Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Before I take your questions, just a couple of comments.
First about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. As you know, this morning the secretary spoke with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, and offered his deepest condolences and those of all the men and women of the Department of Defense for those who lost loved ones aboard flight 17. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this tragedy.
The secretary reiterated to the minister that the United States is prepared to assist in an international investigation, and he and Minister Hishamuddin agreed that the investigation must be credible, transparent and unimpeded. All parties in the vicinity of the crash site -- Russian, pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian -- must agree to an immediate ceasefire, which is the only way to ensure safe and unfettered access for international investigators, the integrity of all the potential evidence, and of course, the recovery of remains. We are still collecting the facts and international investigators need to be given the time and space to do their jobs.
But clearly, as the president noted just a short while ago, we see strong evidence that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a surface-to-air missile at an altitude of about 33,000 feet and that the missile was launched from a location near the border that is controlled by Russian separatists. This incident obviously occurred in the context of a conflict fueled by Russian support for Ukrainian -- for these Russian separatists and that support has -- and that support has included arms, materiel and training.
As we investigate who did this and why, this terrible tragedy underscores the need for Russia to take immediate and concrete steps to deescalate the crisis in Ukraine and support the Ukrainian government's plan for a ceasefire and peace settlement.
And I have one update on Cape Ray. The crew aboard the Motor Vessel Cape Ray continue their work to neutralize materials from Syria's declared chemical stockpile using the installed Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems. As of this morning, the crew has neutralized just over 15 percent of the D F, which is a Sarin precursor. This amount has been verified by the International Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: Just a few days ago, General Breedlove, the head of the U.S. European Command, stood on this podium and talked a little bit about the transfer that you have seen of Russian heavy weapons across the border into Ukraine, and the president spoke about training and all of that.
Can you go through this and tell us the latest U.S. assessment -- U.S. military assessment of what the Russians have been doing in transferring heavy weapons, surface-to-air missiles, artillery, other heavy weapons across the border to separatists on the Ukraine side, and the training and assistance that you believe Russian elements, the Russian military is giving to these separatists?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We see no hint that Russian support for the separatists has ceased. In fact, we believe that Russia continues to provide them with heavy weapons and other military equipment, financing as well. And they continue to allow these Russian fighters to enter Ukraine freely.
There have been -- as you know, we've acknowledged that some tanks, some personnel vehicles have -- have made their way across the border. It is a -- it has been a steady, concerted campaign by Russia's military to continue to support and resource, advise these separatists.
Q: Have you seen, there is some video out there, I don't know that you've seen the particular video, have you seen evidence that an SA-11 or Buk missile system went across the border at some point from Russia into Ukraine?
And what can you tell us about that system and the sophistication and training that would be needed by Russian separatists to actually be able to operate it effectively?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't have any specific information about a Buk system making that transit. We're not ruling anything in or out at this point.
It is a -- it is a sophisticated -- that said, it's a sophisticated system. The missile itself, the SA-11, which is the one we believe was used to down Flight 17, is a sophisticated piece of technology.
And it is -- it -- it strains credulity to think that -- that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.
Q: They didn't just do it on their own?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I said it strains credulity to think that they could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance.
Q: Do you have evidence of that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I -- look, there's a lot that's gonna be investigated, and I think we want to -- we want to let investigators do their work. I don't have an indication now that -- that a system was brought over. And we don't exactly know who is responsible for firing that missile, or with -- or with what assistance. What I'm saying is that that system is fairly sophisticated.
Q: What is the level of their training and systems? Does it include Russian forces going across the border to act as training and advisers side-by-side with the separatists?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well there have been Russian, I mean there have been incursions across the border by Russian aircraft. So, I mean we don’t have any reason to suspect that they have not provided some measure of support on the other side of that order. These paramilitary forces that we do not talk about as much anymore certainly didn't act or behave or organize or resource like some ragtag militia.
So nobody is suggesting that Russian military advice and assistance hasn't somehow crossed that border. It's just unclear exactly how much and when and who. Again, that's what the investigators are going to look at and we've got to let them do that.
Q: So then are we to believe that it was just a coincidence that the president announced sanctions directly on the marker of this Buk system just a day before?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I won't get into the thought process behind the president's specific decisions, but clearly these are another round of targeted sanctions designed to change the calculus and President Putin's behavior and his decision making.
