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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark A. Milley Hold a Press Conference Following Ukraine Defense Contact Group Virtual Meeting

STAFF: Thank you very much, everyone, for being here today. It's my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley.

The secretary and the chairman will each deliver opening remarks, and then have time to take a few questions. Please note: I will moderate those questions and call on journalists, and would ask that you limit your follow-ups due to our tight schedule today, and I appreciate your assistance with this.

Secretary Austin, over to you, sir.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, Pat. Well, good afternoon, everybody.

We just concluded our 10th highly-successful meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, but before I get to that important work, I want to say just a few words about a troubling episode yesterday.

On Tuesday, Russian aircraft again engaged in dangerous and reckless and unprofessional behavior in the international airspace over the Black Sea. The two Russian jets dumped fuel on an unmanned U.S. MQ-9 aircraft conducting routine operations in international airspace, and one Russian jet struck our M -- MQ-9 aircraft, resulting in a crash. And this hazardous episode is a part -- is part of a pattern of aggressive risk -- risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace.

Now, I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister Shoigu, and as I've said repeatedly, it's important that great powers be models of transparency and communication. And the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows. And it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.

Now, let me turn to the important work of this Contact Group. Today, our extraordinary allies and partners reaffirmed our unity and resolve in supporting Ukraine's fight for freedom. We were joined again today by some-50 nations of goodwill from all around the globe, and they all understand that Ukraine's battle to defend itself from Russian aggression is vital to -- for everyone who values the core principles of sovereignty, self-determination and freedom.

Today, we were joined again by my good friend, Minister Oleksii Reznikov. He comes to each Contact Group meeting with a clear message for the next steps in Ukraine's resistance to Russia's campaign of conquest, and the presentations from him and his team underscore the continued urgency of our support. This Contact Group has pushed hard to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself from Putin's imperial aggression. Brave Ukrainians stood firm during Russia's ground invasion with the help of their new antitank and antiaircraft missiles which Contact Group countries have provided, and Russia's -- Russia hopes to grind down Ukraine in a war of attrition. But Ukraine has been supplied by more than 40 countries.

And meanwhile, Russia has had to depend on Iran and North Korea, and has had to use equipment dating back to World War II. So Russia is running out of capability and running out of friends. Putin has now had a year's-worth of proof that the United States and the Contact Group will support Ukraine's right to defend itself for the long haul. But Putin still hopes that he can wear down Ukraine and wait us out, so we can't let up and we won't.

Ukraine doesn't have any time to waste, and I heard clearly today that our fellow Contact Group members also know that we have to deliver swiftly and fully on our promised commitments, and that includes delivering our armored capabilities to the battlefield and ensuring that Ukrainian soldiers get the -- get the training, spare parts and maintenance support that they need to use these new systems as soon as possible.

And we'll continue to dig deep for new donations, and today, we heard updates on our progress and some significant new commitments. Sweden has announced that it will provide Ukraine with 10 Leopard tanks and key air defense components. Norway is partnering with the United States to donate two NASAM systems to Ukraine. The Netherlands is making great progress in initiate -- initiating new contracts to ensure that new capabilities continue to arrive on the battlefield. And I want to thank Slovenia for its latest contribution which helps meet several of Ukraine's priority requirements, including armor.

For more than a year now, farsighted donations like these by members of this Contact Group have been crucial to Ukraine's fight for sovereignty, and we have provided crucial combat capabilities that Ukraine's defenders will use to further repel Russia's invasion and to exercise initiative and to create favorable conditions on the battlefield.

But for Ukraine to protect its sovereign territory and defend its citizens over the long term we must keep going, so we're going to help Ukraine sustain the tanks, the infantry fighting vehicles and other armored vehicles that are making their way into the front lines, and we're going to continue urgently training Ukrainian soldiers on the capabilities that we're providing and on a combined-arms maneuver tactics that they need to succeed. We're going to keep looking into our stocks and into our budget to resupply Ukraine throughout the year and we're going to continue to -- continue our important work in lockstep with our Ukrainian partners to maintain accountability for the security assistance that we're providing.

