Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby Holds an On-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. OK. Just one quick note at the top. Today, I think, as you all saw following the NATO heads of state and government approval of defense plans, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Wolters, released a statement, I think you’ve all seen this on the activation of the NATO Response Force.

There’s a historic nature to all this. This is the first time that the alliance has employed these high readiness forces in a deterrence and defense role. So, it’s not an insignificant move by the Alliance. This activation serves as an additional notice or Warning Order, as you guys are familiar with, for the Allies who contribute to the NATO Response Force.

I’m not going to have specifics for you today, on units, timelines, schedules, as NATO communicates what it’s going to need from the United States, just like it will to other nations. And as they do that, we will certainly be able to acknowledge and announce those U.S. capabilities in units, who will be going specifically as designated to support the NATO mission and the NATO Response Force.

Now, as we’ve also announced previously, the department has placed a range of multi-mission units in the United States in Europe on a heightened preparedness to deploy. Which increases our readiness to provide for the U.S. contributions to the NRF on a shorter tether than what we could do before. With today’s activation notice by General Wolters, we stand ready if called upon by NATO, to support the NRF and the defense of the Alliance and will absolutely do that. And with that, I’ll take questions. Bob.

Q: Thank you, John. Two things on that point, President Biden just announced that he has ordered additional forces to Europe. Is that part of what you just described? And the second question is, so NATO has activated a portion of the rapid Response Force. And you can’t say how many troops the U.S. will contribute to that because they haven’t asked for it yet?

MR. KIRBY: So, in the President’s statement, I think he was referring to his announcement yesterday. This was a readout of his call with President Zelensky. And he was reiterating that — in that conversation, he was pointing back to the announcement that he made yesterday. So, I have no new announcements of force deployments to speak to today.

Think about this activation a bit like you would an RFF, a Request for Forces, right? So, it’s now been activated and so we’ll be indirect consultations with NATO and General Wolters in his SACEUR hat to work through what the requirements are going to be for the NATO Response Force and the very ready Joint Task Force.

And as I’ve said many times before, the Secretary is very, very committed to making sure that whatever those requirements are, that the United States is ready to lean forward as much as possible. Yesterday’s announcement, you know, the 7,000 that we talked about, as I also said yesterday, portions of them are — we can expect will be earmarked for the NATO Response Force. Again, after we’ve consulted with General Wolters and NATO, and we understand what they need.

But one of the reasons why President Biden, pushed them forward was so that they could be ready for just such a need. And we wanted to get the clock going to get them pre-positioned, if you will. So, there’s still some homework to be done. Still some math that needs to be worked out.

But again, the Secretary wanted to make sure, and the President obviously wants to make sure that we’re leaning as far forward as we can.

Q: There would likely be an armored brigade, among other things?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I mean, it could be. Again, we’re going to work closely with NATO and make sure that we fully understand what the requirements are from the United States perspective. And then we’ll move forward. But the — a good chunk of the 7,000, we talked about yesterday, we believe will be earmarked for NATO contributions.

Again, if it’s deemed that they are needed, they’re wanted, and they’re ready. And if they aren’t, well, then they’ll be used — they can be used unilaterally to support reassure our Allies. For the President, and for the Secretary, this was very much about trying to lean forward. So, I don’t have any specifics to say today, specific units or timelines or schedules.

But I want to point back to what we said all along that the United States, we take this commitment very, very seriously. And we’re going to lean in as much as we can. OK. Idrees?

Q: Part of criticism has been we’re now two days into the invasion. This was seen coming up a couple of weeks ago. Why are there such few details if the need is so urgent, you know, they could role in through Kiev in the coming days. Why not be able to give more details about what units are going where? And you know, what — why aren’t there I guess…

MR. KIRBY: I’m not sure what Russian operations in Kiev has to do with the timing of how soon we can identify units, Idrees. I if may very politely just challenge the premise here. We have been — the United States in particular has been very forward leaning in terms of reassuring Allies. And with each muscle movement, we’ve been right up here talking about it, and identifying them to the level of specificity that we can.

