STAFF: (Off camera) Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us today. It’s my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. Secretary Austin will begin with some brief comments, followed by General Milley. I will call on the reporters, and due to timing constraints, I would ask you to please limit your follow-ups.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Secretary Austin.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, thanks, Patrick.
Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. We’ve just concluded our ninth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. I’d like to thank Ukrainian Minister of Defense Reznikov and his team for once again joining us today.
Now, next week, the world will mark a grim milestone. It will have been a year since Russia invaded its peaceful neighbor, Ukraine, and our hearts are with the families of all the Ukrainian soldiers killed and wounded fighting to defend their country, their sovereignty and their fellow citizens. And we mourn alongside Ukrainian civilians who have lost children and parents and loved ones as Russia has deliberately attacked civilian targets.
Russia has inflicted a year of tragedy and terror on Ukraine, but the people of Ukraine have inspired the world. We deeply admire the resilience of the Ukrainian people and their determination to defend their territory, their sovereignty and their freedom.
And nations of goodwill have rallied together to reject Putin’s vision of a world of chaos where tyrants can trample borders and conquer their peaceful neighbors and break the rules of war. And that’s what this Contact Group represents. Together, we have made clear that we will support Ukraine’s self-defense for the long haul, and we will move out with the urgency that the moment demands.
Earlier this month, the United States announced another round of security assistance for Ukraine. The presidential drawdown announcement included more ammunition for HIMARS. It included 190 heavy machine guns to counter unmanned aerial systems from Russia or Iran, 181 MRAP vehicles and more than 2,000 anti-tank munitions and other key capabilities. We also added $1.75 billion in Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds for critical air defense capabilities, including counter-UAS systems and more.
And at today’s Contact Group, we joined again with our valued allies and partners to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs, when it needs it, and we continue to work together to provide Ukraine with full combat-critical capabilities, and not just equipment. And that’s why we discussed synchronizing our donations into an integrated training plan, and you can see the importance of our coordination and our common efforts to meet Ukraine’s needs for armor.
Among the members of this Contact Group, we have given Ukraine’s defenders more than eight combat brigades. This includes major contributions from the United States of Strykers and Bradleys and Abrams tanks. It includes the U.K.’s donation of Challenger tanks and the contribution of Senator Armored Personnel Carriers that Canada announced last month. It also includes the refurbished T-72 tanks that the United States, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic are in the process of delivering, as well as Poland’s latest donation of T-72s, and it includes the important steps from Germany, Poland, Canada, Portugal, Spain, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands on Leopard battle tanks.
Now, we also heard today about significant new air defense donations. That includes Italy and France, which jointly announced that they will provide Ukraine with the SAMP/T air defense system, and France also announced that it will work with Australia to ramp up 155 millimeter ammunition production to support Ukraine.
And finally, let me also thank Norway, which just announced that it will provide 7.5 billion euros in military and civilian assistance to Ukraine over the coming five years. Now, that’s a very significant commitment.
Now, all of these capabilities will continue to be important for Ukraine’s success on the battlefield, but as I said last month in Ramstein, this isn’t about one single capability; it’s about delivering all the capabilities that we’ve promised, it’s about integrating all these systems together, and it’s about working with the Ukrainians to help them fight for their freedom.
Now, we also had an important discussion today on our ongoing work on accountability. It’s a priority for me and my Contact Group colleagues to ensure that our donations continue to be used as intended, and that we move proactively to prevent arms proliferation. And we will keep working with our Ukrainian partners to ensure that all of the equipment that we’re providing continues to reach the brave troops on the front lines.
Now, a year ago, Putin assumed that Ukraine was an easy target. Putin assumed that Kiev would easily fall. And Putin assumed that the world would stand by. But the Kremlin was wrong on every count. Over the past year Ukraine’s soldiers have fought valiantly for their country. Ukraine’s people have shown deep courage in the face of Russian cruelty. And countries of goodwill have rallied to defend an open order of rules and rights.
