TRANSCRIPT EXCERPT: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby

File Photo of White House with South Lawn and Fountain

(The Whitehouse – December 17, 2023)

… Q Zelenskyy today spoke at the Munich Security Conference, and he asked the West — urgently appealed to the West to provide more, bigger, heavier weapons more quickly because everyone fears the offensive that is expected. So, you know, what do you say to Zelenskyy? What will Harris say when she, you know, is —

MR. KIRBY: You can’t hardly blame him, can you?

I mean, one year on, how many millions flown into refuge inside and outside the country? How many soldiers killed? How many towns and cities destroyed? How many hospitals and schools bombed? Can’t blame President Zelenskyy for wanting more, heavier, faster.

I mean, he’s a commander in chief in a time of war — a war he didn’t ask for it and certainly had — there was no justification for it. And we understand that.

We also understand the clock. And we know that time is critical here, particularly the time in the wintertime now, when the fighting is not quite as widespread across the country, there’s quite a bit of vicious fighting in — in and around Bakhmut.

In fact, I’d like to talk about Bakhmut in a second, even though you didn’t ask about it.

So we’re going to try to do what we can to use this time to get Mr. Zelenskyy as much as possible, as fast as we can, so that when the weather improves — and we all have to assume and expect that the Russians will want to go back on the offense; right now they’re fighting over Bakhmut, but it’s possible that along that arc from northeast to southwest, that they may want to renew their offensive operations — that he’s ready for it, and that if he chooses to, he can go on the offense as well.

You didn’t ask about Bakhmut, but I — I want to mention it just briefly, a little bit.

I mean, we’ve talked about Bakhmut in the past. No strategic value to the Russians. Seems to be an operation almost exclusively run by Mr. Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, more than it is the Russian Ministry of Defense.

They have made incremental gains in and around Bakhmut over the last few days. And we certainly can’t predict one way or the other. I mean, it is possible that, you know, they might end up being successful in Bakhmut. But it will prove of no real worth to them because it is of no real strategic value.

The Ukrainians will continue to maintain, we believe, strong defensive lines across the Donbas and will be — and still are fighting very, very hard for Bakhmut.

But I do want to say this about the Wagner Group, and particularly with respect to Bakhmut. I mean, again, they’re treating their recruits, largely convicts, as basically — as cannon fodder, throwing them into a literal meat grinder here, inhuman ways, without a second thought.

And while fighting in Ukraine, we estimate now that Wagner has suffered more than 30,000 casualties, including approximately 9,000 killed in action. About half of those who were killed — Wagner folks who — contractors who were killed — were killed since mid-December. So, think about that. Two and a half months, 9,000 [4,500] killed as the fighting in Bakhmut has intensified.

Based on previous intelligence, we estimated that about 90 percent of those killed in the December fighting alone, just in December, were convicts. Men that he just plucked out of prisons and threw on the battlefield with no training, no equipping, no organizational command, just throw them into the fight. Ninety percent killed were convicts.

We believe that Wagner continues to rely heavily on these convicts in the Bakhmut fighting, and that doesn’t show any signs of abating.

I know you didn’t ask that question, but I wanted to get that out there. …

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