Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Conducts Press Briefing, Bangkok, Thailand > U.S. Department of Defense > Transcript

Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official Hold a Background Briefing > U.S. Department of Defense > Transcript

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you. Good to be with you again today. Today, I’ll be very brief with my opening comments and then hand it off to [Senior Military Official].

First observation is that, although we continue to see Russia failing — failing on the battlefield, paying a high price for very little gain, and suffering domestic failures at home, I was really struck this week by how Russian rhetoric was trying to mask these losses, and what we saw was really very expansionist rhetoric coming out of Moscow. 

A couple of examples of this — we heard Foreign Minister Lavrov reversing his government’s earlier denials that they were seeking regime change in Kyiv, and — and he talked this week of getting rid of the regime in Kyiv. We also saw former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev post a map on his Telegram channel depicting a Ukraine that has been swallowed up by Russia and its neighbors, leaving only a sliver of the country in Kyiv Oblast.

And even as we have heard this really imperialist rhetoric, we’ve learned more about how Russia is (inaudible) in the areas of Ukraine that it occupies. The National Intelligence Council released a chilling report that described at least 18 so-called filtration camps, where Ukrainians are subject to inhumane conditions, including abuse, and in some cases, executions.

So I’ll conclude by, you know, highlighting that even as Russia is talking a big talk, even as Russia is menacing the Ukrainian population, the Ukrainians continue to bravely advance, they’re making tremendous use of the $8.2 billion in equipment we’ve provided thus far.

Now, today, I don’t have a security assistance announcement for you but I can say that we’re working very hard and consulting closely with our Ukrainian Ministry of Defense counterparts and we will be preparing another assistance package soon to ensure that the Ukrainians have the munitions they need for their fight in the east and now also in the south.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior Military Official].

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thanks, [SDO]. First of all, good afternoon, everyone. Happy to be back with you on day 156 of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked large scale invasion of Ukraine.

Like [SDO], I don’t have a significantly large kind of a set of initial comments. I would — you know, certainly, you all are tracking the missile strikes outside of Kyiv over the week and I know you’re strike — you’re tracking the missile strikes down in Odesa, even in the midst of the — you know, the attempt by the world to get grain moving.

I would highlight, and you all have been reporting on the advances that the Ukrainians are making around Kherson — and we have seen — and they’re not large, giant advances but they are certainly advances against the Russians.

There was one other comment I was going to make, and of course, I’ve forgotten what it was, so I will — I will actually stop right there and I’m — I’m prepared with (inaudible) to answer any questions you might have.

STAFF: Thank you, sir. All right, up first, I have Dan De Luce from NBC.

Q: Could — yeah, thank you. I just wanted to ask, can you indicate or provide any description of Russian force strength in the south, around Kherson, and to what degree are they sending in additional troops or resources? And could you kind of convey what the scale of that reinforcement is?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Hey, Dan, I don’t have — I don’t have particulars on the size. We have — like you, heard of the Russians moving forces around. It would make sense, from a military perspective, as I had mentioned before, you know, the Ukrainians are giving it to them pretty good and I think they’re looking for ways that they can reinforce, you know, their failures here.

STAFF: Thanks, Dan. Ellee Watson, CBS?

Q: Hi, thank you. Just to get it out of the way, can you update us on the claims from both Ukraine and Russia that the other side attacked this prison with prisoners of war — Ukrainian prisoners of war?

And then I also have a question on where right now are the Russians drawing replacements for their losses from? Do they have much capacity left in Russia available to draw from?

And last one, do you have any update on the NASAMS, when the NASAMS will be in Ukraine?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So Ellee, I will — let me get after your first two and then I’ll pass it over to [SDO] on the last.

As to the prisoners of war, we — again, we’re — we’re hearing the same reports you are. I guess what I’d tell you is, I don’t have any definitive information in terms of, you know, what happened in particular. 

I would ask, you know, as you all look at this, that we apply some caution specifically to what the Russians are telling us, just because we know that they have made several claims in the past that have not been close to correct. So I’ll leave it at that.

On the replacements, you all reported on this a couple weeks ago and the ways that the — I think somebody called it “the” — gosh, I don’t know, “hidden mobilization,” something like that. And I forget which periodical it was. I don’t if we still — do people still say “periodical”? In any event, I forget which one it was, but you talked about the fact that Putin had found ways to get more soldiers in uniform. 