As we did again yesterday. But the way the process works in NATO is you have to approve a defense plan first, and then the activation comes second. That happened today, the heads of state approved defense plans. Which then gave General Wolters as SACEUR, the authorization he needed to authorize activation of the NRF.

And then now goes to the nations to fill those needs. But we have to be in consultation with NATO about what those needs are. Again, to my answer to Bob, it’s kind of — it’s not unlike a Request for Forces. It’s just a different process, but it’s the same idea. So, I don’t think that, you know, we’re not waiting on anything.

As a matter of fact, quite the contrary that the Secretary’s orders authorized by the President yesterday actually put a good chunk of troops coming from the States going to Europe. So that they can be ready for just these kinds of needs.

Q: Just some verification. How many troops are on prepared to deploy orders now? Is it still 8,500?

MR. KIRBY: No, I think it’s north of that and I’ve said that publicly before, it’s several thousand more. North of the 8,500 that was originally put on prepare to deploy. Jen.

Q: John, President Zelensky has made a passionate appeal to the U.S. and NATO to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine. They have fought, as you’ve said, valiantly on the ground. Russia does not have air superiority right now. Why not set up that no fly zone at Ukraine’s request?

MR. KIRBY: Look that’s a policy decision at the nation state level. I haven’t seen the requests that President Zelensky has made. I will just tell you..

Q: He said they’ve been set up in Syria, where there are Russian warplanes. It’s been set up in the past, there’s historical precedent for it. Why not unite NATO European nations to set up a no-fly zone?

MR. KIRBY: I would just tell you that that would have to be a discussion inside the Alliance. The President has been very clear that U.S. troops will not be fighting in Ukraine, and that our focus is on helping them defend themselves. And we’ve done that. And we’re going to continue to look for ways to do that. And to shore up our NATO Allies and our defenses on a NATO territory.

Q: How would you characterize the fighting in the last 36 hours in terms of the Ukrainian fighting at what Russia’s experience?

MR. KIRBY: Well, you know, I’m a little loathe to get into a blow by blow here from the Pentagon podium on operations that we’re not involved in. I will just tell you, broadly speaking, that we see clear indications that Ukrainian armed forces are fighting back and bravely defending their country.

And we also see indications that there have been measures of success in that regard, because, again, without getting into a blow by blow. It’s not apparent to us that the Russians over the last 24 hours have been able to execute their plans as they deemed that they would. But it’s a dynamic fluid situation, it wouldn’t be responsible for us to talk about it in, you know, in a predictive way right now.

And then we’re just we’re going to watch it as closely as we can. But they are fighting back. They are fighting for their country. And they’re doing so bravely.

Q: So, you are saying Russians are facing setbacks on the battlefield from what you’re seeing?

MR. KIRBY: Our understanding is that they have experienced some setbacks, yes. Let’s go Meghann.

Q: On the forces who has been put on alert and then activated. Earlier this month, it was 8,500. The Pentagon has said since then that there were more people put on prepare to deploy orders. You also said — the Pentagon has also said that the 7,000 troops activated yesterday, some of them had been on that part of that original 8,500. Some of them weren’t.

So, my question is, how many troops total, since the beginning of this month have been put on prepare to deploy orders? And how many are still on prepare to deploy orders after the activation yesterday?

MR. KIRBY: Meghann I don’t have an exact figure for you. As I said, it’s been several thousand more in addition to the 8,500. So somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 total have been put on prepare to deploy or accelerated — some of them were already on PTDO. And we shortened that tether for instance, in some cases from 10 to five days.

Some of that number wasn’t on heightened alert. And so, we did put them on PTDO prepare to deploy orders. It varies by unit and by capability. And I don’t have an exact breakdown of what is going to be going as a part of this NATO Response Force package. Because again, we’re still working our way through that requirement.

Q: Right the question is, who is on alert? Who had been on alert? Who is no longer on alert and it’s going?

MR. KIRBY: I don’t have a specific list for today.

Q: Between 10,000 and 12,000 has been the total amount who have been alerted.

MR. KIRBY: Roughly speaking.

Q: Is it safe to deduct 7,000 from that roughly, to say that there are — the remainder is still waiting?

