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Senior Department of Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing on Ukraine

United States Department of Defense - DoDWashington, D.C. – SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Okay, good afternoon, everybody.  I know we pushed this back a little bit, I apologize for that.

So day 79 here.  Obviously, most of the activity that we are seeing and watching is in the Donbas area, and essentially, we continue to see the Russians not making any major gains in the Donbas.  Very much, as we said, that would be very much an artillery fight back and forth, and that Ukrainian artillery is frustrating Russian efforts to — to make much ground, — including frustrating their efforts to cross the Donets River, as they continue to try to find a sense of momentum in the northern Donbas.

And — the failure to — to make some of those crossings is affecting their ability to consolidate their forces, because you’re not getting many people across the river and that’s affecting their ability again to mass reinforcements in the northern Donbas.
Basically, in — in addition to the — the shelling — of their bridging efforts across the Donets, they — they really haven’t made much progress on that Izyum-to-Slovyansk axis.  And so there’s a lot of fighting in between Izyum and — and Slovyansk.  And again, they’re just not really able to — to force a breakthrough.  And the fact that they aren’t able to get across the — the Donets River with some reinforcements is — is making it even harder for them.
I — I will say that they have made some incremental gains to the west of Popasna.  There — there continues — it’s not — not very far but they are moving outside of — of Popasna but it’s — again, it’s not significant.
And we’ve seen no significant battle shifts in the southern part of — of the Joint Forces Operation area or in the Kherson area.  No — no — no — there’s — there’s still fighting between Kherson and Mykolaiv but no — no — again, nothing — no — no major shifts one way or the other.
In the air domain, they flew — over the last 24 hours, they flew about 250 sorties.  Again, this is pretty much in the mean range of what we’ve been seeing.  And they’re focusing their strikes, not surprisingly, on the JFO and on Mariupol but also Kharkiv and inside the JFO, particularly on Slovyansk.  Again, we knew that they were trying to make progress towards Slovyansk, so strikes on — on Slovyansk is — is not — not something that is a surprise.
In the maritime domain, I — I know some of you have — been watching Snake Island, and the — the Russians are trying to improve their defenses at — at Snake Island.  And — and, you know, again, — they are still in possession of it — but there is a — there’s active efforts by the Ukrainians to dislodge them from Snake Island, and — and what we’re seeing is really the Russians just trying to — to — to reinforce particularly some of their air defense there, but — but there’s really no change to — to Russian naval posture, in — in a macro sense, in or outside the Black Sea.  So nothing really to — nothing really to report there.
On — on the security assistance front, you know, all but one of the — of the 90 howitzers are — are inside Ukraine.  And — and the sense we’re getting from the Ukrainians is that the majority of those 89 — not all of them but the vast majority of them are actually in a forward-deployed setting.

I — I couldn’t tell you exactly where or — or, you know, what — what rate they’re consuming ammunition but — but the — but we’re getting from the Ukrainians that the majority are — are — are in the fight and the feedback we’re getting from — from artillerymen inside Ukraine is — is very positive about — about the usefulness of the M777s.

Let’s see.  On the training side, up to almost 370 Ukrainian soldiers have completed M777 training, about 30 of them have completed maintenance — a maintenance course.  There’s another 17 or so that are still in — in the — in the two week — maintenance course.  They’re — they’re at about day five right now.  So they’re — they’re working their way through that.  And a little — and about 20 or so Ukrainians are — are in the midst of — of training on the Puma, the — the unmanned aerial system.  We hadn’t talked about that in a while.  The training that was done on the Phoenix Ghost has been completed.

And let me just make sure I don’t have anything else I’m missing.  We’ve talked about Snake Island.  Yeah, I think that’s it.

We’ll go to questions.  Lita?

Q:  Thank you.

Can you provide any other either guidance, background or — or sort of details on the call between Secretary Austin and Shoigu, even things like how long it lasted, who initiated it, whether it was left open that they will talk again?  Can you describe it, either — was it, you know —

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  — I’m not going to provide more — much more detail than was in the readout.  That was — it — and I’m not going to, either on — well, in any attribution, I’m just not going to go much beyond the — the readout, in terms of content, Lita, but the — the phone call lasted about an hour, it was — it was requested by the Secretary, he initiated it, and — and, you know, both leaders had a — a chance to — to — to talk back and forth with one another, but I’m not going to get any more into the context of it.