What your -- I seem to think what you're suggesting is that -- that the -- I have no information that that's the case.
Q: And then second question, what's the working theory about the intent? Was this an intended military target gone awry, or was this simply an act of terrorism perhaps?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We don't know. Again, that's what we've got to let investigators figure out. We don't know what the motive was here.
Q: What is your theory, what is your working theory?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't think we have a working theory at this point, Justin. I mean, this just happened yesterday. There's teams of investigators now trying to get to the site and pore through this, and I mean it's -- we just have to let them do their job.
Q: Admiral, people in this department have said before that there are about 10,000 to 12,000 regular Russian troops inside the Russian side of the border, which is a build-up from a couple of weeks ago. Is that still your estimate? Have those forces changed since this attack yesterday, and can you tell us about -- you know, as much as you can, what they're doing or what their posture is in terms of a potential harm incursion?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, that's a great question.
I don't know of any major change to that presence. It's roughly still about 10,000 to 12,000, and it fluctuates a little bit from week to week, but the point is that it has been a -- over time, a steady increase of these combined arms tactical battalions across the border on the Russian side, but to the southeast of Ukraine. And they are close to the border. In many cases, closer than those forces who were more aligned right on the east. If you remember we had, you know, tens of thousands that were along the eastern border with Ukraine, but not as close as these units appear to be.
All they're doing is further escalating tension. It's difficult to know what the intent is. That's a question you should ask the Russian Ministry of Defense. But they're there. They're growing in size week by week, and they continue to just do nothing more than escalate the tension.
Q: So the forces providing the weapons and support that you described a minute ago to the separatists, or is that process separate from these regular...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I haven't seen any indication that they're actively involved in -- in the provision of support to the separatists. I haven't seen that. But they are continuing to mass alongside that southern part of the border.
Q: Two questions. Do that massing forces, does that include air defense artillery systems like the SA-11 that was used in the Malaysian, have you seen air defense equipment on the Russian side of the border in that buildup?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't have an inventory of what they've got with them, Justin, but as I said, they're -- we assessed that these are combined arms units. In other words, it's not just infantry troops, but they have artillery capability, they've got armored capability.
I mean, they're combined arms. And they're very ready. This is a very capable force, though smaller in number than what was aligned along the border before. But I don't have a complete inventory of what they've got.
Q: So you have an estimate of about 12,000 Russian troops on the border in the Russian side. Obviously, the U.S. has been tracking, you know, the work of Russian special operations forces, Russian advisers, Russian intelligence services in Ukraine.
Is there an estimate of the size of that advisory presence inside the eastern Ukraine by Russian forces? Is it a handful, is it a thousand guys?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't have a number for you on that. I mean, and that's less important than the fact that they continue to do it, and we continue to see this support and resourcing and advice given to these separatist groups, and we have every indication that that support is Russian, coming from the Russians.
Q: By the -- in Ukraine?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We believe that there -- there are -- there is Russian support for the separatists inside Ukraine, yes.
Q: Admiral, when General Breedlove was here a couple weeks ago, he said specifically that the Ukrainian separatists were receiving training on Russian territory on using what he called vehicle-borne anti-aircraft systems. How much training can you elaborate? Has that intensified in recent weeks, and was he specifically referring to an SA-11 type system?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I don't know exactly what system he was referring to, but -- but we would agree with his assessment that they -- some separatists have received some training in these vehicle-borne systems. There's no question about that. But I don't have -- I mean, I don't have an estimate of how many or who's doing it. I just don't know right now.
Q: It had to raise particular alarms, wouldn't it? I mean, it's one thing, small arms, things like -- but you know, vehicle-borne anti-aircraft systems, that's pretty serious.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It is pretty serious. And we've been taking it seriously, and we've been monitoring the situation there as closely as -- as we can, and we've been -- nobody in the Pentagon has been shy about talking about the continued threat posed by these separatist elements inside Ukraine or frankly by those combined arms forces that continue to amass along the border.
Q: Has the Pentagon or the U.S. government increased its surveillance of the area along the border in the wake of this disaster?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would just say that we're monitoring events as closely as we can, and I really don't have anything more to add than that?
Q: Do you want to say whether it's increased or not?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We're monitoring events as closely as we can.