MR. KIRBY: So, again, we got to be careful here, Meghann, not everybody that has been put on a heightened alert posture is earmarked for the NATO response. For some of those units, are simply that the Secretary wanted to make sure they were more ready to go in a unilateral capacity. Some may be perfectly placed to be used for the VJTF.

We’ll have to see what the requirements look like. So, it’s not binary, it’s not well, that’s all — these troops are just designated for NATO. And these troops are just designated for unilateral. These units that the President announced yesterday that 7,000, they could very well fit the bill for the NATO Response Force and maybe they won’t.

And we’ll have them ready in a three-point stance in case we need them from a unilateral perspective. So that’s why I’m being very careful today. Because it’s not either / or, it’s a menu of options that are going to be available to national leaders. And again, what I can promise you is, as we get solidity on this, and more specificity, we’ll detail that for you.

Q: But it is safe to say that there are several thousand, more who are on some sort of heightened alert for Europe in general?

MR. KIRBY: It is safe to say that.

MR. KIRBY: It is safe to say that. Yes, Sylvie.

Q: Thank you. I understand that NATO gave the order to prepare the troops. What would trigger NATO to deploy them? Would it be Russian troops going to the west of Ukraine or what kind of threats would trigger that effective deployment?

MR. KIRBY: That really is a decision for the NAC to make — for the Alliance to make. It wouldn’t be a unilateral U.S. decision. I think today’s approval of the defense plan and the activation itself, as I said is historic. First time that they have been so activated. That’s a big deal.

Now, again, what does it look like? How many? And where does the Alliance want to place them? All of that is still being worked out. And it’s — and so I can’t honestly answer your questions about what the trigger is.

I think you can safely assume that what has been triggered here is the activation. And the trigger for that has been this unlawful invasion, again, by Russia into Ukraine. Yes.

Q: Secretary Stoltenberg also mentioned about providing defense article support, and also including air defense systems to Ukraine. Is there going to be any input from the United States? Any type of air defense systems like Patriots or advanced air defense systems?

MR. KIRBY: What I will tell you is we’re continuing to look for ways to support Ukraine to defend themselves. We have continued to do that and we’re going to look to do that going forward. And we’re very actively engaged in those efforts to help them better defend themselves through both lethal and non-lethal assistance.

From the very get go, I have not been detailing for any of you, each and every package, each and every shipment. Because I think you can understand and it’s particularly relevant now that Ukraine is involved in a no kidding invasion of their country. That we wouldn’t want to put it out there in the public space, everything they’re getting from the United States.

So, we’re going to continue to be judicious about how much detail we put out there. But we know they have self-defense needs. We’re going to do the best we can to fill them. And what’s more is, other nations are too. It’s not just the United States. David.

Q: Without detailing, can you say are you continuing to ship defense equipment to Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: We are — let me put it this way, David. We have not — we’re not talking about the effort to help them defend themselves. We have not talked about the effort to provide security assistance in a lethal and non-lethal way in the past tense. I’d leave it at that. Janne.

Q: Riddle.

MR. KIRBY: We’re doing — we’re continuing to provide ways for them to defend themselves. That’s as far as I’m going to go.

Q: You’re continuing to provide?

MR. KIRBY: Continuing to provide.

Q: You’re not just looking at ways to support? You’re continuing to provide?

MR. KIRBY: It’s not — yes. I wasn’t trying to be funny. It’s not past tense. It’s not over. It’s not done. We’re continuing to look for ways to help them defend themselves, Janne.

Q: Thank you, John. I have two questions on Russia and South Korea. First question, as you know, Russia has warned it will retaliate immediately, if there’s a foreign state intervening in Russia’s movements. What is your comment? And for second question.

MR. KIRBY: What is my comment about? I’m sorry, can you say it again?

Q: Russia warns it will retaliate immediately, if there’s a foreign state intervening in Russia’s movements?

MR. KIRBY: We’re going to do everything that we need to do to defend our country. And as the President has said, we’re going to do what we need to do to defend every inch of NATO territory. And we take those obligations seriously, both to the American people and to our Allies. I’ll just leave it at that.

