April 4, 2022
Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing
Senior Defense Official
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:
I know everybody's going to be focused on Kyiv and what we're seeing there. We have seen, since the last time we chatted, we have seen continued repositioning of Russian forces from Kyiv, and frankly, from Chernihiv, as well. We assess that they are largely consolidating themselves in Belarus prior to some level of redeployment back into Ukraine. Last week, I think I told you we were at 20 percent or so. I think we would estimate the percentage of troops that were centered around Kyiv that have departed the area at about two-thirds. So they have about a third left of the forces that they had arrayed against Kyiv that are still there.
Again, I'm just telling you what we're seeing. I can't predict what that other third's going to do or when; if they're going to move and when. But again, we see them heading north. We do begin to see them consolidating in Belarus. What we continue to believe is that they're going to be refit, resupplied, perhaps maybe even reinforced with additional manpower, and then sent back into Ukraine to continue fighting elsewhere. Our best assessment, and it is only an assessment, is that they will be applied in the eastern part of the country in the Donbas region, but that is an assessment only. We haven't seen them begin to move so we'll have to take this kind of day by day.
No significant changes in -- in posture around Kharkiv or Izyum, but we do believe that on that Izyum axis, as they begin to want to move south and southeast towards Donbas that they are repositioning and reinforcing their artillery efforts. So we have seen them put some energy into that axis coming south out of Izyum. Again, very much in keeping with what we've said for days now, that we are going to see them become more aggressive in the Donbas region.
No major changes in Mariupol. A bitter fight over Mariupol continues. No indications that the Russians have made any progress in taking Mariupol. We have seen some indications that they are assembling some forces to the north of Mariupol in the Donetsk area for maybe wanting to go -- maybe wanting to go a little bit -- push up to the north. Again, that's in keeping with what we've said, that they would want to close off that Donbas area. But as for Mariupol itself, still a very bitter fight for the city.
We've assessed that they've, in the Kherson area, as we've been talking about for the last few days, that they've kind of, the Russians have kind of gotten pinched in between Kherson and Mykolaiv. We now assess that they've shifted much more to a defensive posture around Kherson.
No major changes in the air picture; still contested airspace. The Russians are still flying about, you know, well, more than 200 sorties a day, is our latest estimate, so that's not all that different from what we've seen over the last few days. Most of their airstrikes are focusing on the Izyum area, again, back to what we've talked about last week, that joint forces operation area and Izyum.
And of course, I know you've all seen the reports of a strike on Odesa, where they claim they hit an oil depot. We don't have anything that would refute that claim. It's difficult to know, and I know this'll come up in the questions, why did they do that? Is it a prelude to an amphibious assault, or what's the reason? And I couldn't tell you exactly what the reason. It could be that they are beginning to make preparations for a move on Odesa. It could be that they are simply doing that to try to pin down Ukrainian forces there, make them think that there's something big coming in Odesa, and so that they stay and try to protect the city. It's just not clear, but we do assess that that was an airstrike conducted by the Russians.
We have not; so that leads me into the maritime stuff. We've not seen any major maritime changes in the Black Sea. We do see that the Russians are conducting security patrols south of Odesa, and we do see some of their LSTs active in the Azov Sea, but know again no major, you know, signs of an imminent amphibious assault. We think a lot of those LSTs are probably arranged for resupply. Now, we haven't seen any resupply efforts since that LST got sunk at the pier, but we do believe that that's probably the focus of their LSTs there in the Azov Sea.
Missile launches since the beginning of the conflict again stands at more than 1,400. There hasn't been a major change in the numbers of missile launches since the last time we talked. Again, we've seen them sort of neck down the missile, not "neck down the numbers," that's not fair, they've sort of refocused, as I said, their airstrikes and missile strikes on that Joint Force Operation area, Izyum and to the south, and then of course, we saw that on Odesa.
Clearly, they're still hitting Mariupol but we have not seen the same level of airstrike activity on Kyiv. So there's been a declination there over the last few days. Please don't ask me to enumerate that for you. I can't give you how many less, it's just that we're seeing them reprioritize their air activity, in terms of missile and airstrikes, on the JFO, Izyum, and then, as I said, we saw those strikes on Odesa.
So with that, we'll start taking questions. And again, I've got 23 minutes and I'm going to have to be very, very brutal here. So let's just try to keep it moving if we can. If you could limit your follow-ups, that would help us all out.
Q: Hi. Thank you. Want, can you give us some sort of assessment, with the number of Russian troops that are going towards Belarus, how many or what percentage of that 150 to 190,000 Russians may still be in Ukraine? And are you including troops around Sumy as part of that one-third that are still there? Because we are also hearing that some are also leaving Sumy.
And then just can you give us an assessment of what you all are assessing happened in Bucha with the atrocities that everyone is seeing now?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay. So, so much for the no follow-ups, Lita. Let's see, I'm just kidding.