Q: Going back to General Breedlove's comments. Were there any warnings given to commercial airline companies or any civilian airline authorities about the existence or this level of training for -- that was taking place...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There was a notice to air at -- to airmen put out. I think you guys know that, that -- that warned civilian aircraft to fly -- to take care over the skies of Ukraine and to fly at higher altitudes. I'm not an expert on that process but there was a -- there was an intentional notice to civilian air carries about that.
Q: Was that prompted by what General Breedlove said was the training of vehicle-borne...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You'd have to talk to the FAA and other agencies that handle that.
I don't know what prompted it but I think it was obviously -- if you're going to issue a warning like that, it's -- it's based on concerns that you have about surface-to-air missile activity and capabilities.
Q: I know you said that you don't know what the intent was of whoever fired the missile yet. But were there any indications that there were other airplanes, perhaps military planes, Ukrainian military planes, in the sky at that time?
And also, is there any concern -- the president keeps saying if Putin wants to stop this, he can. Are there any concerns that perhaps this is a situation that is poised to spiral out of control and perhaps Russia doesn't have the control over the separatists? And if so, how are you preparing?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: On your first question, I don't know.
I don't -- I mean, this is Ukrainian airspace controlled by Ukrainian authorities and I'd refer you to them to speak about what else was flying in the air at the time. I just don't have that level of visibility. We just wouldn't have that here.
On your second question, I -- I think the president's been very clear about -- about what the responsibilities and obligation of President Putin and -- and Moscow are right now, which is to deescalate the tension, to respect the territorial integrity and to cease the support for the separatist activities, which, as I said at the outset, continues and in some cases is intensifying.
Q: Even since yesterday's incident?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I mean, just yesterday? I don't know of any big delta between their support from yesterday to today but we haven't seen any sign that it's not -- that it -- that it -- that it's stopping.
Q: Admiral, there had been -- previous to yesterday's tragedy, there had been two or three, at least, Ukrainian transport planes shot down.
Does your intelligence and your knowledge indicate that the system that shot down the plane yesterday was a more powerful, more sophisticated system requiring more training or was it similar to the system that was used to shoot down the Ukrainian transport plans.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It's -- again, we're investigating this right now.
It's unclear exactly what brought down the -- the other aircraft you're talking about. I mean, we know they were shot down but those -- those incidents are still being looked into and -- and I don't have any great visibility on -- on what brought them down.
But I'd like to just kind of bring you back to the larger point here which is, these aircraft are being shot down.
And while it's unclear exactly who's pulling the trigger here, it's pretty clear that it's doing nothing to deescalate the tension inside Ukraine and to bring to this crisis a peaceful resolution. And now innocent people simply flying from -- from one city to another have been killed and brought into this.
So let's not lose sight of the big picture here. It matters a lot less, you know, exactly what system it was and a lot more that it happened and it needs to stop.
Q: Just a quick follow-up, do you believe that whoever shot this plane down could have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military transport?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into the -- into the motivations, the intent, the -- the -- the reasoning that went into this. That's for the investigators to figure out. We simply don't have that level of detail at this point.
Q: Are there normally friend-or-foe measures on systems like this and if in fact it was an accident, would that reveal a dangerous lack of training on the part of whoever was using it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know yet. I don't know.
I'm not an expert on that -- that system. I wouldn't begin to get up here and try to dissect it for you.
Again, investigators are going to pile through this and they'll figure that stuff out.
Q: Exactly who are these investigators?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: This is -- it'll be -- it's an international investigation. But I don't...
Q: From the U.S. government? Does it include DOD? Does it include CIA? Does it include Justice?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There's no plans for -- There's no plans for -- right now, for a DOD representative on this.
I won't speak for other federal agencies but -- but I believe that there will be some other entities from the federal government, individuals going over there to participate in it.
And I don't have the makeup of the team. It'll be an international investigation.
Q: Do you anticipate...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I have no expectation right now that there'll be a DOD representative on this team.
Q: The president said he saw no role for the U.S. military in responding to this. But whatever happened to that list of requests for equipment that the Ukrainians sent at the beginning of this?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, we continue to review requests for Ukrainian -- or Ukrainian requests for military assistance. The focus of that remains on the non-lethal side right now. And the -- and the -- some $33 million that the president has authorized of material has been getting to Ukrainian -- the Ukrainian armed forces and border services.
So, the support continues to flow. We continue to take a look at the -- at their needs and addressing each in turn.