Q:  So just —

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  And as for whether they’re going to speak again, I mean, the secretary did, you know, express an interest in keeping the line of communication open.  So I mean, he did make that — he did make that point.

Q:  Can you say what the response was?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  You know I won’t speak for the Russians.  But I think generally our takeaway was that the message was received with respect to keeping the lines open.

Q:  Thank you.


Q:  Yes.  Can you confirm, please, the situation around Kharkiv?  Are the Russians away from the city?  It’s not encircled anymore?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  They’re still fighting over Kharkiv.  We definitely see Ukrainian resistance in and around Kharkiv.  There is — there have been, you know, again, continued airstrikes and bombardment by Russian forces around Kharkiv.  We have — we basically assess that the Ukrainians continue to make progress in reclaiming towns and villages around Kharkiv.

What we’ve seen over the last couple of days is that they have been able to push north, push the Russians away farther to the north from Kharkiv, and we talked about them pushing them to the east.  I don’t think we’ve seen any change in eastward pushing in the last day or so, but we have seen some progress by them pushing Russian forces closer to the — closer to the border and away form Kharkiv.

Q:  Thank you.


Q:  Thanks.

I wanted to go back to the question to the call between Secretary Austin and Shoigu and understand whether the call for an immediate ceasefire — what lies behind that and what it means?  I mean, we’ve had Olaf Scholz making a similar call.  (inaudible) So is this coordinated with allies?

Secondly —


Q:  — does — so as — okay.  Go on.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No, no.  I mean, yes.

So, of course — I mean, look.  This — our call for a ceasefire is very much in line with what the others — other allies and partners want to see happen.  I mean, so we definitely — I think there’s a sense of alignment here in terms of what we all want to see happen.

Q:  And just to follow up on that, (inaudible), I mean, you know, it was only — what is it? — a week or two ago that the secretary was talking about helping Ukraine win and wanting to weaken Russia.  Therefore, has he changed his mind on that?

And has he called for a ceasefire before?  I don’t remember him calling for a ceasefire before.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes.  I think we — the administration has been consistent in wanting the fighting to stop.  And we’ve said it many times.  In fact, the secretary himself has said the war could end, you know, today, whenever he said it.  But he meant it, you know, could end that day if the Russians stopped their offensives and started to pull back.

And so, no, there’s been no change in his view of what needs to happen here.  There’s been no change in administration policy.  We want to see the — hang on a second.  Sorry about that.

There’s been no change in our policy.  No change in the objectives.  He’s been very consistent about that.

Q:  All right. I don’t want to hog this, but just, you know, the — Zelensky has said, you know, there can’t be a ceasefire unless the Russians withdraw, and the word “withdraw” wasn’t in the readout.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I’m not going to go — (Anton?), I think I’m just going to leave the readout the way it is.  And I think it’s a very honest readout as to what he said, and I — and the readout is consistent.  The policy is consistent.  The secretary’s statements to the minister today, again, completely consistent with what our policies have been.  And I would — I would caution you from reading into the readout that there’s sort of change in tone or change in policy or change in objectives.  That’s just not the case.

Q:  Thank you.


Q:  Hey.  Two questions.

Firstly, just on the call again, did the secretary come out of the call more optimistic about sort of the trajectory of the Russians and to the relations, or was he unchanged?

And secondly, I think you touched on this, but more specifically, the Ukrainian military put out this video of them destroying a pontoon bridge and parts of a Russian armored column in the Donbas region.  Can you confirm that?  Have you seen sort of the same stuff about them destroying one of the pontoon bridges?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I mean, I can’t confirm that video, but as I said in my opening statement, they have been shelling the Russians as the Russians have tried to make crossings over the river.

So again, I can’t verify the veracity of that specific video, but it is certainly consistent with what we’ve been seeing them doing in terms of trying to prevent the Russians from making those crossings.

And look, as for the call, I mean, I think it’s safe to say that the secretary continues to have concerns about what’s going on in Ukraine, and I don’t believe the call — while he believes it was important to make that call and that he still believes it’s important to have lines of communication open directly with Minister Shoigu and the Russian ministry, it’s not — the call itself didn’t — it didn’t specifically solve any acute issues or lead — or lead to a direct change in what the Russians are — in what the Russians are doing or what they’re saying.

