PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I’m John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary. I’ll be moderating today. I’ll start with the secretary’s opening remarks, and we’ll go to some questions. We’ve got time for four, and I’ll be calling on the — on the questioners at that time. We ask you to keep your follow-ups to a minimum, if you could.
And with that, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, thanks, John, and good afternoon, everyone.
I’d like to thank Secretary General Stoltenberg for hosting this NATO defense ministerial. It certainly comes at an important time for the alliance, as Russia continues building up their military presence along Ukraine’s borders, including in Crimea and Belarus and in the Black Sea. In many ways, this brings Russian troops right up to NATO’s doorstep.
So let me begin today by making clear that America’s commitment to NATO and to Article 5 remains ironclad. As President Biden said a couple of days ago, we will, if we must, defend every inch of NATO territory. There’s no reason, of course, that it should come — it should ever come to this, just like there’s no reason for Russia to again invade Ukraine. Ukraine does not threaten anyone, let alone its Russian neighbors, and yet, that is what Moscow would have us believe, and that is how Mr. Putin continues to justify his assembly of significant combat power.
Now, the Russians say that they are withdrawing some of those forces now that exercises are complete, but we don’t see that. Quite the contrary, we see them add to the more than 150,000 troops that they already have arrayed on that border even in the last couple of days. We see some of those troops inch closer to that border. We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood supply — supplies.
You know, I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do these sort of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home. So we and our allies will stay vigilant. We will watch for the so-called false-flag operations where Russia manufactures a — a dramatic event to justify an attack, a play that we’ve seen them run in the past, and we will continue to explore ways to enhance our readiness as the United States and others have done with additional troop deployments to NATO’s eastern flank, and we will — we will closely match Russian words to Russian deeds, what they say to what they actually do.
Of course, one thing that Mr. Putin says he wants to do is to engage in more dialogue, and as we have said all along, we would welcome that. We believe there’s still time and space for diplomacy to work, and we are in lockstep with our allies and partners towards that end. A peaceful outcome that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity represents the best outcome for Ukraine, to be sure, but also for Russia and the Russian people. If Mr. — Mr. Putin is serious about achieving that sort of outcome he will find in the United States and in this alliance no better or more serious interlocutor. And if he’s not, as his deeds thus far tend to indicate, it will be clear to the entire world that he started a war with diplomatic options left on the table. It will be Mr. Putin who will bear the responsibility for the suffering and the immense sacrifice that ensues.
You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, this business of national security. I joined the United States Army in the middle of the Cold War, and I have served and fought alongside NATO allies for the better part of my adult life. But I can honestly say that I have never seen the alliance more relevant and more united and more resolute than I see it today.
Mr. Putin says that he doesn’t want a strong NATO on his western flank. He’s getting exactly that.
I’ll soon depart for Poland, and then to Lithuania to spend some time with these strong allies who likewise take these obligations seriously. I’ll visit with their troops and mine, see their leaders, talk with mine and talk about how together we can bolster the defense of the alliance.
I’d also like to add my appreciation to Bulgaria, who just today agreed to host a U.S. Army Stryker company for joint training opportunities. Now, these troops will be departing Germany in the coming days, and they’ll help ensure our readiness and our interoperability with Bulgaria as our NATO ally.
All that is to say that I leave here incredibly proud of the alliance and satisfied in — in the knowledge that we will be sure-footed in the face of aggression, but dedicated, as always, to the prospect of peace.
Harry Truman, the American president when NATO was found — founded, put it best when he noted that “Though peace was difficult, war was not inevitable.” And so it is today. There is nothing inevitable about this looming conflict. It can still be averted. The — the path of diplomacy may be difficult, but it is still worth the trek, and NATO, as I said, remains sure-footed.
Thank you, and I’ll stop there and — and be happy to take a couple of questions.
KIRBY: Okay, our first question will go to Phil Stewart from Reuters.
Q: Mr. Secretary, who is responsible for the shelling today in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and how concerning is it? And what are you doing to lower the risk of dangerous and potentially explosive U.S.-Russia interactions like the close call between aircraft this weekend?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, we’ve seen the reports of the shelling in — Phil, and they’re certainly troubling. We’re still gathering the details. But you know, we’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict, so we’ll be watching this very closely.
And in terms of any potential — potential interaction with our aircraft and — and someone else’s aircraft, of course, we’ll follow our — our own procedures very closely, which I think our — our airmen are very well-rehearsed on, and we’ll make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to remain safe in the air. And if we see unsafe acts, we’ll certainly demarche the people that are responsible for that.
KIRBY: Next question goes to Bettina Klein from German Radio.
Q: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. I understand you have the evidence that there’s more troop building, rather than troop withdrawal in Russia. At the same time, I hear some skepticism, certainly of the German public debate. How can we trust this? How can we trust American intelligence? What do you suggest to build more public trust? And would you consider at one point to make more evidence you have publicly available? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: Well you know, I — I don’t see this as a competition of narratives. I think, you know, we’ve been very transparent about — about everything that — that we’ve seen thus far, and we’ve shared what we — what we know with our allies and partners and we — we really have done a very, very extensive job of making sure that our allies knew what we knew as soon as possible.
But I think in order to address the issues that — the issue that you — that you raised, the solution is to continue to be transparent, to continue to, you know, talk to — to the American people and — and people around the world, quite frankly, and — and explain what we’re seeing. And — and I think, you know, that — that has been very helpful thus far. We will continue to do that, and we certainly endeavor to do that while we’re in this conference this week.
KIRBY: Next question goes to Carla Babb, Voice of America.
Q: Thank you for doing this. Ukraine is calling this week’s cyber attack the largest in the country’s history. Can you confirm whether Russia was behind this attack? And President Biden last month said that if something short of an invasion happens, like if Russia continued to use cyber attacks, the U.S. could respond in a similar way with cyber. So has the U.S. responded to the latest attack? And if not, why not?
SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of confirming whether or not this was Russia that was behind this, we — again, the — the intelligence community continues to assess what — what happened there. But I would just point to you — point out to you that this is a play taken out of his — his playbook. You know, we — we would expect to see, before any attack we’d — we’d expect to see cyber attacks, false-flag activities and a — and a — and a number of others — increasing rhetoric in the information space, and we’re beginning to see more and more of that.
In terms of a response to the cyber attack, if someone attacks the United States of America, then certainly, we will — we will hold that — that element responsible or accountable, and — and at this point, nobody — you know, we — we haven’t seen that. We have — we have not been attacked. NATO elements have not been attacked. So we’ll leave it at that.
KIRBY: Okay, last question today goes to Natalia Drozdiak from Bloomberg. Where are you, Natalia? There you are.
SEC. AUSTIN: Where are you?
KIRBY: She’s back there.
Q: I’m here. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for the question. So some of these troops that we’ve seen Russia mass along Ukraine’s border have come from very far parts of Russia’s territory, including the far east. So why do you think Russia feels comfortable enough to leave that border with China undefended? Does this represent a closer alliance between the two? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you know, certainly, I can’t speak to the — to the strength of that alliance. What I can say — and I — I’m not sure it infers anything at all. But we did note with — with alarm China’s tacit approval of Putin’s activities here in — in the region. So I’m not sure that we can — we can make any kind of a direct inference from — from what you just raised, but certainly, those are things that we’ll continue to — to watch going forward. But I think you raise a very, very interesting and important question. Thanks.
KIRBY: Okay, thanks, everybody. That concludes today’s presser. Appreciate it very much. Thank you.