WASHINGTON, July 21, 2014 – Although it’s unclear who is helping separatists fighting in Ukraine and how much help is being provided, there are no indications that Russia has stopped its support, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said today.
During a Pentagon news conference, Kirby discussed the need for Russia to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine and its potential involvement in yesterday’s crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
“We see no hint that Russian support for the separatists has ceased,” he said. “In fact, we believe that Russia continues to provide them with heavy weapons and other military equipment — financing as well,” the admiral said. “They continue to allow these Russian fighters to enter Ukraine freely.” Some tanks and personnel vehicles have made their way across the border, he added.
“It has been a steady, concerted campaign by Russia’s military to continue to support, resource [and] advise these separatists,” he said.
Kirby noted while there isn’t specific evidence that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile crossed the border into Ukraine, “we’re not ruling anything in or out at this point.”
“The missile itself, the SA-11, which is the one we believe was used to down Flight 17, is a sophisticated piece of technology,” he said. “It strains credulity to think that [the separatists] could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance.”
The admiral said “we want to let investigators do their work” to discern whether assistance includes Russian troops going across the border to act side by side with separatists to train and advise them.
“We do not have any reason to suspect that they have not provided some measure of support on the other side of that order,” Kirby said. “These paramilitary forces that we do not talk about as much any more certainly did not act or behave or organize resources like some ragtag militia.”
Kirby emphasized he is not suggesting that Russian military advice and assistance has not somehow crossed the border, but that it is “just unclear exactly how much and when and who.”
“That is what the investigators are going to look at, and that is what we need to let them do,” he said.
Kirby also said he was unaware of any major changes to Russian military presence in the region.
“It’s roughly still about 10,000 to 12,000,” he said. “And it fluctuates a little bit from week to week, but the point is that it has been, 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,” he added. Tens of thousands were along the eastern border with Ukraine, he said, but not as close as these units appear to be.
The Russian military presence is further escalating tension, he said, and while it’s difficult to know what the intent is, the numbers growing week by week.
Kirby said the Defense Department is “taking it seriously, and we’ve been monitoring the situation there as closely as we can.”
“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,” he said.
Kirby said Pentagon officials continue to review requests for Ukrainian military assistance, and the support continues to flow.
“The focus of that remains on the nonlethal side right now,” he said, “and some [of the] $33 million that the president has authorized of material has been getting to Ukrainian armed forces and border services.”
Recent deliveries include radios, body armor, individual first aid kits, sleeping mats [and] uniform items,” Kirby said. “Over the next few months,” he added, “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.”
Other equipment has been given to Ukraine’s border guards, the admiral said, such as barbed wire, alarm systems, excavators, trucks, generators and communications gear.
Despite continuing to see “escalatory and dangerous” support from Russia to the separatists — which Kirby said “needs to stop” — the admiral also re-emphasized President Barack Obama’s point that there will not be a U.S. military resolution.
“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,” he said. “What we’ve been doing has been efforts to … reinforce and support our NATO allies and partners in the region.”
Officials are looking for ways to improve interoperability and capability, he said, to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all.
“And that’s what you’re going to continue to see us do,” Kirby added.