Q: To the best I remember, it was MREs. Is there -- is there any -- do you have a more complete list?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah. There's been -- there's been more. The recent deliveries include radios, body armor, individual first aid kits, sleeping mats, uniform items. Over the next few months, additional items will start moving through the procurement process to include night vision goggles, thermal imagers, Kevlar helmets, explosive ordnance disposal robots, and some additional radios.
And there's been some other equipment given to Ukraine's border guards: barbed wire, alarm systems, excavators, trucks, generators that kind of thing -- communications gear. And again, all this is part of a package of more than $33 million now that the president has -- has approved and that stuff continues to flow.
Q: (inaudible) haven't gotten there yet and why -- it's been a long time since they requested that. Is there...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: They're working through the -- it's working through the procurement process, Julian. I don't have a tick-tock on exactly where it is or when it entered the process, but it's working through there and they'll -- they'll get there soon.
Q: Is the concern here that this would evolve into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russians if in fact the U.S. were to provide lethal aid?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Look, I mean, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals here. The -- the concern is that the territorial integrity of Ukraine has been violated and continues to be violated by its neighbor in Russia and that needs to stop.
Q: To your knowledge, who has the black box?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know.
Q: I mean, is that a concern that evidence may be tampered with on the ground?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I said it at the outset that we want all sides to agree to providing investigators safe and unimpeded access to the site so that they can do the kind of work they need to do to include recovery of the black box so we can -- so we can find out all the circumstances surrounding this downing.
Q: Have the Ukrainians asked for lethal assistance: weapons, ammunition, things beyond the non-lethal articles that you described?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I've said it before that they have requested a lot of material, some of it lethal in nature. But the focus has been and remains on the non-lethal side of assistance.
Q: They have asked for weapons and...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: They have -- I'm not going to detail everything on the -- from their request. We continue to evaluate the requests. It was a request that included lethal and non-lethal. The focus of our assistance to date has been and remains on the non-lethal side.
Q: I want to go back to Greg's question for a minute.
When General Breedlove talked about the training, are you guys seeing this training and support for separatists, but particularly the training taking place on the Russian side of the border? Indeed, is that where you see some of it happening and then they're coming into Ukraine?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I -- I don't have a specific zip code for you for where this is going on. The -- the -- we continue to see support for the separatists, which does include a measure of training. And again, I don't have the details on exactly who's doing it, when, on exactly what systems, but we do believe that this support -- and it's not just training and advice. It's actual resourcing and equipping and it continues.
And again, I just would like to take you back up to the larger point here is that support has got to cease.
Q: Just -- I know you may not be able to say how you know this, but the fact is you are then seeing in some fashion Russian military equipment, including surface-to-air missile systems, crossing the border into Ukraine. That's what the intelligence shows you.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak about intelligence matters from the podium. What I've said is we continue to see support for these separatists, to include the things that General Breedlove talked about. We continue to see that support. It continues to be escalatory and dangerous. And again, it needs to stop.
But I -- I won't talk about all the measures in which, you know, we believe we have this information.
Q: (inaudible) cross the border.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about specific intelligence matters.
Q: Yeah, you said that earlier...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We have seen -- we have seen some equipment going across the border, yes.
Q: But I thought you also said that you were not aware of any mobile vehicle SAM systems going across the border?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's correct.
Q: Admiral, Treasury's list of sanctions included eight Russian defense firms. Absent from the list was the largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. Was that at the request of this department that it was left...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of that specific request from the department to -- keep that company off the list. Louie?
Q: Going back to the question of whether it came across the border or if it was seized inside Ukraine, Samantha Power at the U.N. laid out that there's no evidence that any Ukrainian air defense systems have been compromised or in that area. So that leaves only one alternative. Would that alternative be viable, in your opinion, that yes they did come across the border?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It's a possibility, Louie. I just don't have any -- as I said right at the beginning, I don't have an indication that -- that particular surface-to-air system that -- or a particular surface-to-air system was moved across the border into Ukraine. I just don't have any specific indication of that, and I wouldn't talk to it right now. I just don't -- I don't have it.
Q: Prior to this week, was there any belief in this building that the separatists possessed this kind of...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Say that again.
