And I have a follow-up.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, you've heard the President say a number of times that we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.  And of course, if things evolve, we need to take action to prevent that from happening, then, you know, my job as Secretary of Defense is to make sure that I'm providing the President with the right options.

Q:  My follow-up is regarding Iran's relationship with Russia.  Do you see that as a growing relationship?  And does that relationship have the potential to launch Iran to becoming a world power, a world threat?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Iran's relationship with Russia?

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Russia has, throughout this conflict, they've gone through tremendous amount of their weapons and munitions.  And so now we see them in a position that they're reaching out to other countries around the globe to get additional capability.

Iran is foremost among the countries that they've engaged and we've seen Iran most recently provide one way attack UAVs to Russia.  Russia's used those UAVs to attack critical infrastructure in Ukraine, and that's caused the injury and death of a number of civilians.

What Iran is doing is really unthinkable and certainly in terms of the region, for the future of the region, it's a really bad thing.  They're getting more experienced as they employ these UAVs in Ukraine, and that doesn't bode well for the region here.

We also expect that Russia will provide technology back to Iran in return for some of the help that they've gotten.  And of course, if you're a country in this region, you'd be very concerned about that, and they are.  All of the countries are very concerned about that.

So this relationship is very troubling and one that we need to keep an eye on and discourage Iran from that kind of activity going forward.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Let's go to Todd Lopez, DOD News.

Q:  Hey, good afternoon, sir.  I know this trip focuses heavily on partnerships here with these Middle Eastern nations that you're visiting.  What are you asking leaders here for to increase those partnerships?  What is the U.S. providing as well to increase that commitment to partnership?  And in a few years, what will be the indicators of success, if it is indeed successful?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, it will be successful.  In terms of specific asks, you know, as we engage various countries, there are a number of individual issues that we will work on with those countries.

We're asking countries to continue to do those things that move the needle towards greater stability and security.  And again, each country is different.  But it's less of a campaign to ask countries for various things, it's more to reassure our partners that we are here for the long term.  We're going to be by their side going forward no matter what.  And, you know, we've seen great partnerships over the last, you know, many, many years, last several decades, and those partnerships have in fact created greater stability in the region.

As we move forward and things evolve, the United States will continue to be a major player in making sure that we are working with partners to integrate capabilities and increase domain awareness, to continue to provide valuable intelligence resources to our allies and to our partners in the region.

So in terms of what it looks like five years from now, I think it'll continue to improve, we'll continue to work to develop capabilities.

Q:  Thanks.

STAFF:  Okay.  Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.