SEC. AUSTIN: And finally, above all, we're going to stay united. Together, we're helping Ukraine fight to live free, and together, we're helping to show that rules matter, and together, we're helping to advance our shared security in an open world of rules and rights.

And so thank you very much and I'll now turn it over to the Chairman for his comments.

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: Good afternoon, everyone. And thank you, Secretary Austin, for your leadership. This, as the Secretary pointed out, is our 10th Contact Group, and these meetings and -- and the donations that come from it would not be happening without the incredible leadership of Secretary Austin. So thank you for that. Your direction remains critical to the future success of the group.

And also, thank you to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense Reznikov, my counterpart, General Zaluzhnyi, who was not on the call today but I've talked to him several times in the past week, and the Deputy Chief of Defense who represented General Zaluzhnyi, General Moisiuk. All of them have continued to lead Ukrainians' military in their fight for freedom.

Also, thanks to all of the Ministers of Defense and the Chiefs of Defense from 51 participants in today's meeting, including NATO and the European Union. They joined the meeting and they continued to provide critical support to Ukraine. Each nation is contributing what they can to ensure Ukraine has the means to defend itself against the illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion.

It has been nearly 13 months since Russia invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Ukraine has been independent since 1991 and has presented no threat whatsoever to Russia. Russia launched and has continued for over a year now a war of aggression, in flagrant violation of international law.

This is and remains a Russian frontal assault on the rules-based international order that has been in place for 80 years, eight decades since the end of World War II. In the face of this act of aggression, in a war of conquest, this group remains unified. NATO is united, the people of Ukraine are unyielding, they are standing steadfast in the face of the Russian onslaught.

Russia remains isolated. Their military stocks are rapidly depleting. Their soldiers are demoralized, untrained, unmotivated conscripts and convicts, and their leadership is failing them. Having already failed in their strategic objectives, Russia is increasingly relying on other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, as the Secretary pointed out. They're using Iranian drones to continue to terrorize Ukrainian civilians.

This relationship is built on the cruel bonds of oppressing freedom, subverting liberty, and maintaining their tyranny, yet free people will not return to the shackles of tyranny. Ukrainians remain defiant with steel in their spines and courage in their veins, and they have the broad support of the United States and the international community.

The battle of Bakhmut continues but Ukraine is fighting with valor. With robust defenses, Ukraine has fixed the Russian forces at that city and they're exacting very heavy costs on the Wagner Group and the Russian regular military.

Ukraine remains strong. They are capable and trained. Ukrainian soldiers are strength -- strong in their combat units. Their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored vehicles are only going to bolster the front line.

Ukrainian precision munitions continue to target the logistics and communications systems of Russia. Lacking effective small unit leaders and absent the proper equipment, this is a grinding attrition warfare that Russia is trying to execute.

Wave after wave of Russian soldiers are thrown into the chaos of war, absent any sort of synchronized coordination and direction. Russia continues to pay severely in terms of lives and military equipment for its continued war of choice.

Right now, there is intense fighting in and around Bakhmut and the Russians are making small tactical advances but at great cost. Elsewhere, the front line remains relatively static, with significant exchanges of artillery but no significant maneuver gains by either side.

Right now, as you know, there is a significant ongoing effort to build up the Ukrainian military, in terms of equipment, munitions and training, in a variety of countries in order to enable Ukraine to defend itself. The increased Ukrainian capability will allow the Ukrainian leadership to develop and execute a variety of options in the future to achieve their objectives and bring this war to a successful conclusion.

This is an act of brutal aggression by President Putin and the Russian military, with complete disregard for human life, both civilian and military. The Russians are wantonly killing civilians in large attacks on civilian infrastructure and densely populated urban areas.

The severely undertrained, poorly led, poorly equipped Russian forces are conducting mindless frontal attacks and sacrificing hundreds per day. The political objectives that Putin intended to achieve 384 days ago are obvious to the world, and it should be obvious to Putin that these objectives are no longer achievable by continuing this war and Putin can end this war and he can end it today and he needs to do so. Free people are not easily conquered and the Ukrainian people are free and they will never give up in their fight to stay free.