Q: Prior to this week, was there any belief in this building that the separatists possessed this kind of weaponry?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We -- without getting into -- I mean, first of all, we don't have perfect visibility into every capability that -- that the separatists have. We certainly knew that this was a capability that we had reason to believe that this was certainly a capability that they aspired to having access to.
Q: With vehicle-borne, or just the Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS)?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would say both.
Q: To be clear, have you seen any anti-aircraft weapons cross the border to Ukraine?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I have no information about specific anti-aircraft systems crossing the border into Ukraine.
What we have said is we have seen tanks go across. We've seen armored vehicles go across. Trucks of all sorts. We have seen major equipment move across the border into Ukraine from Russia. I don't have any specific indications of air defense systems or surface to air missile systems.
Q: Not to take you too much into the realm of the hypothetical, but these kinds of systems could've crossed the border potentially covered up out of U.S. satellite view, could they not?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It's -- it's not out of the realm of the possible, Barb, but again I just don't have any more information on that.
Q: At the height of the tension between the Ukraine and Russia, there was a lot of shifting of U.S. forces, NATO forces, to that region. And then NATO sent me an email earlier today saying that it's reviewing its defensive posture and plans to ensure why (inaudible) capable of (inaudible) allies. I was just wondering, do you have some sort of list or can you give me an idea of how many of our forces are still there, and how many do you plan on shifting, if possible, in the future, how much could you allocate extra to that region?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We'd have to get back to you on a list of what European Command and SACEUR has in the region, and they're actually a better place to go than here for that. But more broadly, as Secretary Hagel has made clear, we're going to constantly review our posture there in Europe and -- and look for opportunities to make our interaction with our NATO allies and partners more robust.
We've already done that with the air policing mission, with any number of exercises and operations to include it in the Black Sea since this crisis began and the secretary's been very clear that he wants the staff and he wants General Breedlove to continue to look for ways to bolster that effort, and so I think you'll see consistently, as time goes on, we're going to keep -- we're going to keep doing that, and when we can announce it, we certainly will.
But exactly what's over there? That's a better question put to General Breedlove's staff.
Q: Can you clarify, because the president said that there -- he didn't see any role for the U.S. military in responding to this. But that seems to suggest that -- that forces there are being reassessed. And related to that, you know, you described the kind of legal capabilities and the supplies that are being given to the separatists from the Russians, but then you described what we're providing: you know, goggles, sleeping mats, et cetera.
But you mentioned that lethal assistance has been requested. Now, is that something that's also being reconsidered in light of this?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: So, your first question, the -- the president has been very clear from the outset that there's not going to be a U.S. military solution here to the crisis in Ukraine. What we've been doing has been efforts to bolster and reinforce and support our NATO allies and partners in the region. To look for ways to improve our interoperability and our capability, to demonstrate our commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty. And that's what you're gonna continue to see us do.
There is -- but there is -- there is no effort right now, no plan, and the president's been very clear, no intention to have a U.S. military solution to the -- to the crisis inside Ukraine.
On your other question, and I've said this before, the Ukrainians have asked for various items of military assistance. Some of it's nonlethal, some of it is lethal.
The focus of our efforts to date has been on providing nonlethal assistance. That's where that focus remains right now. But we've also said that we continually review those requests. And it's a constant process of taking a look at -- at what Ukraine needs and what the interagency, what the United States is willing to provide. And, right now, the focus remains on nonlethal.
Q: But now, there's no consideration of possibly expediting more lethal types of aid in response?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. And I said before, we're constantly reviewing it. Right now, the focus remains on nonlethal.
I got time for one more.
Q: Just to sum up, I mean, Ambassador Power said very plainly that it was an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine. And you keep talking about investigators. Is the only real question whether it was Russians with the separatists who fire the -- is that the only question that's really outstanding at this point?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I'm not a -- I'm not an aircraft investigator. So I don't know all the things that they're gonna look at. But, yes, we have very strong evidence, as I said too, that it was a surface-to-air missile, SA-11, fired from a location controlled by Russian separatists near the border, most likely on the Ukraine side of the border. That's -- that's where all the strong evidence leads us to now.
Beyond that, exactly who -- whether it was a Russian military unit that did it or it was a separatist unit that did it, we don't know. Whether it was a system that was driven across the border by Russians and then handed off to -- we don't know. We just don't know. And I think the -- part of the -- answering some of those questions is gonna be what the investigators get at.
Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.