Together we seek a world where disputes are resolved peacefully, where sovereignty is respected, where borders are honored and where civilians are protected. Those are the values of this contact group. We stand united in our support for Ukraine’s fight for freedom. And we will stand together, united and resolute, for as long as it takes.
And with that, let me turn it over to General Milley.
GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: Thank you, Secretary Austin, and thank you for your leadership, leading this ninth successive contact group. This is an incredible level of effort by many, many countries. And it wouldn’t be happening without the leadership of Secretary Austin.
Good afternoon, everyone, and let me start by giving my condolences to the people of Turkiye and Syria, with the tragic loss of life and suffering that has occurred because of the recent earthquake.
Also suffering are the Ukrainian people. We are approaching the one-year anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion of a sovereign nation, the sovereign nation of Ukraine. And I want to thank the ministers of defense and the chiefs of defense that are here today representing 54 countries that continue to participate in this group. The actions of those leaders over the last year have contributed substantially, with real effect on the battlefield. And they collectively have demonstrated unwavering commitment to the defense of Ukraine.
And a special thank you to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense Reznikov and his deputy CHOD (Chief of Defense), who continue to display exceptional leadership, and my friend General Zaluzhnyi, who is on the battlefield every day, leading his country’s defense.
Ten days from now is the one-year anniversary when Russia brutally, illegally and a completely unprovoked way invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine. As the secretary just pointed out, Putin thought he could defeat Ukraine quickly, fracture the NATO alliance and act with impunity. He was wrong. Ukraine remains free. They remain independent. NATO and this coalition has never been stronger. And Russia is now a global pariah. And the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience.
In short, Russia has lost. They’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically. And they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield.
But until Putin ends his war of choice, the international community will continue to support Ukraine with the equipment and capabilities it needs to defend itself. Through this group, we are collectively supporting Ukraine’s ability to defend its territory, protect its citizens and liberate their occupied areas.
In the face of a barbaric Russian invasion, Ukrainians remain resilient. The nation of Ukraine is united for one single purpose, to expel the Russian forces from their territory and to defend themselves.
For Ukraine, this is not a war of aggression. It is a war of defense. For Russia, it is a war of aggression. The Russian military is paying tremendous costs in their war of aggression. And now they have resorted to sending conscripts and prisoners to imminent death.
In recent months the group who gather here today pledge to provide significant quantities of battlefield capabilities, tanks, air defense and munitions. Eleven countries have pledged tanks. Twenty-two have pledged infantry fighting vehicles. Sixteen pledged artillery and munitions. And nine more pledged air defense artillery.
The group is focused, focused on delivering the capabilities committed and efficiently providing the training, the spare parts, the sustainment, logistics necessary for the full employment of these systems. Training, maintaining and sustaining Ukraine remains key for Ukraine to prevail.
Throughout this war Ukraine has shown incredible resourcefulness in how they integrate varied capabilities to adapt to the changing dynamics of this battlefield. Ukrainians have combined unbreakable will with innovative tactics and empowered their leaders to liberate their own country.
Russia, on contrast, is waging a very costly war of attrition, while Ukraine is effectively leveraging their asymmetric advantages in order to defend itself. And the most important asymmetric advantage they have is courage, resilience and tactical skill.
This war is extremely dynamic. And Ukraine today is fighting while training and evolving future operations. Ukraine will integrate recent commitments of armored vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and tanks with fires to achieve the effect of synchronized ground maneuver.
While Russia has waged this war for far too long, they will not outlast the Ukrainian people nor the group of allies and partners that met today. The purpose for the United States and allies, as said by our political leadership, is very simple. It’s to uphold the rules-based international order, an order that rejects the idea that big, strong, powerful nations can attack other smaller countries, that borders shall not change just by the use of aggressive military force. This is the very underlying, founding principle of the United Nations at the end of World War II.