Tara Copp?  Okay, nothing heard.

David Martin?


Q:  One specific (inaudible) and more general question.

The specific one is that yesterday the Ukrainians were saying that there was a support ship on fire and being towed to Sevastopol.  It was called the (Vsevolod)Bobrov, B-O-B-R-O-V.  Do you have any confirmation of that?

And the larger question is that the British foreign minister said yesterday that they should plan to transition Ukraine to all NATO equipment by the end of the summer.  Is the Pentagon on board with that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don’t have anything on the ship.  We can’t confirm those reports.  And I would just tell you our — our major focus right now, David, is on getting them the systems they need to defend themselves.  And some of those systems, as we just talked about, are Western systems, some of them are U.S. systems.  And we’re continuing to — to look at the potential for future drawdowns to allow us to continue to provide those kinds of systems.  And I think that’s as far as we’re going to go today on that.

Q:  Well, what about the — you’ve got 100 million left in your authority?


Q:  Are you going to use that anytime soon?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don’t have an announcement to make on that, but I would stay tuned.

Tony Capaccio.

Q:  Hi sir, a couple of questions.

Is it fair to say that the artillery battle that a lot of the world was focused on is now fully engaged?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I would say so.  Yes.
Q:  Is it fair to say that the U.S. is using not only — the Ukrainians are not only using U.S.-provided artillery — or howitzers, but also those counterbattery radars to locate Russian — Russian artillery?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  On the battery radars, I mean, yes, let me check on how much the counter artillery radars are actually in — being used.  I don’t have an update for you on that.  So I’ll have to check.

Q:  Okay.  I’m just trying to get us — paint a clear picture here of the artillery battle.  Do you know whether GPS-guided Excalibur Army rounds have been provided to the Ukrainians?
Q:  If you can check — if you can check, that’d be fine.  I mean, I’m not trying to pin you down on it.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, as I said before, Tony, we’re going to be careful about the level of detail we get into in terms of the actual rounds.  So I — I’m not going to commit to getting that information for you.
Q:  Okay.  One final on Phoenix Ghost.  All the troops have been trained on them, are those also engaged in the fight right now on the artillery fight?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We — we know that there is more than 20 of them in the — in Ukraine, but I couldn’t tell you where they are or the degree to which they are being utilized.  I mean, the training — the operator training was just completed a few days ago.  So I — I don’t have an update for you on that.
Q:  Okay.  Thank you.
Q:  Thanks for doing this.
Just a quick question:  Do you have any way or have you heard any assessment of what the morale of the Russian forces in the Donbas is like?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We keep getting anecdotal indications — I’m sorry, anecdotal indications that the — that morale and unit cohesion remains a problem, soldiers not obeying orders or, you know, not –not fighting as well or as aggressively as they are being told to are expected to, even to the point where some officers are refusing to obey orders.  But it’s anecdotal.  We don’t have a common sight picture of every unit that’s in the Donbas.

And right now, by the way — and I didn’t mention this earlier — but we assess that Russia has now 105 operational BTGs in Ukraine total.  So he — he has added — he’s continuing to add BTGs that are in the Donbas.

But I — but, Jim, I don’t — you know, it’s anecdotal, it’s consistent with the kinds of unit cohesion and morale problems we’ve seen in the past.

Q:  And if I could just follow, how about the Ukrainian forces?  They have been fighting very hard for more than two months.  What’s their morale and — and what’s their exhaustion level like?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I would, you know, go back and remember they’ve been actually fighting since 2014.  And — there’s a very strong will to fight there.  Again, we don’t have perfect visibility into every unit and — and — but we’re not seeing the kinds of unit cohesion and morale problems — we’re not seeing anecdotal evidence of unit cohesion and morale problems in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

And again, I don’t want to speak for every single unit but we’re — we’re just not seeing that come across.  They have a — they have demonstrated a — a very strong will to fight and an eagerness to continue to defend positions, and that’s, I think, the — best represented by the — by the continued lack of progress by the Russians, particularly in the Donbas.

Karoun from Washington Post?

