John Kirby, the former Pentagon spokesperson, told VOA’s Ukrainian service on Thursday the United States is “focused on making sure that Ukraine can continue to defend itself and its sovereignty.”
Kirby, who recently became the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the United States has provided nearly $6 billion worth of assistance, including military equipment, such as HIMARS, high mobility artillery rocket systems.
Ukraine determines “what operations they’re going to conduct. And that’s their right to the material that they get from the United States. [It is] now theirs. It’s Ukrainian property, and they get to determine how they’re going to use it,” Kirby said.
Here is the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: We know that American HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems] arrived today in Ukraine. What impact do we expect them to make on a battlefield at this stage?
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby: The big difference that these HIMARS, which stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, can make is distance, its range. It’s giving the Ukrainians the benefit of farther standoff from Russian forces as they continue to fight them every single day which is now a much more concentrated geographic area.
VOA: The United States is providing Ukraine unprecedented levels of military assistance. Still, some in Kyiv and Washington are saying it’s not enough, it’s not fast enough. Do you think the administration is providing enough weapons to Ukraine to make a difference on the battlefield?
Kirby: All these systems are making a difference. Even today, they’re making a difference. And the Ukrainians will tell you that, and it’s not just the big systems. It’s the small arms and ammunition, which they’re using literally every day in this fight with the Russians. So it’s already making an impact. And we’re obviously the largest donor of security assistance to Ukraine or any other nation around the world … almost $6 billion since the beginning of the invasion. So it’s a lot of material that’s going in and the president has made clear that we’re committed to continuing that assistance going forward.
VOA: Should we expect more HIMARS to be sent to Ukraine? And what is the absolute maximum amount that United States can provide HIMARS and MLRS [multiple launch rocket systems], given its own stocks?
Kirby: I do think you’ll continue to see systems like HIMARS going in in future deliveries. I think that that’s very likely. I don’t want to get ahead of specific announcements here. But again, the president was very clear with [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy. So once again, we’re going to help them as much as we can as fast as we can. And I’ll tell you, the material is going in at record speed. … It’s just unprecedented the speed with which security assistance is actually reaching the front lines in Ukraine. There’s literally shipments going in every single day. And it’s not just from the United States, we are the biggest donor. But more than 40 other nations around the world are also contributing security assistance in some type of form to Ukraine. [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin just held the most recent Ukraine contact group in Brussels last week, almost 50 nations showed up, not just from Europe, but from around the world, to look at ways they can continue to continue to support Ukraine and their ability to defend themselves.
VOA: Can you clarify what the Biden Administration is giving Ukraine weapons for: to defend themselves or to be able to defeat Russian forces, push them outside Ukraine and ultimately win the war?
Kirby: We are really focused on making sure that Ukraine can continue to defend itself and its sovereignty, its people, its territorial integrity. And, obviously, the Ukrainians are in this fight. They determine what operations they’re going to conduct. And that’s their right. The material that they get from the United States is now theirs. It’s Ukrainian property, and they get to determine how they’re going to use it. Now, obviously, we want to see Ukraine’s sovereignty fully respected, we want to see Ukraine’s territorial integrity fully restored. But how that gets determined, and it should be determined by Mr. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin ending this war. But Mr. Zelenskyy is going to get to determine what victory looks like.
VOA: If Ukrainians determined that they want to win this war, push Russians back to the February 23 lines, would you also support that and for them to use the provided weapons to conduct counteroffensives?
Kirby: Well, Ukrainians are already conducting counteroffensives in their own country. I mean, look at what they’ve been doing in the south, look at Khakiv in the north, where the Russians almost had the city completely encircled [and] Ukrainians pushed them away, pushed them back toward the border. Mr. Zelinskyy is the commander in chief of his armed forces. We respect that. He gets to determine how he’s going to use those forces and how he’s going to define victory. Our job is to make sure that he has the tools available to him to do that in the most efficient, effective way.
VOA: Is the administration preparing for this war to become a protracted war? We hear [NATO Secretary-General Jens] Stoltenberg say that we should expect this war to last for a long time. What is the expectation on American side?
Kirby: Once Mr. Putin decided to concentrate on the Donbas, you heard American officials say almost from the very beginning, that this was the potential. That there could be a prolonged fight here in the Donbas region. We have to remember, this is a part of Ukraine that the Russians and Ukrainians have been fighting over literally since 2014. We tend to think of Feb. 24 as a watershed moment, and it was, but Ukrainian soldiers were dying, fighting and dying for their country years before that. So this is a part of the country that both armies know well, and both are digging in. The Russians are making incremental but not consistent progress. Ukrainians are pushing back. And it certainly could end up being a prolonged conflict.