On the numbers, yeah but not really, on the numbers, again, I would say, look, we still assess that the vast, vast majority of the more than 125 battalion tactical groups that the Russians invested in this invasion are still in Ukraine.
They had a portion of that to the north and northwest of Kyiv. They had, I would just say, in the neighborhood of about 20, a little less than 20 BTGs were sort of arrayed against the north and northwest of Kyiv. And of that group, again, we estimate that two-thirds of it is now either in Belarus or on the way to Belarus.
That's the best I can do. I really want to stay away from whole numbers of BTGs because our count is not, you know, we're doing the best we can to give you an estimate but it'd be hard for us to get real, real precise. But of the less than 20 BTGs that they had in that grouping, again, we would assess that two-thirds of them are on the move or have moved into Belarus.
Yes, we have seen some repositioning out of Sumy and into Russia. I couldn't give you a number on that but we have seen, in addition to Chernihiv, you're right, some have moved out of Sumy and are repositioning outside of Ukraine.
And then on Bucha, I mean, we can't independently confirm the reports of atrocities in Bucha. We're seeing the same imagery that you are. We have no reason whatsoever to refute the Ukrainian claims about these atrocities. Clearly, deeply, deeply troubling.
We have said even before that the Russians were going to be brutal in this invasion and they have proven to be that and then some, and we have said we've seen evidence of Russian war crimes.
Clearly, we would expect to see the reports coming out of Bucha to be investigated as part of that larger issue of war crimes, but again, I can't, we can't, the Pentagon can't independently and single-handedly confirm them but we're also not in any position to refute those claims. I mean, the imagery is pretty stark as it is.
Q: Staying on Donbas, are you seeing any more troops -- Russian troops coming in from Georgia? And also, any Syrian troops? And also, can you address the reports about the U.S. assisting in getting Russian-made tanks into Ukraine?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So on the Donbas reinforcements, I don't have anything for you today, Tom, in terms of things we can independently verify in terms of reinforcing manpower there.
And on the tanks, look, I would just say that; two things. One, we continue to discuss and talk with allies and partners about security assistance for Ukraine. And when it comes to anti-armor and anti-air, short range anti-air and small arms and ammunition, medical supplies, those kinds of, we are actively coordinating, in fact have over the last 24 hours coordinated shipments from a half a dozen other nations, helping coordinate that and getting it into ground movement into Ukraine.
But these decisions about what a nation provides to Ukraine are national decisions that they have to make for themselves. And we're not, you know, we're not, we respect those national decisions, we're not in a position to veto any of them, but I think I just would leave it at that.
Q: All right, thanks.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yep. Yeah, Tony Capaccio?
Q: Hi. A couple of questions on the Friday night delivery, the $300 million. As clearly as you can, how is the $300 million different than the $800 million package President Biden authorized and the $200 million package you guys have authorized?
And a quick question on Switchblades. For the first time, DOD has acknowledged the name of those drones. Is this version of the Switchblades a new anti-armor version that can destroy tanks?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tony, I'm not going to get into the variants. I think you can understand why we wouldn't get into the specifics on the systems that are going into Ukraine. I mean, I can't imagine a world where that would be a smart thing for us to do for Ukrainian OPSEC.
And then on your first question, I mean, the big difference here, Tony, and I think you actually know the answer to this, is that this is a different pot of money, it's not draw down authority. Draw down money means that we take it from our own stocks and provide it directly. In this $300 million out of the security assistance initiative package that's legislated, that allows us to, that gives us money to go purchase from contractors that material, and then we'll provide it after purchase. So that's the big difference.
Q: Okay, and then deliveries are these expedited deliveries versus like three or four months from now?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Everything we're doing with respect to Ukraine is being expedited, everything.
Q: Okay, thanks.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, Barb Starr.
Q: Two things, you had talked a few weeks back about DOD being part of the effort to lend technical assistance to Ukraine on documenting war crimes. And I was wondering if you could just update us on that? I understand you don't have the lead, I know you're part of the overall administration effort.
But can you help, you know, given what has happened with what the world has seen, what kind of capabilities are you using, offering, have been requested? Are there things you can do not on the ground but technical or forensic assistance to help Ukrainians collect the required legal evidence?
And my second quick follow-up, I might have missed this along the way. Is it correct that General Wolters has now been extended to the July timeframe? Thanks.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I have no personnel announcements or decisions to speak to. And on the first question, Barb, I'll tell you what I'm going to do, I'm going to take that one because I don't know if, in fact, we are lending some sort of technical assistance to the Ukrainians in terms of evidentiary support.
And ... so let me just see if there's something more we can get you on that. I don't know that quite frankly we will be able to, Barb, but I don't want to spitball here.