Ukraine does not stand alone. Fifty-four countries met today to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself and the principles that guide international conduct. And those principles will be upheld. We will remain a unified coalition. We will continue to uphold the values of sovereignty and freedom. And we will continue to support Ukraine.
Thank you, and I welcome your questions.
STAFF: Okay, we’ll go to Tara Copp, AP.
Q: Secretary Austin, you said earlier this is a crucial moment for Ukraine and that the allies need to get air defenses and munitions into Ukraine now. What are you seeing from Russia that makes this moment different?
And the NATO secretary general has already warned that Ukraine is burning through the munitions faster than a rate that the allies can supply it. Will you at some point need to ask Ukraine to do more with less?
And then for Chairman Milley, did one of the missiles fired at the Lake Huron object miss? And if so, what happened to that missile? And if so, does that change your risk calculus for shooting down objects over U.S. soil? Are you starting to develop alternatives, if and when you detect the next object?
SEC. AUSTIN: So in terms of where we are — thanks, Tara. In terms of where we are in the fight, what we’ve seen over the last several months is a contested battlefield, we see a lot of activity in the Bakhmut area, which is where Russia is focusing most of its effort. We see Russia introducing a number of new troops to the battlefield. Many of those troops are ill-trained and ill-equipped. And so their casualty rate has been really high.
What Ukraine wants to do in the — at the first possible moment is to establish or create momentum and establish conditions on the battlefield that continue to be in its favor. And so we expect to see them conduct an offensive sometime in the spring.
And because of that, you know, we, all the partners in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, have been working hard to ensure that they have the armored capability, the fires, the sustainment to be able to be effective in creating the effects on the battlefield that they want to create.
And so we believe that there’ll be a window of opportunity for them to exercise initiative and then change — or continue to create the right conditions on the battlefield here.
In terms of munitions, this has been a tough fight throughout. You know, we’ve been — Ukraine has been at this for a year. And so they have used a lot of artillery ammunition. We’re going to do everything we can, working with our international partners, to ensure that we get them as much ammunition as quickly as possible and that we’ll do everything we can to sustain our efforts there as well.
We are working with the Ukrainian soldiers in various places throughout Europe to emphasize additional training on maneuver so that as they place more emphasis on maneuver and shaping the battlefield with fires and then maneuvering, there’s a good chance that they’ll require less artillery munitions, but that’s left to be seen.
So we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they have what they need to be successful, and that’s what we continue to emphasize here in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, and we think the training will pay additional dividends as well.
GEN. MILLEY: So Tara, on the balloon shot, yes, first shot missed on the fourth balloon. So we’re talking about the balloon that was downed over Lake Huron. The first balloon – the Chinese spy balloon that went down over the Atlantic, on the South Carolina coast, that was — that shot hit. The second one over Alaska – on the north coast of Alaska, that one hit. The third one in — that landed in the Yukon, that one hit. On the fourth one over Lake Huron, first shot missed, second shot hit.
So the most important thing for the American military is to protect the American people. So we evaluate the risk, we evaluate the risk of the balloons themselves — so are they a kinetic threat or not, yes, no? Are they an intelligence threat? Are they a threat to civil aviation? All of those things, we go through very, very carefully.
We determine what the debris field is likely to be with one of these platforms landing on the Earth’s surface or in the water. So we go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is clear clear to the max effective range of the missile. And in this case, the missiles land — or the missile landed harmlessly in the water of Lake Huron. We tracked it all the way down. And we made sure that the airspace was clear of any commercial, civilian, or recreational traffic.
We do the same thing for the maritime space. So we’re very, very deliberate in our planning. NORTHCOM does that, along with the pilots themselves. So we’re very, very careful to make sure that those shots are in fact safe, and that’s the guidance from the President — shoot it down but make sure we minimize collateral damage and we preserve the safety of the American people.
