Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan
(The White House – April 4, 2022 – whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/04/04/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-and-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan/)
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay. We have a return guest: Jake Sullivan, our National Security Advisor, who will give some brief remarks, take some questions. And then we will do a briefing from there.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Jake.
MR. SULLIVAN: Hi, everyone. I hope you guys are doing well.
With apologies to Jen and to you, my remarks are not going to be so brief because I have a number of points I want to get through before opening it to questions.
First, you heard the President today condemn in powerful terms the atrocities committed by Russian forces retreating from Bucha and other towns in Ukraine. The images that we see are tragic, they’re shocking, but unfortunately, they’re not surprising.
We released information even before Russia’s invasion showing that Russia would engage in acts of brutality against civilians, included it tar- — including targeted killings of dissidents and others they deemed a threat to their occupation. And as the horrific images that have emerged from Bucha have shown, that’s exactly what they have done.
We had already concluded that Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine, and the information from Bucha appears to show further evidence of war crimes. And as the President said, we will work with the world to ensure there is full accountability for these crimes. We are also working intensively with our European allies on further sanctions to raise the pressure and raise the cost on Putin and on Russia.
Today, I’d like to take a step back and talk about where we are and where we think we are going.
Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine more than a month ago. When Russia started this war, its initial aims were to seize the capital of Kyiv, replace the Zelenskyy government, and take control of much — if not all — of Ukraine. Russia believed that it could accomplish these objectives swiftly and efficiently.
But Russia did not account for the strength of the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian people, or the amount or effectiveness of military assistance provided by the United States and its allies and partners.
The Ukrainian people, backed resolutely by the United States and other nations, have held firm. Kyiv and other cities still stand.
The Ukrainian military has performed exceptionally well. And many Ukrainian civilians have joined local militias in addition to using nonviolent means to resist.
Vladimir Putin also believed that the West would not hold together in support of Ukraine. Russia was surprised that President Biden and the United States were so effective in rallying the world to prepare for and respond to the invasion.
And after President Biden reinforced and reinvigorated Western unity at a series of summits in Brussels just 11 days ago, the Russians have now realized that the West will not break.
At this juncture, we believe that Russia is revising its war aims. Russia is repositioning its forces to concentrate its offensive operations in eastern and parts of southern Ukraine, rather than target most of the territory. All indications are that Russia will seek to surround and overwhelm Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.
We anticipate that Russian commanders are now executing their redeployment from northern Ukraine to the region around the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces are already well on their way of retreating from Kyiv to Belarus as Russia likely prepares to deploy dozens of additional battalion tactical groups, constituting tens of thousands of soldiers, to the frontline in Ukraine’s east.
We assess Russia will focus on defeating the Ukrainian forces in the broader Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, which encompasses significantly more territory than Russian proxies already controlled before the new invasion began in late February.
Russia could then use any tactical successes it achieves to propagate a narrative of progress and mask or un- — or try to discount or downplay prior military failures.
In order to protect any territory it seizes in the east, we expect that Russia could potentially extend its force proje- — projection and presence even deeper into Ukraine, beyond Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. At least that is their intention and their plan.
In the south, we also expect that Russian military forces will do what they can to try to hold the city of Kherson, to enable their control of the waterflow to Crimea, and try to block Mykolaiv so that Ukrainian forces cannot proceed to retake Kherson.
In the north, Russia will likely keep pressure on Kharkiv.
During this renewed ground offensive in eastern Ukraine, Mas- — Moscow will likely continue to launch air and missile strikes across the rest of the country to cause military and economic damage — and, frankly, to cause terror, including against cities like Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Lviv.
Russia’s goal, in the end, is to weaken Ukraine as much as possible.
Russia still has forces available to outnumber Ukraine’s, and Russia is now concentrating its military power on fewer lines of attack.
But this does not mean that Russia will succeed in the east. So far, Russia’s military has struggled to achieve its war aims, while Ukraine’s military has done an extraordinary and courageous job demonstrating its will to fight and putting its considerable capabilities to use.