Q: At the same time — second question. At the same time Russia said if South Korea joins the sanctions alongside the United States, it will not help the Korean peninsula issues. How can you comment on this? Russia can not help Korea peninsula issues if South Korea joins sanctions along the United States?

MR. KIRBY: Well…

Q: You know that South Korea joined the sanctions?

MR. KIRBY: Yes. We welcome that.

Q: Was Russia wanting that, if South Korea joined in sanctions (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: We welcome the comments made by our South Korean allies. We welcome their willingness to impose sanctions on Russia as so many other countries are doing. And I think the message is very clear. That Mr. Putin continues to isolate himself and his people by these reckless and unlawful actions.

And so, you’re seeing out of South Korea, what you’re seeing so many other places in the world. Countries are making very clear, very demonstrably so, their condemnation of this invasion of Ukraine. And again, we welcome the contributions to that effort by South Korea.

Q: Can I ask a follow up. Would you say the United States is looking for ways to defend Ukraine? Or is it that you are continuing to provide?

MR. KIRBY: Guys, I am not sure why this is become such a rhetorical exercise. We continue to provide for support for Ukraine to defend itself. The situation, right is different in Ukraine than it was just a few days ago. So, it would follow I would think that we’re going you know, that we’re going to have to look for other ways to do this.

The airspace over Ukraine is contested. The Russians don’t have superiority of it. It’s contested. So, we are going — I’ll be very clear here. We are going to provide additional security assistance for Ukraine. We will. How that is going to be done is still being worked out.

Does that help? OK. Go ahead, Dan.

Q: Thank you. We’re looking for a Pentagon reaction today to the back and forth. Finland came forward with some comments suggesting they may entertain..

MR. KIRBY: Who did?

Q: Finland, I’m sorry.

MR. KIRBY: OK.

Q: Finland came forward, raising the prospect of reorienting toward NATO a little bit more. Russia responded and basically made another veiled threat there. Do you anticipate from a Defense Department perspective, any different kinds of conversations any renewed discussion that would bring Finland under NATO at any point?

MR. KIRBY: I’m not aware of any such discussions, Dan. Again, that would be for the Alliance to speak to not the United States. I would just say what we said before in the case of Ukraine, who a nation, a sovereign nation, associates with, what alliances it joins that’s between that nation and the Alliance. In this case, it would be between any country and NATO.

And Mr. Putin doesn’t get a veto over that. He doesn’t get to decide unilaterally on his own, what an independent sovereign state chooses to do with its association and the alliances that it wants to join. So, I don’t know of any renewed conversations with respect to Finland. But again, that would really be between Finland and for the Alliance to speak to not the United States.

Q: Put another way Ukraine was reorienting toward the west. They’re paying dearly, right now. Finland has raised similar prospects and are now also being threatened. Is there any straight line here that we should be addressing about threats on Finland? And what that also would mean to Europe if there was a similar sort of operation on Finland?

MR. KIRBY: Well, certainly, that would be extremely destabilizing. And I — we don’t have any indication that that’s necessarily in the offing in terms of actual conflict there. And so, I don’t want to speculate about the prospects of that or what we would do if that happened. I would just say that we are right now, in a situation where, obviously, the security of Ukraine is being threatened. But European security writ large is being threatened. And you’ve seen the Alliance step up in ways that truly are historic and significant. And I think you’re going to continue to see that going forward. The Secretary said it best, I mean, Mr. Putin is getting exactly what he says he didn’t want. A strong NATO on his Western flank. And so, without speaking to Finland specifically, we number one, stand up for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of independent nation states. That’s not going to change. And, Mr. Putin, should he want to violate that in new ways, will find new cost I’m sure imposed upon him. Number two, our commitment to NATO is ironclad. And we’re going to continue to look for ways to strengthen that.

OK. Let me go to the phones here. Abraham.

Q: Thanks so much for taking my call, John. Reports indicate that Kiev could fall in as little as a day. Is the defense department doing anything to prevent Kiev from falling? And then I have a second question.