We know that he is paying people. We know that he is contracting soldiers to stay who otherwise would not. You know, they are — they have laws just like we do on mobilization. And he has been very particular about, you know, what he has called this in terms of, you know, the — he has not termed it a full war. But we know he is finding ways to get people that will move in, to include former soldiers that they have called back on active duty, reservists they have called back on active duty. And as a result I think what we’re seeing is their battlefield effectiveness in many cases is very poor. You’re putting people inside, you know, tanks. I don’t know where I saw the video, but there was a video of a Russian tank just driving around in a circle. And it turned out it’s because the driver was not trained. He didn’t know how to drive the tank. It wasn’t because they were having fun in the tank. 

So I think they are having problems in trying to figure this out. You know, here’s the other thing I would tell you. You know, I certainly don’t have their particular casualties. And I’ll refer you to the Russians and to the Ukrainians for casualty figures. But whatever the casualty figures for the Russians are, you know, depending on the left and right that people are reporting on, they’re very significant. And when you look at the numbers of people that they have lost, it’s impossible to believe that they’re not having to figure out ways to replace them if they want to continue to go toe-to-toe with Ukrainians. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. 

And Ellee, I do not have a delivery date for you on NASAMS. 

STAFF: Thanks, Ellee. 

Luis Martinez, ABC. 

Hi, Luis, are you there? 

Q: Yes, I’m here. Sorry, I could not find the right buttons. 

Thanks, everybody, for doing this briefing. As we go into this now, this fifth month, how much longer can this last in the Donbas up in the north with such very small incremental gains? And just moving to the left there, in Kherson, are you really seeing signs that the Kherson counteroffensive that the Ukrainians have been talking about is actually happening? Are those attacks on the bridges shaping operations? Is Kherson really cut off from the rest of the Crimea? Thanks. 

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So, Luis, I would — and I think I’ve said this in the past, but I’d be — I’d really hesitate to give any thoughts on how long that can last. And I’d just go back to, you know, February when everybody was essentially reporting that — to include us in some cases, that this was not going to last very long. You know, we had the full might of the Russian army applied to just about every side of the Ukrainian — of Ukraine. And here we are five months into it and, you know, a gigantic strategic failure on the side of the Russians where they had to reposition their people out from the north around to the east to try and make some gains. And those gains, as you’ve seen, have been relatively small at a gigantic cost. So I’d really hesitate to give you an idea of how long this lasts. It certainly looks like it’s going to last as, you know, the Ukrainians are able to go toe-to-toe. 

So going back down to Kherson, I don’t know if it’s a part of a counteroffensive. I know they’re making offensive gains. And they are doing so, you know, against a Russian force that, as we were talking earlier, looks like they are ill-prepared for it. So, anyways, I’ll leave it at that, Luis. 

STAFF: Thanks, Luis. Tom Bowman, NPR?

Q: Yeah, can you talk a little bit more about what we’re seeing in the east, where the Russians are moving, where they’re hunkering down? Any — any more detail … 

(CROSSTALK)

… for Senior Military Official, of course.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: I was going to give that one to [SDO], Tom.

Q: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So we — we’re — I don’t want to say that it’s a complete standstill because that would be inaccurate. There are gains on both sides but very — back and forth, very small. You know, we’ve been talking — and — and so I’ll go back — I think it was probably three or four weeks ago — in fact, it was probably the first time I did one of these pressers, we were talking about Severodonetsk and I had mentioned to you that, you know, they were — the Ukrainians were withdrawing but they were withdrawing in a way that I thought we would probably study.

You know, they’ve gotten to a point now and have — have created a level of defense that really has the Russians at a standstill, they’ve stopped. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. You know, we mentioned morale, we mentioned casualties. Those are certainly reasons that the Russians may have stopped. The other reason may be the Ukrainians have become very effective in finding and killing, you know, Russian command and control and destroying large levels of Russian materiel.

So I think what — what we’re seeing on the east is a result of that. And then if you know, if you just look at the axes from Izyum, those defenses have been stalwart now for coming up on three weeks. So the Russians again have been able to make very little progress.

You wonder, in the Russian leadership perspective, if they look at the small level of ground — and again, as I said then, if you’re a Ukrainian and you give up a foot, that’s a big deal to you, but if you look at the small amount of ground, miles, that they advanced from Severodonetsk to the west, the Russians, and the gigantic costs they pay for that, you wonder if the Russians now are thinking to themselves “hey, is it worth another few miles?” 

So we’ll see where this goes.