The next stage of this conflict may very well be protracted. We should be under no illusions that Russia will adjust its tactics, which have included and will likely continue to include wanton and brazen attacks on civilian targets.
And while Moscow may be interested now in using military pressure to find a political settlement, if this offensive in the east proves to gain some traction, Russia could regenerate forces for additional goals, including trying to gain control of yet more territory within Ukraine.
Now, as the images from Bucha so powerfully reinforce, now is not the time for complacency. The Ukrainians are defending their homeland courageously, and the United States will continue to back them with military assistance, humanitarian aid, and economic support.
We know that military assistance is having a critical impact on this conflict. Ukrainians are effectively defending themselves with U.S.-produced air defense systems and anti-tank systems, such as Stingers and Javelins, as well as radar systems that give the Ukrainians early warning and target data, and multiple other types of arms and munitions.
The administration is working around the clock to fulfill Ukraine’s main security assistance requests — delivering weapons from U.S. stocks where they are available and facilitating the delivery of weapons by Allies where Allied systems better suit Ukraine’s needs. This is happening at what the Pentagon has described at an “unprecedented pace.”
Last Friday, we announced an additional $300 million in security assistance, bringing the U.S. commitment to $1.65 billion in weapons and ammunition since Russia’s invasion and $2.3 billion since the beginning of the administration.
The latest package includes laser-guided rocket systems, Puma unmanned aerial systems, armored High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, and more.
Material is arriving every day, including today, from the United States and our Allies and partners. And we will have further announcements of additional military assistance in the coming days.
We are working with the Ukrainians, as I said, to identify solutions to their priority requests. In some cases, that means sourcing systems from other countries because the U.S. either doesn’t have the system or doesn’t have a version that could effectively be integrated into the fight. Sorts of systems like this include longer-range anti-aircraft systems, artillery systems, and coastal defense systems.
So, let’s take coastal defense systems as an example. President Biden went to Brussels to talk to key Allies 11 days ago about how to get coastal defense systems to Ukraine, because there is not, at the moment, a good U.S. option.
Last week, the UK announced at the close of its donor conference that coastal defense systems would be provided to the Ukrainians. It is a good example how, working with Allies and partners, we are successfully responding to Ukraine’s requests.
We expect additional new capabilities to be delivered in the near future. We can’t always advertise what is being delivered out of deference to our Allies and partners or for operational sensitivities, but we are moving with speed and efficiency to deliver.
Let me close with this: Even as Russia acknowledges the failure of its initial plans and shifts its goals, three elements of this war remain constant.
First, Russia will continue to use its military to try to conquer and occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.
Second, the Ukrainian military and people will continue to effectively and bravely defend their homeland.
And third, the United States will stand by them for as long as it takes.
Russia has tried to subjugate the whole of Ukraine, and it has failed. Now it will attempt to bring parts of the country under its rule. It may succeed in taking some territory through sheer force and brutality.
But no matter what happens over the coming weeks, it is clear that Russia will never be welcomed by the Ukrainian people. Instead, its gains will be temporary, as the brave Ukrainian people resist Russian occupation and carry on their fight for an independent, sovereign nation that they so richly deserve.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
Q Jake, can I ask you about the President’s call for a war crimes trial for Vladimir Putin? What are the mechanics of how the President sees that playing out? Would it be at the International Criminal Court or at some other tribunal?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, we have to consult with our allies and partners on what makes most sense as a mechanism moving forward. Obviously, the ICC is one venue where war crimes have been tried in the past, but there have been other examples in other conflicts of other mechanisms being set up.
So, there is work to be done to work out the specifics of that. And between now and then, every day, what we are focused on is continuing to apply pressure to the Russian economy and provide weapons to the Ukrainian people to be able to defend themselves.
