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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General CQ Brown, Jr. Hold an On-Camera Post-Ukraine Defense Contact Group Meeting Press Conference, Ramstein Air Base, Germany

STAFF: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you so much for being here. It is my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General CQ Brown Jr. The Secretary and Chairman will deliver opening remarks and then we’ll have time to take a few questions. Please note that I will moderate those questions and call on journalists, and due to time constraints, I would ask that those I call upon please limit your follow-up questions to give your colleagues a chance to ask their question, and I appreciate your assistance with this.

And with that, over to Secretary Austin.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, Patrick, and good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us at Ramstein today.

We've just held another highly-successful meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. We've met 20 times now, and I'm more determined than ever.

This Contact Group continues to be inspired by the spirit of Ukraine. For more than two years, Ukraine's troops have been fighting valiantly against the Kremlin's invaders, and Ukraine's people have refused to be cowed by Russian attacks on civilians in cities and villages far from the front line. And the Ukraine people -- Ukrainian people will not let Putin prevail, and neither will we. As President Biden has said, we will not walk away.

Now, Putin hoped to isolate Ukraine. Instead, he left himself alone with Iran and North Korea, and that's a far cry from the some-50 nations of goodwill from all around the world who gathered again today. Our allies and partners are here because they understand the stakes, and Ukraine's friends continue to come up with innovative solutions to make key new commitments to provide Ukraine with urgently-needed capabilities, especially air defense and armor and artillery ammunition, and we're proud to stand with them. That's why we recently announced more U.S. security assistance for Ukraine valued at up to $300 million, and our allies and partners continue to step up, and the United States must also.

Over nearly two years, this Contact Group has generated more than $88 billion in security assistance commitments for Ukraine, and that includes 15 U.S. allies who are committing more to Ukraine than us as a share of their GDP. Now, we continue to focus on two tracks. First, we're working together to provide near-term support for Ukraine's troops, and second, we're hard at work with Ukrainian -- with Ukraine's leaders to plan its long-term defense and deterrence.  This long-term support is rooted in the capability coalitions, and they are now up and running. Capability coalitions bring together countries to focus on Ukraine's most critical immediate and long-term needs. Our aim is to help Ukraine build a combat-credible force for the long haul. The capability coalitions will help -- will -- will let Ukraine's friends coordinate our support for years to come, and they create a coherent, nimble and sustained approach to Ukraine's long-term security.

So this morning, I convened the first meeting of the Capability Coalition Leadership Group, and that meeting infused even more unity of effort and purpose across these eight coalitions. More than a dozen allies leading one or more of the capability coalitions gathered to discuss our progress and coordinate the way ahead for crosscutting issues. United States is grateful to Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United Kingdom. They have all stepped up to lead the capability coalitions and to commit resources and personnel to this critical task, and their leadership is a testament to the unity and resolve at Ramstein today.

Now, the United States stands by Ukraine because it's the right thing to do and because America cares when freedom is at risk. But we also stand by Ukraine because it's crucial to our own security. The United States would face grave new perils in a world where aggression and autocracy are on the march and where tyrants are emboldened and where dictators think that they can wipe a democracy off the map. So when we invest in Ukraine's security, we invest in our own security and we strengthen this Contact Group's shared vision of an open world of rules and rights and responsibilities.

Today, Ukraine's survival is in danger, and America's security is at risk, and they don't have a -- they don't have a day to waste and we don't have a day to spare, either. So I leave here today fully determined to keep U.S. security assistance and ammunition flowing, and that's a matter of survival and sovereignty for Ukraine and it's a matter of honor and security for America. And make no mistake: Putin is watching, the world is watching and history is watching.

And with that, General Brown, the floor is yours.

GENERAL CHARLES "CQ" BROWN JR.: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Good afternoon, everyone.

Two days after the start of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in a fireside chat, "When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger."

Russia's shattered peace on the European continent with his continued efforts to invade and annex Ukraine. Nearly two years, the Ukraine Defense Contact Group has reaffirmed that the broken peace in Ukraine affects peace for us all, and this coalition of steadfast allies and partners continues to work to achieve just and lasting peace on the European continent.

Today, the European (sic) Defense Contact Group met to discuss our continued commitments to support Ukraine, commitments that are turned into action by some-50 countries here in attendance. I want to echo many of the comments that were made today and thank Secretary Austin for his continued leadership and strategic vision for this international coalition.

Also, I want to thank Defense Minister Umerov, who was with us today, and for getting Ukraine and its forces with grit and resistance. Also, I want to thank all the nations represented who joined us for the Ukraine Defense Contact Group to provide the invaluable support.

Eight decades ago, President Roosevelt highlighted how global security is interconnected. When conflict disrupted peace in Europe in 1939, it threatened global security and plunged our world into conflict. Today, global security has been challenged once again, and a (broken peace ?) in Ukraine represents a risk for us all.