Q: Any other specific towns you’re seeing, movement or static?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So, you know, we, like you all, you know, we’re watching the east, I mean, you know, around Bakhmut. We — we do know that the — the Russians around Bakhmut have — took control of the Vuhlehirsk power station last week. You know, that — that’s a big deal, right? I mean, it gives them the opportunity to use power or not use power, literally in this case. And, you know, the indications are not that they are concerned about the Ukrainian people. And so that’s certainly a big deal.

But really, you know, in Kharkiv or, you know, around Kharkiv or, as I mentioned, Slovyansk, that axes down from Izyum, back over towards Siversk, we’re not seeing any real, you know, substantive change.

Q: OK, great. Thanks, appreciate it.

STAFF: Thanks, Tom. Idrees Ali, Reuters?

Q: Yeah, thanks. Just one quick follow-up on the prison and then I have an unrelated question.

I know you can’t say definitively what happened but one of the claims is by the Russians that a HIMARS system was used to strike the prison. Can you say definitively that HIMARS were not used?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: I don’t know that we can say definitively about any of it. I — but, you know, what I will — and listen, I haven’t seen all of the reporting but I am told that the Russians, you know, have made claims that they have pieces of HIMARS that were used in the strike. Listen, the Russians have a lot of pieces of HIMARS, right? 

I mean, the Ukrainians have been, you know, sending a lot of HIMARS their way. So that would not surprise me. What would also not surprise me is if the Russians would — would lead us astray, in terms of information, and tell us that the Ukrainians had done this.

Here’s the last thing I’d say, if it happened to be a Ukrainian strike, I promise you, number one, they didn’t mean to do that, right? They certainly care about their own people and they care about the civilians and military in uniform of their own army. 

And then the last piece would be, just from a practical perspective in terms of our conversations, whenever we talk to the Ukrainians, we’ve spent a great deal of time back and forth about, you know, reassuring — or them reassuring us about the loss of land warfare. They clearly understand that. 

So anyways, we’ll see where this goes but I would just tell you, as you approach this in your reporting, you know, we’ll find the right side of this but I wouldn’t believe it’s the Russians right away.

Q: Sure. And an unrelated question, because I don’t think this is just a Ukraine briefing. I know you can’t talk about what Speaker Pelosi may or may not do but can you say, or I think you can say. but has there been any military — U.S. military assets, either ships or aircraft, moved near Taiwan in recent days?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Listen, I would tell you that we use, you know, military equipment all of the time to support congressional delegations. This is not unusual in that regard. And — but in terms of, you know, providing further detail on the Speaker’s visit, I’m going to let that one go.

Q: I guess I’m not asking about the Speaker’s visit, I’m just asking if you have moved any additional U.S. military assets near Taiwan in recent days?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: No, not — no. In — in fact, you know, we’ve got ships asea everywhere. Our ship — no, we don’t.

Q: OK, so nothing additional has been moved near Taiwan in recent days, got it.

STAFF: Thanks, Idrees. Hi, Liz Friden from Fox News?

Q: Hey, thanks for taking my question. Just to follow onto Idrees’ question he just asked, Chinese state media today said if U.S. fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it would be an invasion — and again, this is potential travel. Just given that statement, ignoring Pelosi’s potential travel to the region, is that something we’ve heard from China in the past? I was just wondering if you could speak to that rhetoric from China?

STAFF: So look, hey, Liz, I’m just going to jump in here, we’re not going to entertain a — a hypothetical. And — and it’s not our position to state what China has said previously or not said previously. We’re the Department of Defense and I would send you to the Department of State for any sort of diplomatic dialogue, but we’re just not going to address that particular issue or — all right.

Q: I’ll move onto an easier question about the Phoenix Ghost drones. Have those, in the most recent drawdown package, been sent to the region at all or have they been in Ukraine yet?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, so the Phoenix Ghost system was introduced to Ukraine going back to the early phases of the war and they still actually have some of those original systems that we provided them. 

So this next batch that we just put out a contract on via the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative will start to deliver systems in August, and the goal here is to make sure that, you know, when they need these systems, they’ll have these systems. So we’ll be able to provide regular deliveries moving forward.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Thanks, Liz. Oren Liebermann, CNN?

Q: A couple of quick questions. First, I was wondering if there’s any concern on the HIMARS ammunition running out? And then I was wondering, we reported some members of Congress were briefed on 75,000 killed and wounded for the Russian military at this point. Is that the assessment of the U.S. military? Is that a number you see as being reasonable or in the ballpark? And then the last question for the Senior Defense Official. I just wondered if you could expand on the idea of domestic failures at home for Russia.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. So, in terms of your first question about HIMARS, this applies to HIMARS, but it really applies across the board. We are constantly checking in with the Ukrainians on where they are with their consumption rates because we want to make sure that they have what they need on the battlefield. So, we feel really confident in our security assistance processes to be able to, you know, continue to support them with their needs. And again, that’s not just HIMARS that I’m talking about. 