Q Other —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Q Sorry, forgive me. Other forums for this might include something that the U.N. General — the U.N. Security Council might adopt. Is that what you’re suggesting — that you would go to the Security Council?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, obviously, with Russia as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it would be difficult to imagine that they would not attempt to exercise their veto to block something.
But there have been creative solutions to the question of accountability in the past, and I’m not going to prejudge what solution would be applied here or what forum or venue would be applied here.
What I will say is what the President said this morning: There has to be accountability for these war crimes. That accountability has to be felt at every level of the Russian system, and the United States will work with the international community to ensure that accountability is applied at the appropriate time.
Q The President was careful to say he does not see this as genocide. Many Ukrainians believe that it is because their nation, their people are being attacked. Where is the line, in your view? And how have you counseled the President between “genocide” and “war crimes”?
MR. SULLIVAN: So this is something we, of course, continue to monitor every day. Based on what we have seen so far, we have seen atrocities, we have seen war crimes. We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide. But, again, that’s something we will continue to monitor.
There is not a mechanical formula for this. There is a process that we have run just recently at the State Department to ultimately determine that the killing — the mass killing of Rohingya in Burma constituted genocide. That was a lengthy process based on an amassing of evidence over a considerab- — a considerable period of time and involving, frankly, mass death, the mass incarceration of a significant portion of the Rohingya population.
And we will look to a series of indicators along those lines to ultimately make a determination in Ukraine. But as the President said today, we have not arrived at that conclusion yet.
Q Thanks. I just have three quick questions. When you say the next stage will be “protracted,” do you mean years? I mean, Russia has been in Crimea and Donbas since 2014. What — what’s “protracted”?
MR. SULLIVAN: So we can’t predict, but I would just say that, so far, this conflict has lasted a little more than five weeks. And yet, in that time, we’ve seen an enormous amount of killing and death and, also, an enormous amount of bravery and success on the part of the Ukrainian forces.
What I’m saying when I say “protracted” is that it may not be just a matter of a few more weeks before all is said and done. That first, quote, unquote, “phase” of the conflict, of — the Russians put it, was measured in weeks.
This next phase could be measured in months or longer.
Q In the beginning, the consensus seemed to be: Russia was unstoppable; we just had to make the price as high as possible for them.
Then the new thinking is: Maybe Ukraine can actually win. Do you agree with that? And what would winning look like?
MR. SULLIVAN: So we believe that our job is to support the Ukrainians. They will set the military objectives. They will set the objectives at the bargaining table. And I am quite certain they are going to set those objectives at success, and we are going to give them every tool we can to help them achieve that success.
But we are not going to define the outcome of this for the Ukrainians. That is up for them to define and us to support them in. That’s what we’re going to do. And we do have confidence in the bravery, skill, and capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces and the resilience of the Ukrainian people.
Q I just have one — one quick thing on chemical weapons. The President and other allies have promised consequences without saying what they would be. The last time Russia used chemical weapons, there were sanctions but not very stiff ones. Are you ready to define consequences?
MR. SULLIVAN: So I’m going to say the same thing I’ve said from this podium that the President has said from a podium down the hall in this same building, which is that Russia will pay a severe price. We have communicated to them directly. We have coordinated with our allies and partners. And I’m not going to go further in terms of the specifics here today.
Q Jake, two questions.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Q The administration initially did not call this “war crimes,” and eventually, though, they did after they — what they saw on the ground. Do you think that’s going to be the case with calling it a genocide?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, so, first, it’s not just that we sit around and debate terms and then, ultimately, decide to apply a term based against static circumstances. We watch as things unfold. We gather evidence. We continue to develop facts. And as we gathered evidence and as we got the facts together, we ultimately came to the conclusion that war crimes were committed.
And, in fact, I would say, on this front, President Biden was a leader. He went out and said Putin is a war criminal. And many of you raised your eyebrows at that; many people out in the public raised their eyebrows at that. And now you see the scenes coming out of Bucha today.
And so, he’s not going to hesitate to call a spade a spade, to call it like he sees it, and neither is the U.S. government.