MR. KIRBY: I don’t have a prediction about what’s going to happen to Kiev, Abraham. And as I said, we continue to provide ways for Ukraine to defend itself both from a lethal and non-lethal perspective. And the other thing I’d say to that is you can see for yourself, just an open press reporting what your colleagues are reporting from the region.

That Ukraine is fighting back, they’re defending themselves. And as I said, earlier to Jen. We certainly have seen indications that the Russians are not in every case, making the progress that they thought they were going to make. What’s your second question?

Q: Yes, thanks. Any assessments about what Ukrainian air defenses remain intact? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to get into a specific assessment about Ukrainian military capabilities. A, we don’t have perfect visibility. B, even if we did, I don’t think putting that out in the public when they’re literally being attacked by a neighboring state is a smart move for us to make. Demitri.

Q: Thanks, John, a couple of questions. The first is whether you have any updates on the amphibious landing assaults near Mariupol. And secondly, some European intelligence officials say that actually half of Russia’s combat power that had amassed along the border has now moved into Ukraine. I know in the U.S., there was a view that a third had moved in. Have you seen big numbers move in today?

MR. KIRBY: We have seen continued movement by Russian forces into Ukraine, both from the north and from the south. I can’t give you, Dimitri, a percentage of what that what that looks like. We — I will just tell you, we don’t believe that the majority of the combat power that Mr. Putin had arrayed alongside Ukraine has been employed inside Ukraine.

But it is fluid, literally the situation changes by the hour. So again, I want to be careful that I’m not getting into providing an assessment of operations in which we are not involved. And as for the amphibious assault, we do believe that such an assault is being conducted today. But we don’t again, have perfect visibility on the progress of that.

And I couldn’t give you a blow by blow of exactly how many they put ashore and what they’re doing. But it certainly appears to us to be of a piece of their designs in the south to further cut off the Donbas region. And to — from a southern perspective, continue to try to take population centers. Karoun?

Q: Hi, John, sorry, can you hear me?

MR. KIRBY: I got you.

Q: OK. Sorry. I was going to take myself off mute. Two questions. The first just to clarify on the numbers thing. I know we were talking about the 7,000 that was announced yesterday. But of the 12,000, that you’ve kind of approximately, you’ve already been sending over to Europe, how many of those are supposed to be under the auspices of NATO and these new plans that would go forward?

And then also, I understand you’re not talking about where you U.S. troops would be going because those defense plans are still being worked out the details. But where do you see the potential flash points, maybe spillover points where NATO needs additional help right now? As you’re looking at that sphere of influence, whether or not that’s specifically where U.S. troops end up going?

MR. KIRBY: I wouldn’t describe locations on the eastern flank of NATO as flashpoints right now. I mean, the Russian military is very much focused on Ukraine, and particularly the eastern half of the country. This is about reassuring Allies and sending a strong message to Mr. Putin that we take our Article Five commitment seriously.

So, I would not describe the eastern flank NATO territory, as flashpoints, or having there be flashpoints on them. Most of the forces that we have either repositioned inside Europe or flowed from the United States, we’ve done on a unilateral basis. In fact, all of it, we’ve done on a unilateral basis. What I said yesterday, when I tried to say today, was of the 7,000 that the President ordered yesterday, some of those will probably be earmarked for the NATO Response Force, when we finally hash out the requirements with the Alliance and what that looks like. And it was the Secretary’s desire to get them moving, get them ready. And get them moving and get them as pre-positioned as possible.

So that when we have all the requirements in place, when actual deployment orders are given for the NATO Response Force by the Alliance, they’ll be more ready to do that. Tara from Defense One.

Q: But that’s 7,000 — just to clarify, is that 7,000 of a — as a separate silo from the 12,000 today that will stay unilateral? Or are we kind of cross counting numbers and pools of U.S. troops?

MR. KIRBY: (Inaudible) talking with Meghann. It’s not binary, we have — the Secretary has shortened the tether on roughly 10,000 to 12,000. Some of those 10,000 to 12,000 are going to be earmarked for the NATO Response Force. Again, it’s going to depend on what the capabilities are requested and what’s the need, and then we’ll go from there.