Q:  Hi, — Senior Defense Official.  I want to go back to the Shoigu call with one question.  Just why now?  I know you said the Secretary asked for it but has this been — did he ask for it now for a reason or has he been asking and asking and this has just finally when they said okay?  Why this call at this juncture?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I think it’s a — you’d have to ask — you’d have to ask Mr. Shoigu.  We — we have been consistently — and I’ve said this many times, we’ve said this many times — that we continue to reach out, and I think — you know, I think I’ve said it, you know, last week, you know, that — that the — it wasn’t for lack of trying that we — that we hadn’t been able to establish comms, so we’ve been consistently asking for this conversation and — and Minister Shoigu assented for — for a — a call this week, but what motivated them to — to — to change their mind and to be open to it, I –I  don’t think we know for sure.

Q:  And just to clarify, I — it sounded like you’re saying that there’s weekly entreaties that were being made for this call previously?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I — I wouldn’t put it, like, on a — a — a set period.  (Inaudible), Karoun, it’s not like — you know, like — it’s not like we have it on a — it — you know, on a — a reminder alert on the calendar, “every Tuesday, call and ask for a — a phone call,” but we have been consistent in trying to — to get a — a conversation.  It’s — we have not stopped trying  since the last time they’ve spoke, which is right before the invasion, but — so yeah, again, it’s — it’s been a consistent effort.

Heather from USNI?

Q:  Thank you so much.

I know you mentioned there aren’t many updates in the maritime environment but I was wondering, has there been any evidence of submarines in the Black Sea or any thoughts on what the Russians might be doing with their submarines at this time?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We have seen submarines operate in the Black Sea and we’ve talked about that — usually a very, very small number, one — one or two — and — and — and we know that they have used — (inaudible) on some occasions have used those submarines to — to launch cruise — cruise missiles in – into Ukraine.

Liz from Fox?  Okay, nothing heard. — Joe Gould, Defense News?

Q:  — earlier this week, the commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, told lawmakers that the Ukrainians have been finding Russian military equipment on the ground filled with semiconductors taken out of household appliances.  I’m just wondering if the — if the Pentagon is — is seeing anything or hearing the same thing?

And more broadly, if you guys are assessing any problems with Russia’s defense industrial capacity?


SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I haven’t — Joe, — that’s the first I’ve heard of that one, guess I should’ve been paying attention more to — to the Secretary’s comments on that.  So I’m going to take that question and see if we have information or corroboration at the Defense Department. I — I just don’t know.

And any – sorry go ahead


Q:  Oh, just on, you know — the State Department is talking about being able to, you know, be able to, having the US eat into Russia’s, you know, share of the global defense market, and I’m just wondering if that’s — you know, is there an advantage for the Pentagon to have allies in the region operating U.S. gear, where’s the Pentagon on that sort of goal?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  In terms of other allies and partners using our equipment?

Q:  Yeah, as opposed to, you know, shedding Soviet-made — you know, Soviet era equipment and adopting American-made equipment?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, I — if you’re talking about Ukraine, again — again, our focus is on getting them things they need right now, and — and I don’t think we entered into, you know, serious deliberations about — you know, westernizing their whole defense systems.

There was a — a — there was significant amount of discussion at Ramstein a few weeks ago and in the afternoon on the health and vitality of the defense industrial base throughout Europe and — and looking at what Ukraine’s defense needs would be long term, post-war.

And I just don’t think we’ve — we, nor our allies and partners, have settled on what that needs to look like.  And obviously, you know, Ukraine gets a vote here.  I mean, it’s a sovereign country and — and they get to decide, you know, what kind of systems that they want to rely on and — and you can’t force that on them and we have no intention of doing that.

So I — I don’t know that there’s been in-depth, you know, decisions made about the degree to which Ukraine’s Armed Forces become fully westernized or on a NATO standard, but in general, to your — to your broader point, I take it’s bigger than just Ukraine — I mean, obviously — and I don’t want to get into the State Department’s territory here, because they — they run the — the foreign military sales program for the United States.  But — but when it comes to interoperability with our allies and partners clearly, that’s important, and interoperability is enhanced by allies and partners using American made systems or certainly NATO standard systems.  And it just makes, at least from alliance management, it makes it a lot a more palatable, makes it a lot more viable, and makes it a lot more sort of relevant to modern deterrence and defenses.

If alliance members or partners are truly fully interoperable in terms of the systems that they’re using.