I’m going to skip to the kind of domestic piece next because I don’t have anything specific for you on confirmation of casualty figures. I like to steer clear of that. But in terms of Russian domestic failures, really, you’re looking at a very troubling economic picture. And I would argue that the sanctions, the export controls that have been imposed on Russia, not just by the United States, but really by partners and allies around the world, are just now starting to have an effect. I mean, Moody’s downgraded Russia’s long-term government rating to junk status, some time ago.

Most of the reserves of the Central Bank of Russia are frozen. Major state-owned companies have lost 70 to 90 percent of their market capitalization. You’ve had around 1000 multinational companies have suspended their operations in Russia. Inflation is rising up to 20 percent. The stock market has lost — Russian stock market has lost a third of its value. And again, this is just the beginning of the impact of the sanctions.

Q: Thank you. 

STAFF: Thanks, Oren. Let’s see here. Heather Mongilio — I apologize. I know, I’m slaughtering your name — USNI?

Q: No worries. So, I have a couple of questions. So, the first is that I’ve seen some satellite images of a pontoon being built in Kherson by the Russians wanted to see if you can confirm that and give some reasons for why they might be building that. And then I wanted to see if we could get a general maritime update.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Heather, I, may have been interfered with there. Can you say that? I heard a satellite image. But the first part of your question I just didn’t hear. I’m sorry.

Q: No worries. I was wondering. I’ve been seeing some satellite images of a pontoon bridge being built in Kherson. And I wanted to see if I could get that confirmed and why the Russians might be building that. And then a general maritime update, please.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think somebody was talking about it earlier that, you know, they had seen reporting that the Ukrainians were hitting bridges. I think that’s why they’re probably burning pontoon bridges. You know, I mean, the Russians are trying to figure out how they’re probably, quite honestly, trying to figure out how to get across the river and go back to Crimea maybe. But that that’d be the general answer. And then on the maritime update, we’ve got about a half dozen ships. In fact, I wanted to — I think I said a dozen ships last week, y’all, and I apologize. It was a half dozen. My notes are horrific. About a half dozen ships underway in the Black Sea. And they are staying well away from the coast, as you would imagine. 

STAFF: Thanks, Heather. Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg.

Q: Hi, sir. I have a couple of questions more on HIMARS. How deep are the Army and Marine inventories right now? And is there a concern that the current U.S. stockpiles will be depleted soon? And that more stories right now? And is there a concern that the current U.S. stockpiles will be depleted soon and that more GMLRS will have to go on contract?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, you know, I’m not going to talk about the actual inventory. I would tell you this, listen, we’ve spent a lot of time making sure that we are able, first of all, to defend the homeland, meet all of our requirements around the world if caught on, and we take right in it very, very seriously. So, anytime we make a decision, whether it’s a Javelin or a HIMARS, we’re assessing the readiness risks associated with that piece of equipment, so we don’t have any concerns from the U.S. military perspective, at this point.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: And I would just chime in. I would just chime in that, right now, you really do have a significant effort underway, across the board with all of the munitions that we are using thing that we are supporting Ukraine with all of the capabilities. And my colleagues in the Acquisition and Sustainment organization here at the Pentagon are working very hard to ensure that we can continue producing, not just what Ukraine needs, but also what we need.

Q: Can I ask about NASAMS, ma’am? These have to be put on contract with Raytheon because they’re part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and not Presidential Drawdown. When are they going to go on contract? And what is the rough delivery sequence timeframe?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So, I do not have the detailed information on the specifics of the contracting process but we are already in the process of procuring the system. Because we, when we in the moment, we announced the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, NASAM’s procurement, we move forward with that.

Q: What was to Raytheon — are the Norwegians providing their own systems?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don’t have those details for you. 

Q: All right, if you could check on that, that’d be good. I think a lot of people are interested in that. 

STAFF: Thanks, Tony. Are you a lot of people, by the way? 

Q: I am an army of one, but an army, nonetheless.

STAFF: All right, thank you. Abraham, Air Force Magazine?