Some of them he put on prepare to deploy orders or shortened tethers simply because he wanted them available for unilateral U.S. action. We have to work this out with NATO. And when we do, we’ll have a better sense of who’s going where and what they’re going to be earmarked for. It is entirely possible, for instance, that units that are in Europe on unilateral orders, depending on what NATO needs could be moved off of that and into the NATO command structure.

Again, we’re still working our way through that right now. So, it’s an unsatisfying answer, but it’s an honest one. We simply don’t know what that breakdown is going to be.

MR. KIRBY: Let’s see. Tom Squiteri, Tak News?

Q: Hi, John. Good afternoon. Thanks, I have two questions. My first one is, as well as you understand the Pentagon’s view on this, does the NATO readiness force only apply to NATO nations? Or could they go to places like Sweden, Finland or Moldova?

MR. KIRBY: These troops that we have provided and that we will continue to look at providing are earmarked for NATO territory.

MR. KIRBY: Paul McLeary, Politico.

Q: Wait, John, I have two questions. My second one is does the Pentagon considering pulling out the National Guard trainers that are now in Moldova?

MR. KIRBY: I know of no such plans.

MR. KIRBY: Paul McCleary.

Q: Hi, John, I’m on the line still waiting. If I could get my question.

Q: Go ahead, Tara.

Q: Thank you. How concerned is the building that this conflict could potentially spill over to the eastern flank countries? Putin has not been completely clear what his intent is, and whether his intent may be extends beyond Ukraine. Just wondering if in any of the conversations with counterparts with Russia, have they clearly communicated that their intent stops at Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: It is — you said that actually, in your question, it’s not entirely clear if Mr. Putin has designs beyond Ukraine. And it’s because that’s not perfectly clear that we continue to look for ways to bolster our NATO capabilities and to reassure our Allies. I mean, one of the reasons we’re doing this is because we want to make it clear to him that we will defend every inch of NATO territory.

MR. KIRBY: I’m sorry, Paul. Go ahead.

Q: John, just one follow up. Is there any concern that this could grow into a regional war?

MR. KIRBY: I think there’s no reason for it to be a war now, Tara. And there shouldn’t have been, Mr. Putin had diplomatic options on the table that he decided to ignore, and to invade Ukraine regardless. So there should be no reason why there’s a war now. There is obviously one, clearly, that’s evident. We need to make sure, and we will make sure that it’s very clear that we’re going to defend every inch of NATO territory.

I’m not going to speculate about what the future holds, because it is not perfectly clear, where Mr. Putin is going here. We want to make it clear that he will not be able to threaten in any tangible way, our NATO Allies. OK. Paul, let’s try it again.

Q: All right, third time’s a charm. Thanks. You said, we’re going to continue to supply defensive weapons to Ukraine. Are there — is there any consideration of training Ukrainian troops outside of the country, for them to then go back in and fight?

MR. KIRBY: I think we’re looking at all kinds of different ways to continue supporting Ukrainian armed forces. And we’re not taking anything off the table with respect to how that might manifest itself going forward. And that could include some training.

Q: John?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: So, you’ve addressed the issue of supporting the Ukrainian forces several times now, looking into different ways. Which would get us to conclude that your assessment is that Ukrainian forces can actually resist for a long time. Is that the assessment to be able, actually, to get that assistance in various ways, in lethal and non-lethal?

MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to put a timestamp on this, Fadi. I mean, but you can see, you can see for yourself that the Ukrainians are fighting back. They’re defending their country.

Q: So, you don’t think that the time is running in a way that it might be too late to provide any type of assistance?

MR. KIRBY: We have been providing assistance for quite some time. We’re going to continue to provide assistance. And they’re fighting back. They’re fighting back in many ways using the assistance that the United States has provided as well as other nations.

Q: They’re using the assistance?

MR. KIRBY: You can see for yourself. I’m not going to tell you what weapons systems they’re firing on what day and in what location. I don’t have that level of fidelity. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

You can see it for yourself in the imagery. They’re fighting back. I think that’s it for today. Thanks very much. Have a good weekend.