So as the facts develop, could we see ourselves reaching a different conclusion on that question? Of course we could. But it’s going to be based on evidence and facts as we gather it along the way.
Q And two more quick ones for you. On the sanctions that the President was talking about today, should we expect those this week, or what’s the timing?
MR. SULLIVAN: You can expect further sanctions announcements this week. And we are coordinating with our allies and partners on what the exact parameters of that will be. But, yes, this week, we will have additional economic pressure elements to announce.
Q And my last question, quickly. You keep using the word “retreat” instead of “reposition.” How much is that in part due to the spring conditions, the muddy conditions that are on the ground in Ukraine?
MR. SULLIVAN: The reason I use the phrase “retreat” is just kind of quite simple common sense. It’s not some fancy technical military term. It’s a term that all of us understand, which is, if you run pell-mell for an objective and you get stopped, and then you start to get beaten back, and then you withdraw, you pull out — that’s what I would call a retreat.
That’s what happened to the Russians in Kyiv: They attacked Kyiv. They failed. They started to get beaten backwards by the Russian — by the Ukrainian military. And they ultimately retreated back across the border into Belarus.
Now, with those forces, as I said in my opening comments, they are not intending to stand pat. They are going to reposition those forces to go after a different objective — a scaled-down objective, but nonetheless a dangerous and disturbing objective, which is to conquer an occupied territory in eastern Ukraine.
And now it’s our job to help the Ukrainian people have the tools they need to be able to stymie that objective. That is what we’re intent on doing at this time.
Q Jake, I know you’re not willing to call it a genocide, but does the U.S. government have information that you can — that you can use to independently corroborate Ukraine’s allegations about atrocities in Bucha?
MR. SULLIVAN: So we have — obviously got access to a lot of the information that you all have. We also have information that the Ukrainians have provided us directly. And we will also work with fact finders — independent fact finders as we go forward to get to a level of documentation that allows us to help build very strong dossiers of evidence for war crimes prosecutions. And that is what we intend to do.
Now, on the question of the genocide determination: Obviously, we will continue on a daily basis to have consultations with the Ukrainians to reach determinations. And if at some point we reach the judgment that there, in fact, has been a level of atrocity, a level of killing, a level of intentional activity that rises to meet our definition of genocide, we’ll call it for what it is.
We have never hesitated to call out the Russians for what they have done in Ukraine, and we will not start now.
Q And sorry — sorry, one quick question on France, Jake. They are — they have suggested that, you know, a hefty EU-wide tariff should be imposed, as opposed to a blanket ban on Russian energy imports into the EU. Does the U.S. support that? And will that be part of what you’re planning to do next in terms of sanctions?
MR. SULLIVAN: We are having conversations, as I stand here at this podium, with senior officials in the main European capitals, as well as in Brussels, on the full range of sanctions options, including sanctions options or pressure options that relate to energy.
I’m not going to negotiate that out at this podium. We want to make sure that we’re able to pull together a consensus along with the rest of the European Union.
Q Jake, the Kremlin is denying the images out of Bucha, saying that they don’t show any kind of apparent execution. What is the U.S. doing to try and expose Russia’s actions to its own citizens? I mean, what can we do to sort of fight this information war?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, first, I would note that the Kremlin is working overtime to close down the information space inside of Russia, which is not exactly the action of a strong and confident government that feels really good about the story that it would be telling if it were allowing independent news sources to come in.
Second, we are, of course, supporting, through a variety of means, the provision of information about these atrocities and about the entire effort by the Russians to unjustly and unlawfully invade a sovereign neighboring country not just to the Russian people, but to people everywhere. We will continue to do that.
Q And just to be clear: Is it your sense that the atrocities that we’re seeing in Bucha are based on orders coming from Putin or his senior military officials? Or is there a chance here that this is sort of Russian forces acting on their own? And is there even a distinction?