Two weeks ago, the United States released another security assistance package which included HIMARS, ammunition, artillery, vehicle maintenance and vehicles. The nine countries have pledged over 150 Leopard tanks, for example.

This group that met today is providing air defense, artillery, regular artillery, rocket artillery, armor, ammunition, and that'll be critical to Ukraine's ability to continue the fight. A broad mix of air defense systems have been promised and they will protect the skies over Kyiv and the free cities of Ukraine.

Artillery and armor are going to strengthen Ukraine lines, enable their forces to synchronize fire and movement for either offensive or defensive operations. Long range fires would challenge Russia's ability to command and control, protect and sustain their forces.

The Ukrainian soldiers wear the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag but the colors of 50 other nations that met today stand beside Ukraine to support the principles of the rules-based international order, a system in place to prevent aggression and uphold the values of liberty and sovereignty. That system is what preserves the peace and provides benefits throughout the globe.

As President Biden and Secretary Austin and many others, to include all of the leaders of Europe, have said many times, that we will remain committed for as long as it takes.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.

STAFF: Thank you, gentlemen. First question will go to Lita Baldor, Associated Press.

Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, you said you spoke with your counterpart. Can you give us a sense of the Russians' reaction to the call? Did they suggest to you their defense that this was an accident or intentional or that it never happened? Can you just give us a -- a better readout of your call?

And General Milley, have you spoken to your counterpart or are you intending to do so? And do you believe, after what you've seen, that this was intentional? Is this considered an act of war?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks for the question, Lita. I won't speak for Minister Shoigu, nor would I -- will I get into the details of our discussion. I'll just reiterate that the United States will fly and operate wherever international law allows.

Now, we take any potential for escalation very seriously and that's why I believe it's important to keep the lines of communication open. I think it's really key that we're able to pick up the phone and engage each other. And I think that that will help to prevent miscalculations going forward.

GEN. MILLEY: So, Lita, thanks for the question. On the intentionality, don't know. I do plan to talk to my counterpart, General Gerasimov. We have a scheduled call. We'll see if that works out. So, was it intentional or not? Don't know yet. We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe.

The actual contact of the fixed-wing Russian fighter with our UAV, the physical contact of those two, not sure yet. That remains to be seen. But I can't -- I can tell you with certainty, though, that we have absolute evidence of the contact and the intercepts, et cetera. And it's very aggressive. You've heard about the dumping of the fuel and everything else. We have video evidence of all that. So, there's no question that that part of it is intentional.

The actually physical contact of the aircraft, that I'm not so sure. So, we'll have to figure that out. That we're not -- we're not positive of that yet.

As far as an act of war goes, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to go there. Incidents happen and clearly, we do not seek armed conflict with Russia. And I believe that at this point we should investigate this incident and move on from there. But we will continue to exercise our rights in international airspace.

STAFF: OK, let's go to Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

Q: Gentlemen, thank you for your time today. Secretary Austin, announced and likely presidential candidates already have declared that Ukraine should not be an American priority. Given that the Biden administration has promised to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, are you concerned that election rhetoric could undermine support for Ukraine in Congress or with the American people?

And then, Chairman Milley, the MQ-9 came down on the Black Sea, where the United States has not had any military vessels for more than a year. Is it fair to say that the U.S. will not recover this MQ-9? And do you have any concerns about what value it might have to Russia, either strategically or for propaganda?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Dan. I would -- in terms of the importance of Ukraine, first of all, we've seen bipartisan support for the -- for providing security assistance to Ukraine throughout up to this point. I expect that we will continue to see that going forward. We've heard some senior leaders on both sides of the fence say that. And so, I expect that will -- we'll continue to enjoy that support.

But you know, Dan, Ukraine matters. It matters not to just Ukraine or to the United States. It matters to the world. This is about the rules-based international order. It's about one country's ability to wake up one day and change the borders of its neighbor and annex its neighbor's sovereign territory.