VOA: July 9 will mark 60 days since [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden signed into law the Lend-Lease Act [which would expedite the process of sending military aid to Ukraine]. When is the United States planning to use this mechanism, and would weapons the United States would be sending through this mechanism be any different from what the United States is sending right now?
Kirby: We certainly welcome the support that Congress gave with additional authorities to help Ukraine defend itself. We’re still working our way through that particular act and, sort of, what authorities and capabilities might help us provide Ukraine. In the meantime, we’re already continuing to flow a lot of material through drawdown authority, just pulling it from our own stocks. We have the authorities to do that. The president’s not been bashful about using that. And you’re going to continue to see those flow going forward. We got a supplemental request of some $40 million from Congress just a few weeks ago, not all of it for security assistance, but a lot of it is. And we also have authorities through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. This is authorities, and we just used some last week, where the Department of Defense can go contract for items that go directly to Ukraine. So there’s an awful lot of tools available in the toolbox. And we’re open-minded about using all of them.
VOA: There are some reports indicating that American intelligence agencies have less information than they would like about Ukrainian operations, personnel and equipment losses. Does this administration see this as an issue in the context of providing military aid for Ukraine?
Kirby: I’d rather not talk about intelligence matters here, in an interview. I would just tell you that the relationship with the Ukrainian armed forces is very, very strong. And we’re talking to them literally almost every single day, at various levels, all the way up to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff down to working staff levels, including military-to-military contact. And the idea of those conversations is to help give us a better idea of what Ukraine needs in the fight. One of the things we didn’t talk about was, when we talked about aid and how much they’re getting and how fast you’re getting it is, we’re doing this in parcels, so that deliberately so that we can continue to give them assistance in ways that are relevant to the fight that they’re in. And the Ukrainians have been very honest and open with us about the fight that they’re in and what they need. And they’ve been honest with the rest of the world. And so those conversations are going to continue. And that’s what really matters.
VOA: We heard from Secretary Austin and [U.S.] Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken that they want to see Ukraine win, that they want to see Ukraine prevail. Is it still the position of the administration?
Kirby: Of course, we want Ukraine to succeed on the battlefield, and we want them to succeed at the negotiating table, if and when it comes to that. Now, obviously, we’re not at that stage right now. But we believe that President Zelenskyy is the one who gets to determine what victory looks like. I mean, it’s his country. He’s the commander in chief, and we respect him. Unlike the Russians, we respect the decision by the Ukrainian voters to elect him into office. And we respect his leadership and his responsibilities.
VOA: What results is President Biden expecting from his visit to Europe – G-7 (Group of Seven) summit, NATO summit. What is the major expectation?
Kirby: This is a very exciting trip. A year ago, when President Biden was at the G-7, and he’s now attended several NATO summits, the theme in the past has been, look, America is back, American leadership is back. And now I think, without getting into specific deliverables ahead of these meetings, I can tell you that we’re very much looking forward to a theme of, now it’s American leadership delivering, delivering for our allies and partners, delivering for the American people, producing results that will actually improve our national security, help with energy security at home and around the world, and also continue to impose costs and consequences on Mr. Putin for this unprovoked war.
VOA: Russia’s envoy in Afghanistan said Moscow can recognize the Taliban government, regardless of the American position. Do you think this kind of move by Russia could further worsen the relationship between Moscow and Washington?
Kirby: I think there’s enough tension between the United States and Russia right now that that we need to continue to focus on what Mr. Putin has done for security across the European continent and, quite frankly, across the globe. Russia can speak for themselves in terms of what governments they intend to recognize or not, we are not at a stage where we’re willing to do that with respect to the Taliban. What we would ask of any nation in the world, certainly any nation bordering Afghanistan is to not make decisions that are going to make it less stable and less secure than it is right now for the Afghan people.
VOA: The White House says Biden’s upcoming meeting with [Saudi] King Salman and Prince [Mohammed] bin Salman will advance national security interests. What’s the rationale for where the White House decides that national interests trump objections to authoritarian leaders? And do you see that anytime in the foreseeable future where the White House might decide it’s in national interest to sit down even with Putin?
Kirby: Well, the president has spoken to Vladimir Putin, spoke to him before the invasion. The president will speak, he will meet, he will discuss with any leader around the world things that he believes are in the national security interests of the American people. That’s his job as commander in chief and he takes that responsibility seriously. And I would, you know, go back on some of the critics here, I mean, the fact that an adherence to values and human rights and civil rights is somehow at odds with a pragmatic foreign policy is just foolishness. They go hand in hand, they have to go hand in hand. And the president has been very clear that our foreign policy is going to be rooted in values and he’s never bashful about espousing and advancing those values as he meets with leaders around the world. The two go hand in hand they have to.