Q: And just a quick clarifier — are you confirming other three objects were also balloons like the first one?
GEN. MILLEY: I’ll just use the word “object.” That’s what everyone’s using. We’ll — we’ll see. We’re not — we haven’t (=recovered it yet, as you know. Number two, three, and four are not recovered yet. Number one, we are recovering, getting a lot of stuff off that, but two, three, and four, not yet recovered. They are in very difficult terrain.
The second one off the coast of Alaska is — that’s up in some really, really difficult terrain in the Arctic Circle, with very, very low temperatures in the minus 40s. The second one is in the Canadian Rockies, in Yukon. Very difficult to get that one. And the third one is in Lake Huron. It probably — couple hundred feet depth.
So we’ll get them eventually but it’s going to take some time to recover those.
STAFF: Okay, let’s go to (Dmytro ?), Ukrinform.
Q: Thank you for your (inaudible). National News Agency of Ukraine, (inaudible). To Mr. Secretary, was the question of the plane supplies — I mean, combat jet supplies to Ukraine, was it discussed or not? And what kind of security circumstances should be created inside Ukraine to deploy new type of aircrafts of such kind? Does it mean that it’s possible, after the integrated air defense system is created?
And to General Milley, if I may, what is your risk assessment for supply routes of the delivery of Western equipment and ammunition to Ukraine and how it could be made more secured? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: So on the issue of aircraft, I don’t have any announcements to make on aircraft today. We’re going to continue to work with Ukraine to address Ukraine’s most pressing needs. Again, you know, they’re contemplating an offensive in the spring, and that’s just weeks away. And so we have a lot to get done.
So if you think about the numbers of systems that we’re bringing together — Bradleys, Strykers, Marders, CB90s, 113s, artillery, and the list goes on and on — it’s a monumental task to bring all those systems together, get the troops trained on those platforms, to make sure we have sustainment for all of those systems and get those systems into the fight. So that’s really the focus of our of our conversation today.
GEN. MILLEY: So (Dmytro ?), lines of communication in warfare, in combat are always subject to enemy attack. No different here. And the lines of communication that stretch through the western portions of Ukraine are subject to Russian attack — attack from the air, attack from artillery, attack from Special Operations Forces, et cetera.
So the key to ensure that the supplies get through — maintain good operational security, vary your times, don’t set patterns, take different routes, and make sure you disperse your force so that you have small penny packets, as opposed to one large, massive convoy.
The security from the Polish border or any other border, Romania or anywhere, that security is a part of the security plan for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They pick the stuff up and they do that, and they practice all the good tactics, techniques and procedures that I just described. I would say it’s not without risk, but it’s moderate, and it’s been successful so far to get through.
Q: Thank you.
STAFF: Let’s go to Felicia Schwartz, Financial Times.
Q: Thank you. First, for Secretary Austin, we’ve heard from Western officials that Russia’s Air Force is well intact, and that the Russians are preparing to launch an air campaign as its land forces are depleted. Where is Russia amassing aircraft ahead of the offensive? How soon could this begin? Has this hastened the need to provide air defense to Ukraine? And has enough assistance been provided so that Ukraine is ready to defend against it?
And then for Chairman Milley, does Russia have the right equipment to pose a threat to the Ukrainians and breakthrough in the Donbas? And separately, but relatedly, is Ukraine going to get enough equipment in enough time and have a big enough force on the ground to be able to have a serious counteroffensive?
SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Felicia. In terms of whether or not Russia is massing its aircraft for some massive aerial attack, we don’t currently see that. We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left. That’s why we’ve emphasized that, you know, we need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can. And recently, you’ve seen us step up and offer Patriots. You’ve seen other countries come forward with SAMP/T and IRIS-T. But it’s not enough, and we’re going to keep pushing until we get more because that threat is out there. But again, many countries have stepped up to the plate thus far. Our effort currently is to get this — these capabilities into country as quickly as we can, and then integrate those capabilities so we have — truly have an integrated air and missile defense capability.