MR. SULLIVAN: I don’t want to get into the specific intelligence related to Bucha at this point. But what I will say, as I said at the outset, is that even before the invasion happened, we shared information with the public, with the press, including from this podium, that Russia was intending as a matter of policy — not as a matter of one guy in a unit in a suburb of Kyiv, but as a matter of policy in this war — to kill dissidents, to kill those who caused problems for the occupation, and to impose a reign of terror across occupied territories within Ukraine. That is what we are seeing play out.
So, no, we do not believe that this is just a random accident or the rogue act of a particular individual. We believe that this was part of the plan. We declared it from this podium as part of the plan, and now we are seeing it play out in real life, in living color, in these terrible, tragic images we are seeing come from Bucha.
Q Thanks. So, I know you don’t want to talk about possible venues for a war trial — war crimes trial, but can you talk a little bit about the evidence-gathering aspect of it? That’s going to be crucial to combatting disinformation and what Russians will say — that “Ukrainian rebels are fighting us. That was legitimate warfare what happened.” That could be a tactic they’re taking.
So can you walk us through the evidence-gathering? Who’s doing it? Are there people on the ground gathering evidence? How long does that take to, sort of, build a case? And what does that look like?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I will directly answer your question, but I also think it is important for our team at the State Department, which will take the lead on this, including our Global War Crimes Coordinator, to give you a fully elaborate answer to this question, in technical detail, so that everybody understands exactly how this process works.
But with that being said, there are four main sources of information that we will develop in an effort to help build the case for war crimes.
The first is the information we and our allies and partners gather, including through intelligence sources. And we, actually, within our intelligence community, had previously stood up a team to be able to document and analyze war crimes and worked closely with the State Department in doing so. And we’re also coordinating with key allies and partners who have their own capacities.
The second is what the Ukrainians themselves will do on the ground to develop this case, to document the forensics of these tragic and senseless killings in this particular instance and in other instances across Ukraine.
The third is international organizations, including the United Nations, but others as well — prominent international non-governmental organizations with real credibility and expertise in this area.
And then the fourth is all of you. Because part of building this case is relying upon the global independent media, who has images, interviews, documentation. And when you put all of those four sources together, you can build, we believe, a package that can stand up to the relentless disinformation we are likely to see and have already started seeing from Russia, and that, ultimately, the truth will withstand the assault on the truth that we can expect to come from Moscow.
Q On former President Trump, he’s having Save America rallies where he’s decrying the Biden administration, decrying the response that you all in the White House have been giving to this war in Ukraine. He said if he was in here in office, he would do it better; it wouldn’t happen under him. What is your response to the former President, Donald J. Trump, saying these things about the current administration?
MR. SULLIVAN: I don’t — I don’t have a response to the former President. We are focused on getting the job done, getting the support to the Ukrainian people that they need, applying unprecedented pressure to the Russian economy, and building a form of Western unity that no one could reasonably have expected and that we have sustained through the early weeks of the war and will sustain for the period ahead.
And I’ll leave the commentary on what the former President said to others.
Q Thank you very much. Thanks, Jake. To follow up on what you said about Ukraine setting terms for any potential resolution, President Zelenskyy said on “Face the Nation” that with regard to any potential peace agreement, the important thing in this agreement are security guarantees. But he also said the U.S. has not recei- — has not provided any yet. Is the U.S. considering that? And what would that look like?
MR. SULLIVAN: So we are in regular contact — and by “regular,” I mean near daily contact. I personally am in near daily contact with my counterpart in the Ukrainian government. And we are talking constantly about how we can support a negotiated solution that defends Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And we have told them that we are prepared to do our part to support that, including by ensuring that Ukraine has the means to defend itself in the future.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of what those negotiations are because I believe it’s very important that they have a protected space to be able to be carried out. But you can rest assured that the United States is actively working in consultation with Ukrainians to support their efforts at the peace table.