Q: Yeah, totally understood. And including, obviously, if they are asking you for something?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I got the intent of the question. Again, I make no promises, Barb, on what --
Q: Got it.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- we can get back to you but it's a fair question. And I don't, again, I'm not going to guess.
Q: Sure, moving along.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, Pierre.
Q: Do you consider what happened around Kyiv as a victory for the Ukrainian, and the way that you are helping them?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't, look, I'd leave it to President Zelenskyy to classify things as a victory or not. That's not a characterization we would get into at the Defense Department. I mean, what I would say is clearly the maximalist goals originally set out by Mr. Putin have not been obtained, have not been reached.
He made it very clear publicly what he was going after. No matter what their narrative is now, and they can, you know, this is classic Russian behavior, will say well, we didn't really want that in the beginning. But Mr. Putin made clear, he didn't respect, didn't observe, didn't acknowledge Ukraine's sovereignty.
He has violated their territorial integrity over the last eight years. He made it very clear that he was after regime change in Ukraine. And that a key piece of achieving that regime change was taking the capital city. He has failed to do that, and they are now moving away from, on the ground they're moving away from Kyiv.
But I would go back, Pierre, to what I said before, number one that doesn't mean Kyiv is not under threat. It can still be hit from the air even though we haven't seen them prioritize that in the last 24 hours doesn't mean they can't change course.
And it doesn't mean that there's no ground threat to Kyiv either, they still have a good third of their forces arrayed against Kyiv are still there. Now, we'll see what they do with them. Nobody's taking this for granted, nobody's spiking any footballs here and claiming that Kyiv is no longer under any kind of threat. The truth is, we're not sure exactly what the long-range goal here is for Mr. Putin. We do see evidence that, as they say they are, they want to reprioritize the Donbas region. But for how long and with what end goal in sight, and where that takes the larger war is completely unclear to the United States.
Q: Thank you.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Carla Babb?
Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. Just two quick ones. When you talked about the missiles and how they haven't changed the number of the missiles that Russians launched, how they haven't changed, is that an indication, do you guys think that the Russians may be running out of missiles? And then secondly, on Bucha, you know, with the war crimes that, or the, you know, claims, does that not change the U.S. calculus at all? I mean, what is there to prevent Putin and the Russian forces from continuing to do this? You know, is the U.S. calculus going to ramp up in any way?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't know of changes; based on the reports coming out of Bucha, to our security assistance. I would, we are aggressively going after this. I mean, there have been shipments, additional shipments over the course of just the last 24 hours of that $800 million, you know, already getting into the region, into the area. And then, you know, there's more coming over the next 24 hours. We are moving as fast as we can to get them every bit of security assistance that we can, and the sickening reports coming out of Bucha only make it all the more important to us that we continue this very expedited pace.
And then on the missiles, I can't explain the Russian air strike plan. I mean, it's hard to know on any given day how they make the decisions about what they're going to strike and with what munition they're going to strike it. We would still assess that they have the majority of their ballistic and cruise missile capability. There are parts of that inventory that they have less of than others, particularly cruise missiles. But they still have a vast array available to them. But I can't speak for their decisions on any given day about what they're striking and when.
Q: Thank you. I'd like to go back to Bucha, please. There are reports that Russian soldiers were ordered by commanders to kill civilians in Bucha. Does the U.S. believe that the U.S., that given the scale of those atrocities and the patterns that we saw in Bucha that Russian soldiers were ordered by commanders to kill civilians in Bucha? Is there any evidence of that?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I have no evidence to confirm that they were given specific orders to kill. I can't corroborate that report, Nancy.
Q: Right, thank you.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yup.
Q: I'm not sure I understand yet this extra $300 million. So this -- this is stuff you're going to buy directly from the contractor. Does that mean you have to let new contracts, or do you jump the line on existing contracts and take those, and the people that had the existing contracts just have to wait?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'll take that question, David. I don't have that level of detail. The main difference is that this isn't stuff drawn from our stocks. It's stuff we're going to have to go out and purchase, but how that purchasing happens, I'll have to get with somebody smarter than me to answer that one.
Q: I mean, the issue is urgency.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I completely understand that.
Fadi, Al Jazeera?
Q: Thank you. You answered my question.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you.
Jennifer? Jen Griffin?
Q: Oh, sorry. Yes. Is it U.S. policy right now that Putin should be charged with war crimes? And has anything changed since the Bucha images came out?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't really have anything to add on this, Jennifer. We have said that there is clear evidence that Russian forces have committed war crimes, and we believe that they need to be fully backed up with evidence and investigated. There's several international bodies that are doing that. The State Department has the lead for the administration in terms of contributing our inputs to those investigations, and that's really as far as we can go on that.