And as we've seen, countries around the world don't think that's a good idea. And that's why you've seen 50 countries, not only come to the -- you know -- the initial meetings of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, but they continue to come back and they continue to work hard to ensure that Ukraine gets everything that it needs to be successful. And that will remain our focus going forward.

GEN. MILLEY: So, Dan, on the recovery piece, we know where it landed in the Black Sea. It's probably about maybe 4,000 or 5,000 feet of water, something like that. So, any recovery operation is very difficult at that depth by anyone. That's the first point.

Secondly, is true, we don't have any ships there, but we do have a lot of allies and friends in the area. We'll work through recovery operations. That's U.S. property and -- and we'll -- we'll leave it that at this point, but it probably broke up. There's probably not a lot to recover, frankly.

As far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence, et cetera, as normal, we would take -- and we did take mitigating measures, so we are quite confident that whatever -- whatever was of value is no longer of value.

STAFF: Our next question will go to Ellie Watson, CBS.

Q: Thanks for doing this. Secretary Austin, General Milley mentioned the video. We've reports there you're working to declassify a video of the incident. What does that video show? And when will that video be released? Why hasn't it been released yet?

And General Milley, Secretary Austin talked about the pattern of behavior. How often is Russia conducting these harassing maneuvers? And has it increased in recent weeks?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Ellie. As -- as -- as you know, as you said, we are still going through videos and -- and -- and photographs to -- to ascertain what -- what we can release, what we can provide. But in terms of what the video shows, we remain confident in the facts that we have conveyed thus far, and I -- that will not -- that will not change in terms of, you know, what happened and how it happened. And -- and so again, we'll work through as quickly as we can to evaluate videos and if -- we'll let you know when we have something that we -- in terms of video or stills that we can provide you, so...

GEN. MILLEY: In terms of the pattern of behavior, Ellie, yes, this is part of a pattern of behavior. The United States and Russian military forces operate in proximity to each other throughout the world. We're operating in the Middle East, in Syria, for example. The -- the -- we have areas up in Alaska that routinely meet a maritime or aerial vessels come in contact in the -- in the maritime areas outside of Hawaii, for example, but also, obviously, in Europe, and particularly in Ukraine.

So the fact that we operate in proximity to each other is not particularly unusual, and we do try to establish deconfliction channels in order to make sure that our forces are physically separated and we don't have incidents like this. But there is a pattern of behavior recently where there's a little bit more aggressive actions being conducted by the Russians. We think -- we haven't completed our analysis as to why that's happening, that we -- and it wasn't just involving us; there was some incidents earlier with the British and some other -- other nations, as well. So there is a pattern of behavior going on here, and we have to figure out exactly what the way ahead is. I think that was one of the fundamental reasons for Secretary's call to Minister Shoigu and one of the fundamental reasons for my call to General Gerasimov.

STAFF: Go to Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.

Q: Thank you. General Milley, I was wondering if you could clarify something you said earlier. You said there -- U.S. has a lot of allies and friends in the region, referring to the Black Sea. Am I to take from that that the U.S. is prepared to send or request allied ships to go in and survey and possibly recover the drone, or is the expectation that the U.S. has -- does not intend to recover the drone?

And then Secretary Austin, I'd like to go back to some comments you made in Brussels. You said that Bakhmut was largely symbolic. Are you concerned that the Ukrainian investment in Bakhmut potentially takes away resources that could be applied to the spring offensive and risk the outcome of that offensive? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: I -- if you don't mind, I'll go first, Nancy. I -- first of all, let me applaud the -- the valor, the persistence that we've seen from the Ukrainian soldiers. They have done amazing things in Bakhmut. I think the Russians have been working to take Bakhmut for some-seven months or so now, and they haven't been very successful, and that's because of the diligence, the commitment, the focus of the Ukrainian soldiers.

In terms of the significance of Bakhmut, I would say -- I would point to the fact that President Zelenskyy is fighting this fight, and he will make the calls on what's important and what's not important to his forces, and whether he needs to reposition or remain in Bakhmut.