Q:  Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes. Jack Detch, Foreign Policy).

Q:  Hey, just in light of the call, I’m curious do you have any more updates on the deconfliction line between the U.S. and Russia and Ukraine?  Is it still being used?  Is it still functioning?  And then I’m just wondering if the U.S. has sent any message to Russia over the helicopter incursions that we’ve seen in the Finnish and Swedish air space recently and other NATO bids.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes.  I’d refer you to the State Department on that.  The Defense Department hasn’t, to my knowledge, made any indications with respect to the helicopter incursions.  In fact, I don’t know if we can even confirm them.
On the de-confliction line, in my understanding is that it is still — it’s still operational.  They test it routinely, and the last report I got was that, you know, when it’s tested the Russians are picking up at the other end of the phone.  We know — we know they’re there.  As far as I know we’ve not used it to deliver content other than just to check to make sure it’s viable, but I’d refer you over to the State Department on the other thing.
Paul Shankman, U.S. News.
Q:  Yes.  
Just to clarify on something, so the last time that we talked about communications with the Russians a Senior Official said, I think this was at the end of March, that America’s attempts to reach out had been rebuffed.  I think that was about often Austin and Milley reaching out to their counterparts.  So with that as a placeholder, do you have any observations about what this latest phone call means?  Does it signal a shift in U.S. defense communications with the Russians, or is this just one call in time, one point in time?  I’m wondering if —
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We hope — we hope, Paul that it will serve as a springboard for future conversations.  In fact, the secretary made that point, and it’s in the readout that we believe a line of communication is important and the secretary made that point that he would like to see the lines of communication with Minister Shoigu stay open now that they have reconnected.
So it remains to be seen.  I think it’s too soon to know, but it was a good sign that they were able to make this connection, and the secretary hopes that they’ll be able to stay in touch going forward.
Q:  Thank you.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes.  Mike Brest, Washington Examiner.

Q:  Hi.  I wanted a quick clarification.  The Pentagon spokesman said on May 2nd that it had been many weeks since the Pentagon had tried to arrange a call, and it sounded in an answer you gave earlier in this call that it had been an ongoing effort to make this connection.  And so, I’m hoping you’d be able to square those two comments for me.  Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Both can be true, you know, that there can be a gap in times — in times of effort and that doesn’t mean it’s not still a consistent effort.  As I said to a previous question, right, it’s not like we had a weekly timer on there and then we were calling, you know, making an attempt every Tuesday, or something like that.  So I mean, both can be true that there was a period of time where, you know, we didn’t reach out, but that doesn’t mean it was — it was for a lack of interest in doing it.

Eric Schmidt?

Q:  Another question on the call.  Just obviously Secretary Austin and Minister Shoigu have spoken before.  Can you characterize at all the tone of this call?  Was it a combative given the circumstances?  And then I’ve got one other question.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I would characterize it as professional.

Q:  Okay.  And my second question is can you give us a sense now how much of the Donbas, the two areas the Russians actually control now?  What — approximately what percentage of this incremental progress you mentioned before?  What — roughly what percentage of the Donbas overall they control?  Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don’t have a figure on that.  I mean, I can take the question and see if we have an assessment in terms of percentage, so I’d have to get back to you on that, Eric, but in terms of the kinetic nature of the fight, again, we — I characterized it at the top of the call.  Incremental progress, slower than what they expected to be making, definitely facing a stiff and organized Ukrainian resistance, but in terms of actual territory held I don’t believe we’ve made an assessment of that.  Not — I’ve not — I’ve certainly not reported one out, and I don’t know if we even have, you know, that kind of a fingertip feel, but I can ask the question.

Q:  Do you still assess the Russians are about two weeks or more behind schedule?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, I would say at least — at least two weeks and probably more.  Yes.  Courtney?

Q:  Hey, it’s Moshe.  I just had a quick one.  I was wondering if you could give an update on the percentage of Russia’s available combat power.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don’t — we don’t — we’re not tracking that any more, Moshe.  We don’t — I’m not able to give that piece of data anymore.  We’re just not — they’re not collating it like that.  I would just continue to say that without giving you a percentage is that our assessment is that the Russians still have the vast majority of their assessed and available combat power still available to them.

Okay, that’s it’s for — I think I got through everybody. 


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