Q And then, a question on the sanctions. You just said that you’re under no illusions that Russia will adjust its target. So what function will an additional sanctions package have when you announce it?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I would say two things about sanctions. One is that sanctions are intended to impose costs so that Russia cannot carry on these grotesque acts without paying a severe price for it. The other is to have an effect on Russia’s behavior over time.
But as President Biden has made clear repeatedly, we don’t expect that that shift in behavior will be caused by sanctions overnight or in a week. It will take time to grind down the elements of Russian power within the Russian economy, to hit their industrial base hard, to hit the sources of revenue that have propped up this war and have propped up the klepto- — kleptocracy in Russia. That’s going to take some time to play out.
But there’s no better time than now to be working at that so that the costs end up setting in and that ends up sharpening Russia’s choices.
So, sanctions are not alone going to solve any of these problems, but they are a critical tool in ultimately producing a better outcome to this conflict than would otherwise be produced.
Q Have the revelations about Bucha prompted the administration and its allies to reconsider what kind of military assistance it’s providing to Ukraine? Are tanks now part of, you know, potential transfers that could be provided to the Ukrainian military?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I’m not going to get into certain specific systems because, as I said at the outset, there are operational sensitivities and the sensitivities of our allies and partners for why we wouldn’t speak about a particular capability like tanks.
But I will say this: Even before Bucha, the United States was working with Ukrainians on every item on its priority list and how we could go ahead and ensure that that could be provided to them. The only capability that we have discussed with them where there has been a difference in perspective that has been played out in living color and in this podium many times over has been the question of direct facilitation from a U.S. airbase in Germany into contested airspace over Ukraine — the MiG-29s.
Otherwise, before Bucha, we were working with them on a wide range of capabilities, including some capabilities that people here were writing we weren’t prepared to provide. That wasn’t right.
Now, it’s hard for me to correct the record in every case because, for very good reasons, some of these systems we cannot advertise, we cannot talk to you all about it.
But what I want to make clear, as I said at the outset, is the extent and depth of effort to acquire and transfer a variety of advanced weapons capabilities is extraordinary, it is unprecedented, and it has been ongoing from well before the terrible images came out this week.
Q Jake, on the International Criminal Court: Is one of the reasons why the U.S. is considering alternate venues is because the U.S. is not a signatory? And does that undercut the U.S. push to hold Putin accountable with a war crimes trial of some kind when the U.S. is not a signatory of the International Criminal Court?
MR. SULLIVAN: The U.S. has in the past been able to collaborate with the International Criminal Court in other contexts, despite not being a signatory. But there’s a variety of reasons one might consider alternative venues as well, beyond the specific relationship between the U.S. and the ICC.
Most importantly, this is not a decision the United States is going to make by itself. We’re not going to make the call out of Washington for the appropriate venue for accountability; that is going to be done in consultation with allies and with partners around the world. And I don’t want to prejudge those conversations that are ongoing.
And what I can communicate is the very real, sustained, and committed proposition that the United States has that we are going to ensure that there is accountability.
Yeah. I’ll just take one more. Yeah.
Q Thanks, Jake. The U.S. had rejected Poland’s plan for a peacekeeping force to protect civilians. Is that something that’s being reconsidered, given what we’ve seen of these atrocities? And is there any talk among the Allies to do some sort of force to help protect the civilian population?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I don’t quite accept the premise of the question. There — there had been various peacekeeping proposals floated; none of them have ever been given full shape or been kind of formally put forward and suggested should actually be implemented.
And so, we continue to consult with our Allies and partners, including Poland, on what makes sense going forward. We have not yet seen a proposal that actually has been fleshed out that could be operationalized.
The one thing that the United States has made clear throughout this is that it is not our intention to send U.S. soldiers to fight Russian soldiers in Ukraine. But in terms of the supply of capabilities, in terms of other steps to support the Ukrainians and to do our best to protect civilians in Ukraine, we continue to look at every possible option, including in consultation with our partners on that.
And I’ll — I’ll leave it at that. Thank you, guys.
MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Jake, so much for joining us.
Q Thank you. Come again, please.