Just over two years ago, Putin amassed 180,000 troops on the borders of a free, independent, and sovereign Ukraine. The citizens of Ukraine mobilized. Ukraine's military expanded. And for two years of hard and intense fighting, the people of Ukraine have sacrificed their lives and their homes to beat back a larger and supposed more capable military.

Despite the enormity of the challenge, Ukraine halted initial Russian advances, preventing them from taking Kyiv, and launched successful and -- offensive operations to retake territory in the eastern parts of their country.

Ukrainian forces were able to retake more than half the territory that Russia temporarily occupied during the early stages of the conflict. Although Russia has made some incremental gains since, it has -- has been at great cost of personnel and equipment.

Ukraine continues re-trenching their defenses to fortify their lines and maximize the effects of their ammunition and supplies. From the beginning, Ukraine has asked for the capability and training to stay in the fight, and for two years, Ukrainian forces have used this coalition's support to repel Russian attacks, using innovative strategies and tactics. They have consistently imposed severe tolls on Russian forces and capabilities.

Heavy costs on the battlefield combined with our collective pressure on the Russian economy has forced Russia to turn to the likes of Iran and North Korea to replenish its military stockpiles and enable its war against Ukraine.

For two years, we have shown the outcomes we can achieve when we act together and provide support to Ukraine. Russia's planned -- Russia's plan is to wait out Western will to support Ukraine. This coalition must not let that strategy work.

Collectively, allies and partners contribute more than $88 billion in security assistance. This support doesn't just help Ukraine, it strengthens NATO, it helps to bolster the defense industrial base of the United States, Europe, and the world. It enables our own security. The collective support will ensure Ukraine is successful today and into the future.

As President Biden and Secretary Austin have said, the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine. Peace and security are more than just words, is more than just belief. Peace and security require constant work and constant action. The Ukraine Defense Contact Group will continue its work to achieve peace and security for Ukraine and for all.

And thank you. I look forward to your questions.

STAFF: Thank you both, gentlemen. Our first question will come from Missy Ryan, Washington Post.

Q: Thank you very much. Secretary Austin, nice to see you. First for you, how great is the risk of a major Russian breakthrough, given the shortages that Ukraine is now facing? And does that danger continue to grow if the U.S. supplemental is delayed further? And do you think given the stakes that you laid out in the fight in Ukraine, do you think the United States has a responsibility to dip further into its own stockpiles if the supplemental doesn't pass?

And then for you, General Brown, the White House has said that the United States and Israel, based on a U.S. request, are now discussing alternatives to a major ground operation in Rafah. What alternative options exist for achieving Israel's security goals in southern Gaza, including destroying the remaining Hamas battalions, without further threatening aid delivery and further endangering the -- the civilians who are sheltering there? Could -- could it achieve those goals with some combination of targeted rates and precision strikes? Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Missy. It's great to see you as well.

Regarding a potential Russian breakthrough, what we've seen on the battlefield is a series of incremental gains by -- by the Russians. To the point that the Chairman made a couple of minutes ago, these gains have come at significant costs, in terms of personnel and equipment. But nonetheless, you know, we have seen some incremental gains.

And as I have engaged my -- my counterparts and -- and the Chief of Defense in -- in Ukraine, they feel confident in their ability to continue to defend their sovereign territory and -- and hold the line. Of course, they need munitions, they need -- they need support in order to be able to continue to do that. And -- and of course, that's where the supplemental comes in, and we -- we certainly would hope that we would see this supplemental get passed soon.

You know, I continue to see broad support in both chambers of -- of Congress for the -- for Ukraine. And so I'm optimistic that we will see some action moving forward, but -- but again, it's -- this is a thing that you can't absolutely predict, and we'll continue to work closely with Congress and our international partners to ensure that Ukraine receives the -- the support it needs.

The thing I would like to highlight, Missy, is that the United States is not doing this alone. As you witnessed today, again, some 50 countries gathered for the 20th time to -- to address the security assistance for Ukraine. And in that -- in that meeting, I continued to hear unity and resolve and an effort to find a way to continue to provide that support.

So we're seeing allies and partners step up, but the -- the support from the United States of America of course is very, very important.

GEN. BROWN: Thanks, Missy, for the question. Having not seen the detailed plans that the Israelis might have for Rafah, it's hard for me to -- to -- to lay out a -- an alternative. And even so, I wouldn't provide to you specifics in this forum naturally.

But one of the things that -- at -- as I've engaged with my counterpart and as we've engaged with the Israelis throughout, even shortly after 7 October -- we've had experience in operating in -- in urban environments in the Middle East. We continue to talk about how-- the lessons learned that we have without telling -- dictating to the Israelis on -- on how to execute.

At -- at the same time, we -- we also talked to them about the -- how do we protect civilians. And I can say from personal experience, having led the -- parts of the air campaign in the Defeat ISIS effort, our focus on how do you protect civilians and minimize any type of collateral damage is a continued conversation, and that'll be an aspect of the conversation that we will have with the -- as I -- we continue to have with the Israelis as they ponder future operations.

STAFF: Thank you. Our next question will go to Ute Spangenberger, ARD.