And I would add that Ukraine’s done a credible job of intercepting a lot of the rockets and missiles that have been launched by Russia in those recent attacks. But again, we want to make sure that they have the ability to protect themselves going forward in the event that Russia tries to introduce its Air Force into this fight. They haven’t done so thus far because Ukraine’s air defenses have been pretty gosh darn effective, as you know.
GEN. MILLEY: So Felicia, on whether or not the Russians have the capability and equipment, et cetera to continue the attack in the Donbas — well, they are attacking the Donbas right now. Their progress is slow. It’s a war of attrition. They’re taking heavy casualties. Their leadership and morale is not great, and they’re struggling mightily. However, they do have numbers, and as you know, President Putin did a call-up of several hundred thousand, and those folks have been arriving on the battlefield. So they do have numbers, and whether or not they’re successful in pressing the fight, that remains to be seen. But that fight has been going on, and it’s a slow, grinding battle of attrition in that general area.
For the Ukrainians, I don’t want to project forward what the Ukrainians may or may not do. As you know from this particular conference here, we are plussing them up with a significant amount of capabilities, with ground-maneuver artillery, et cetera. What they do with that, that’ll be up to the Ukrainians in the coming weeks and months
STAFF: We have time for one more. Let’s go to Marcus Price at ARD television.
Q: Thank you very much. One question to Secretary Austin about the stance of the U.S. when it comes to delivery of fighter jets. And the — President Biden said no to the delivery of F-16; also, earlier in the conflict, when Poland offered to deliver MiG-29 via Ramstein to Ukraine, the U.S. stopped it. Has this position evolved? Do you encourage countries to do so if they want to, or do you assess the risk as too high? So what is the U.S. position on other countries delivering fighter jets?
And to Chairman Milley, the Russian offensive we’re seeing, what do you see so far? Is this is very serious? Is it different than what we saw in the past? And do you have any intelligence of whether we’re seeing we are going to see another attempt of the Russian forces to capture Kyiv? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Marcus. For the record, with respect to any kind of aircraft being provided by Poland, the United States never stopped Poland from providing anything. A decision to provide something is — that’s the, you know, the decision made — that will be a decision made by the leadership of that country. That’s certainly not something that we can or will dictate.
In terms of whether or not we’re going to provide the F-16s, as I said earlier, I don’t have any announcements to make and I don’t have anything to add to what our president said earlier. So — and I’ll just leave it at that.
GEN. MILLEY: And Marcus, on the issue of the Russian offensive, this — this offensive that you see ongoing right now generally in the Bakhmut area, you know, from Kharkiv all the way down to Kherson the front line is quite stable, even though very violent and a lot of fighting. It’s relatively stable. Most of the dynamic movement back and forth is in — generally in the vicinity of Bakhmut. The Ukrainians are holding. They’re fighting the defense. The Russians, primarily the Wagner Group are attacking, but there’s a — what — what I would describe it as is a very significant grinding battle of attrition with very high casualties, especially on the Russian side. There’s no fancy arts of maneuver going on here. This is frontal attacks, wave attacks, lots of artillery with extremely high levels of casualties in that particular area.
And how long that will last is difficult to say, actually. It’s been going on for weeks, and I think it’ll continue to go on until either the Russians culminate — I don’t think the Ukrainians will just collapse or fold; I think they’re going to continue to fight. So that’s a battle that we’re paying attention to very, very closely and making sure that the Ukrainians have the capability to continue to defend.
As far as Kyiv, I’m not going to wonder what intelligence we have or don’t have. I would just say that right now, there’s always a potential threat. There’s clearly air threats, the missile attack threats. Kyiv is the capital, and that was a significant objective early in the war. So I would never discount Russian capabilities to attack Kyiv, but right now, we’re not seeing any significant indicators and warnings.
STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time we have available today. This concludes our press briefing.