The point that I would make is if he does make a call to reposition at some point in time, it doesn't mean that the war is lost. It -- it may mean, and probably will mean that he is positioning himself to maintain advantage, and -- and so I think that's the real key there. But whether or not he stays there or how long they stay there, that's President Zelenskyy's call and not, you know, not anybody else's. And again, our goal is to make sure that we're supporting him in whatever decision he's going to -- battlefield decision he's going to make.

And by the way, we're generating combat power to a degree that we believe that it will provide them opportunities to change the dynamics on the battlefield at some point going forward. Whatever point that is, whatever -- you know, whatever they want to do in the future, I think the -- the platforms, the -- the training, the sustainment, the maintenance that we're providing is -- it will make a significant difference.

And as we work through all of this with our allies and partners in detail today in the meeting we are on pace, and that's in large measure be -- due to the professionalism of our forces who are conducting the training and equipping, but also forces around the -- around Europe. As the chairman pointed out, you know, there are -- there are a number of countries that are conducting training in -- in -- in their countries. They're providing various platforms, and -- and we're really focused on how we're going to sustain those platforms, as well, so...

GEN. MILLEY: And Nancy, on the question of the recovery piece, I wouldn't read too much into what I said. We do have allies and friends in the region. We don't have any naval surface vessels in the Black Sea at this time, and we'll work up options. But as I said at the outset, this is probably about 4- -- 5,000 feet of water, and it probably -- don't know for certain -- we -- this -- it'll be days before we have actual facts on the -- on the impact and what debris is there. It probably sank to some significant depths. So any recovery operation from a technical standpoint would be very difficult. If there is reason to believe that we could or -- recover something, then we'll work up options for the secretary and the president to consider and we'll move from there. But we do have options and we do have friends and allies in the region.

STAFF: OK, we have time for one more. Let's go to (Kasim ?).

Q: Thank you very much for your time and gentlemen, I have two questions. Chairman Milley, you were in Syria earlier this month, and that visit hit a lot of headlines in Turkey, and eventually, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs summoned Ambassador Flake to the ministry to provide an explanation. What was the message behind your visit, sir?

And to Secretary Austin, Turkiye has requested to buy new F-16s, and also modernization kits for its existing fleet, and Ankara is saying that lack of approval as soon as possible will not only undermine the Turkish nation's security, but also the security of NATO. So I was -- I -- I would -- I would like to ask your -- assess your insights on this assessment and your thoughts about providing Block 70 F-16s to Turkey. Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, well, Turkey's a NATO ally and we have a strong -- a longstanding, strong relationship with Turkey and we intend to do everything possible to keep it that way. It's real important to us that we maintain interoperability between our NATO allies, and -- and so that'll always be a focus, it'll always be a priority.

As you know, typically we don't comment on any pending equipment sales prior to Congress being notified, so I don't have any comments to make on -- on that particular FMS case, but -- but again, I would just highlight the fact that Turkey remains a very valuable partner and we'll make sure that we're doing everything we can to continue to strengthen our relationship.

GEN. MILLEY: And from my visit, it was nothing more than a routine troop visit to determine the task, purpose, mission, to go out and check on that, see how we're doing, and to assess things like force protection, et cetera.

We've got, you know, almost 1,000 troops in Syria and -- and they are at risk, they are attacked from time to time with various types of munitions by various actors that are in the area of Syria. So I want to go over and -- and check on them and to make sure that the mission is validated and -- and I come back and report out to the Secretary on -- on -- on what that is.

With respect to Turkey, Turkey and the United States have a common interest here and we have had a common interest for years. We've been there for years. And the common interest is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.

ISIS, the caliphate, was destroyed but the organization -- there's still remnants of that organization over there, there's still refugee camps and prison camps that are there that we're helping out folks training folks to help secure those.

So it's in our interests and it's in the -- it's in Turkey's interests and -- and it's for sure something that I needed to do and -- and it's -- it's -- it -- appropriately -- perfectly appropriate for the Chairman to go check on how the forces are doing and -- especially when they're in harm's way.

STAFF: Secretary Austin, General Milley, thank you very much, gentlemen. This concludes the time we have available today. Thank you very much.