Q: Hello. A question to both gentlemen. Are there plans to transfer the Ukraine Defense Contact Group into NATO structures? It would make things maybe easier or just the other way around, more complicated.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Ute. Good to see you again.

The UDCG has been a very effective forum, as you know. Again, we met -- this is the 20th meeting. And each of these meetings are well attended. And each of these meetings, again, our partners and allies come and express sustained support for Ukraine.

Now, over time, Ute, we'll shift from a focus on the current fight solely to more of a focus on building a longer-term capability for Ukraine. And you're already starting to see that with what we're doing with our capability coalitions.

We're -- we have countries that have volunteered to lead these coalitions that are focused on the critical war-fighting capabilities that Ukraine will need to be able to defended its sovereign territory and deter aggression in the future. And so we'll see that -- that transition continue as we go forward, but for right now, we're focused on making sure that we can get Ukraine the security assistance that it needs to be successful today and in the near and mid-term, so, yeah.

STAFF: Thank you. Next question will go to Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.

Q: Thank you. Secretary Austin, in December you warned that if Israel did not protect civilians in Gaza, it risks a tactical win but strategic defeat.

Since that time, we've seen tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza killed or wounded. And now they face potential famine. Has the U.S. considered withholding offensive weapons that Israel has asked for?

And if not, why do you believe that the U.S. is right to build piers and conduct airdrops but not leverage everything it can, including conditions on weapons, to open land routes and protect civilians?

General Brown, in light of Niger's announcement that it will end its military relationship with the United States, are U.S. forces leaving?

If so, when and how? And how would that impact the U.S. counter-terrorism operations in the region?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Nancy. To take us back to where this started, on October 7th, Hamas launched a brutal attack against Israel and killed 1,200 Israelis and took 200 Israelis hostage -- hostage. And 100 of those hostages are still held by Hamas.

And so we acknowledged, from the very beginning, that Israel has a fundamental right to be able to defend itself. And -- and so we're going to continue to support them as -- as they try to do that, and ensure that they have what they need to defend their people.

But we also recognize the importance of ensuring that people remain safe in Gaza. And the two things aren't mutually exclusive. You know, you can conduct operations to defend your sovereign territory; you can -- you can -- and protect your people, but, by the same token, protect civilians in the battle-space and provide humanitarian assistance to -- to those people that are in need, in the space, as well.

And we have -- we continue to encourage the Israeli leadership to do just that, to make sure that they're doing everything possible to get increasing amounts of humanitarian assistance into -- into Gaza. And we are doing everything that we can do to -- to help as well.

You've seen us do airdrops. And certainly, if we can increase the volume of humanitarian assistance by providing a -- an option, a maritime option, that makes a lot of sense. We could, you know, maybe increase the amount of meals that are provided on a daily basis by some 2 million meals, which is -- that's -- that's material. That's substantial. And so, you know, we will continue to do that.

Israel has a right to defend itself but they also -- there's also a need to protect the civilians in the battlespace. And again, the two things aren't mutually exclusive.

GEN. BROWN: Nancy, thanks for the question. As you saw over the course of the weekend, there was some announcements from the -- from a Niger about our relationship. But even since then, there's been some mixed signals that we received. And so, if a decision is made to depart, we make plans, as you might imagine, we always make plans for different contingencies. And so, we will continue to make plans and prepare, if whether we stay or depart.

What I would tell you just on the impact or counterterrorism, you know, since the events in July that has impacted our ability to support our counterterrorism. And as we look to the future, we will continue to look at other nations within the West Africa as well as some of our allies and partners who are actually working counterterrorism. And, matter of fact, I had a chance to sit down with a couple of the chiefs of defense, that they're also working counterterrorism in West Africa as well, to talk more holistically about our approach as we all work together as we do, just like we're here working on Ukraine.

Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you, gentlemen. Our final question will go to Aissa Taibi, Al Jazeera.

Q: Thank you, sir. Just follow my question of my colleagues about Gaza over the past 24 hours Israel army has carried out a series of airstrikes on the city of Rafah, leaving thousands dead and injured.

As you know, Rafah house 1 million of civilian and we know that Mr. -- President Biden (inaudible) is right (inaudible) (Prime Minister ?) Netanyahu not to launch an attack on Rafah. But that attack is going on.

My question to you, sir, what's your position now in this military Israeli operation on the ground right now? Thank you, sir.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thank you for the question. And, you know, we've been clear about the need to prioritize the protection of civilians and that a military operation should not proceed without a clear and implementable plan to evacuate those civilians out of the battlespace and also care for them once you -- once you evacuate them.

Now, we communicated this a number of times from the president's level on down. And certainly, you know, I've communicated with my counterpart a number of times. So, that should be a key part of any military, any plan, any type of operational planning to account for and protect those civilians that are in the battlespace. And again, we've yet to see such a plan, but we'll have an opportunity to engage the leadership here on that soon, so.

STAFF: Secretary Austin, General Brown, thank you both very much gentlemen.

Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes our press briefing. Thank you very much for joining us today.