Q: Thank you.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: But clearly, look, the other thing: clearly the imagery coming out of Bucha, you know, we certainly believe that that warrants further investigation. I mean, it's sickening. It's disgusting, and we certainly believe that that should be contributed to, or should be added to the allegations of war crimes and investigated.
Q: Mine's been answered as well. Thanks.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you.
Q: Hi, good morning. The question about Sumy: Have you seen a pullback of forces there? Is it a voluntary pullback for forces there, or is it more that Ukrainians are being able to push them back militarily? And are you seeing the same in Kharkiv? Because it appears that maybe the full encirclement or close encirclement that they had there seems to be easing. Is that what you're seeing?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: As I reported earlier, Luis, we haven't seen a major change around Kharkiv to speak of. On Sumy, we have seen a repositioning of Russian troops to the north out of Sumy. I don't have any individual accounts or reports that the Ukrainians are pushing them out or forcing them out so I can't corroborate that. But we have seen a repositioning of Russian forces out of Sumy. I just don't have any more detail or granularity on what that looks like. I can't enumerate it and I can't confirm that it's, you know, a full-on push by Ukrainians or a voluntary repositioning. We just have seen them begin to reposition. And frankly, you know, as you might recall, Luis, we talked about that last week; that Sumy was one of the areas that we anticipated them moving away from, and we have continued to see that over the last couple of days.
Q: Is that area one of the 20 BTGs that you were talking about before, or is it separate?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No.
Q: That's a separate camp.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Separate. Different grouping of troops.
Q: Thank you.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It's a completely different grouping of troops.
I've got, like, literally four minutes, so I'll -- I'll just do the best I can here with the people I have left.
Q: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, this most recent security package was, at least publicly, some new stuff like, you know, different types of -- of UAVs and --
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Right.
Q: -- also the -- the satellite imagery stuff. Can you talk about how, you know, as the war goes on and the Ukrainians learn about more of what they need and -- and more of what they -- could be requested, can you speak on that sort of kind of tinkering and that readjustments that both sides are making in -- in preparing these aid packages?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, look, we're in constant communication with the Ukrainians. As a matter of fact, the Secretary is speaking with Minister Reznikov right now. We'll have a readout for you a little bit later. But we are in constant communication with them about their needs. I suspect that that'll be an iterative process every, you know, every single day going forward.
So it is a little bit about fine tuning, talking about what their needs are on, you know, on the battlefield, as things progress, and trying to sharpen the security assistance that they're getting to best meet those needs. But it is a very active conversation. As I said, he's speaking to Minister Reznikov literally right now.
Sylvie from AFP?
Q: Hello -- hello, thank you. A lot of former generals are now saying that now that the Russians are repositioning, is it time to give the Ukrainians what they have been asking since the beginning, which is planes and more offensive weapons? What is the assessment of the Pentagon about that?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We've said for a long time here, Sylvie, we are, in fact, my answer to Alex (inaudible) we are in constant communication with the Ukrainians about what their needs are and doing the best we can to fill those needs.
And as I've said earlier, we're making sovereign decisions about what we can provide and what we are trying to get in very, very quickly, and we are. Other nations are also making sovereign decisions about what they can provide that the Ukrainians need, systems and weapons that they possess that the Ukrainians are actually more comfortable on and are trained on.
So there's a lot of different, I mean, you know, 14 other nations are providing what you would consider offensive capabilities to the Ukrainians, in terms of, you know, actual weapons and systems. And so that's, again, an iterative process. We're doing it literally every day, not just the United States but other nations, as well, and we're in constant communication with the Ukrainians about what their needs are.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: This is probably the last one and then I really do have to get upstairs. Phil Stewart?
You know, earlier, when you said you -- you couldn't independently confirm what's going on and what happened in Bucha, could you just, you know, explain then, I mean, the Pentagon has access to satellite imagery, it has access to other means of gathering intelligence. Do you have any reason to, I mean, the Russians are saying these are staged images, this is fake. Is the Pentagon taking a wait-and-see attitude on this thing or is there more you could say?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I would not characterize it as wait-and-see and I hope that that's not the way it came across. I mean, we have no reason, as I said at the beginning, to refute the claims by Ukrainians about the atrocities that occurred there.
We can't independently, you know, confirm it on our own but we have no reason to doubt the Ukrainians claims on this. We want that to be included in war crimes investigations, clearly, and we're seeing the same imagery in many cases that you are.
And we are in direct communication with the Ukrainians. Again, the Secretary's speaking to Reznikov today, this morning. This isn't about wait-and-see. We have long said that the Russians would be brutal in their execution of this war, they have been.
We've said more than a week ago that we clearly believe the evidence pointed to war crimes by Russian forces, and what we're seeing out of Bucha certainly again reinforces those concerns, but this isn't about wait-and-see, this is about document, evidence, evidence, evidence collection and contribution to international investigative efforts.
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