Q: Terrific, thank you so much. I wonder if you could talk about the air picture, trends in the sorties, wondering if you know, when you talk about all the targets that HIMARS are hitting? Are they able to hit any SAMs? Are they able to reach that far to free up the airspace for the Ukrainian Air Force? And if not, is there any new sense of urgency to consider giving Ukraine fighter aircraft or to start pilot training?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So, on the first part of that question, we know that they have — they have been able to strike surface-to-air missile locations and to destroy some fans. I think the fact that — that the Russians continue to, you know, not have air superiority certainly says a great deal about the Ukrainians, kind of will, both in their ability to prevent the enemy from shooting at their aircraft but also to shoot down Russian aircraft. And so, I’ll just leave it at that. And then…

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, I can talk about the, you know, the aircraft question. You know, obviously, we want the Ukrainians to have the capabilities they need. Our support to Ukraine in the air domain has been focused on armed UAVs, and we just talked a little while ago actually about one of those systems, the Phoenix Ghost system. The Ukrainians are operating Soviet-type aircraft, MiGs, and Sukhois. And we actually have been involved in an effort to procure a significant quantity of spare parts for those aircraft so that we can keep them flying and keep the Ukrainians in the air fight. But we do not have any of those types of aircraft. So, our attention in terms of potential investments in aviation is really much more focused on kind of the mid and long term than it is on the current fight.

Q: But I wondered if you could reflect on the idea that training pilots now gives you more options?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, I think we’re examining this, we’re looking into, you know, this question, but really, it is important to identify what the platforms are and will be and make sure that you’re providing the right kind of training.

STAFF: Thanks, Abraham. Jeff Seldin, Voice of America?

Q: Thanks very much for doing this. A couple of questions.

You mentioned at the top, the NIC report on the filtration camps that the Russians have set up. Do you have any more visibility into how many Ukrainians have been deported, put through these camps, and any additional information, any numbers on what’s happening to them or how they’re being treated, any details once they’re pulled out of Ukraine?

And then separately, British intelligence, military intelligence said earlier that Russia is using its Wagner Group mercenaries on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, like they would any other troops. Are Wagner forces properly trained, equipped for that sort of role? And what type of opportunity might that present for the Ukrainians? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure, Jeff. In terms of the filtration camp picture, we do not have details on the current numbers of Ukrainians that have been deported. The last statistic that I have is from mid-April, so it’s, you know, very early in the conflict, but already at that point in mid-April, the Ukrainian prosecutor general said that Russia was holding 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in prisons in Russia and in occupied parts of the Donbas region. So I would imagine that that number is significantly higher now.

You know — and we have — you know, we have seen reports of the individuals who are being detained and put into this detention process via the filtration centers, facing torture, threats of gender-based violence, harassment, and even executions.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: And on the Wagner Group, Jeff, we’ve seen the same reports, that the Russians are employing Wagner Group on the front lines. I don’t have any particulars. I’d go back to Ellee’s question at the beginning on replacements. I mean, it says a great deal about where you are in your fight when you’ve taken some of the folks that you think are pretty good and you have to use them on your front lines to get after this fight.

STAFF: Thanks, Jeff. Let’s round this out with Lara Seligman from Politico.

Q: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. Two questions.

One, I just wanted to follow up, [SMO] on what you said about Taiwan. You said that the department hasn’t moved any military assets closer to Taiwan. I just wanted to make sure I understood you correctly, that even though there are threats now to shoot down Speaker Pelosi’s plane if she moves forward with the trips, the department is still not moving forward with any of these additional protections?

And then I just have one more on Ukraine.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Lara, I don’t know that I said that we were moving anything anywhere around Taiwan. I think what I said was, you know, we support congressional delegation visits all the time. So — and I’ll just leave it with that … 

(CROSSTALK)

Q: … you said that “we’re not moving military assets closer to Taiwan.”

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, I … 

Q: Is that — is that correct?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, I’ve got to tell you, I think what I said was, I don’t have anything else to say on that. I mean, clearly, you’re writing all my stuff down, Lara, I know that, but I really don’t have any more to say on it.

Q: I — OK, I mean, I just wanted to clarify. Maybe you could clarify for us that that is in fact correct, that we’re not moving military assets closer to Taiwan, cause I think — I was a little confused about what was said. Thank you. 

And then otherwise, I just wanted to circle back on the news that Iran was potentially looking at providing drones to Russian forces in Ukraine. Have you seen that yet?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don’t think we have any update on that topic today.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: No, and I think, you know, we were talking about that a little bit a couple weeks ago, Lara. I — you know, it’s crazy to think that the Russians are going to Iran. It says a great deal about their experience so far, if that’s true.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: All right, everyone, thanks so much for calling in. I hope everyone has a great weekend and we will see you next week. Bye bye.

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