VOA Russian White House correspondent Mykhailo Komadovsky spoke with John Kirby, National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications, on Dec. 16, 2022, about the latest on U.S. support for Ukraine, White House opposition to ending support for Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, and Russia-Iran ties.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: John Kirby, thank you very much for your time. So, let’s start with Ukraine, if I may. So recently we’ve heard multiple reports of explosions and presumable drone attacks in the Russian Federation. In one of your interviews, you said the following, let me quote you. ‘We’re not encouraging or enabling Ukrainian operations inside Russia. We’re trying to make sure that they can defend their territory and win back their ground in Ukraine.” From your point of view, is it possible to win the war without targeting military infrastructure within Russia that is actively used to attack Ukrainian civilians?
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby: Well I think we’d let the Ukrainians, President Zelenskyy as Commander in Chief in particular, define what his intentions are, what his specific objectives are. What we’re focused on is making sure that they can defend their territory, they can win back lost ground that the Russians have illegally taken from them.
The war has evolved over time. You know, the first few weeks it was all about Kyiv. The Battle of Kyiv which the Ukrainians won, and back then we were talking about anti-tank missiles. Then it moved into artillery, as the fighting really concentrated on the Donbas, which is a lot like Kansas, very open farmland. And now given these, well, I think the only word to say is, unprecedented air assaults by Russia, both from cruise missiles and from Iranian drones, the likes of which we’ve just seen again over the last 12 to 18 hours, air defense capabilities are becoming a chief requirement of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
VOA: Russia warned Thursday that if the U.S. delivers some sophisticated air defense missiles, like the Patriots, it’s going to be a red line for them and it’s going to prompt a reaction from the Kremlin. And is this the reason why you’re not announcing the delivery of the Patriots to Ukraine as planned? As we’ve heard from President Biden, we have heard him literally an hour ago, when he said, way off the mic, the following – ‘You’ll hear in a few minutes.’ Still no statement, so are you concerned?
Kirby: We have provided more than 25 presidential drawdown packages to Ukraine, not to mention other security assistance initiative funds for contracts, for security assistance for Ukraine over the last nine months, and there will be more. There will be another announcement of a security assistance package for Ukraine, I’m sure, in coming days. When we have a package to announce, we’ll speak to that, we’ll speak to the contents, we’ll speak to the amount of money that’s being spent on it, and we’ll talk about the timing in terms of getting it into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers as fast as possible.
VOA: Are you concerned about the warnings coming from Moscow to Washington? Because they’ve been pretty clear. If you provide Ukraine with that type of munition, we’re going to respond. But they’re not specifying the weight of that response.
Kirby: Russia is not going to dictate to the United States or to any other country what security assistance we provide Ukraine. We’re doing that in lockstep with the Ukrainians, talking to them almost every day about what their needs are, and making sure that we are best meeting those needs. And if we can’t, then the United States has proven able and willing to talk to allies and partners about how they might meet those capabilities.
VOA: After the swap of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout, you said that the administration will hold Viktor Bout accountable should he commit any wrongdoing again, or should he become a threat to the United States again. What are the national security concerns related to Bout? And what are you going do to mitigate those concerns?
Kirby: Well, let’s not get ahead of where we are. We did a national security assessment before that prisoner exchange, that is common practice, we do that routinely. And as a result of that assessment, we came out of it believing that whatever risk there might be to our national security by Mr. Bout, plying his old trade was a manageable risk. We will always be vigilant about our national security, and if Mr. Bout decides with his newfound freedom that he wants to go back and do his old line of work, then he will be held accountable by the United States.
VOA: Have you heard from Brittney Griner since she came back to the United States? How is she doing, because we haven’t seen her publicly so far since the day of the swap.
Kirby: I would let Ms. Griner speak for herself. We’re focused on making sure that she’s getting the care she needs as she prepares to reassimilate back into society, go back to her team, and go back to her friends and family, and that’s what we all want.
VOA: Let’s move to Yemen. So, in opposing the War Powers resolution on the war in Yemen, the White House has argued that withdrawing U.S. troops for the Saudi-led war would complicate ongoing diplomacy here. Can you explain that? How does ending support for a war prevent peace?
Kirby: Well, we all want to see the war in Yemen end. We’ve been working to that for years. Unfortunately, for way too long we’ve been supporting the U.N.-led process there and we’ll continue to do that. Too many innocent Yemenis have fallen victim and prey to this ghastly war. Now, what we are proud of is our role in helping foster what is now the longest truce in the history of this Yemeni war, going on 10 months here of a cease-fire, which literally has helped save thousands of Yemeni lives. We want to see that cease-fire, we want to see that peace enduring, and we want to see it sustainable.
VOA: Can you give us the latest on the U.S. intelligence on the joint weapons production between Russia and Iran?
Kirby: We do believe, as we have said, that Iran and Russia are trying to deepen their defense partnership. Part and parcel of that could be the development of a joint production facility in Russia for Iranian drones. And we continue to believe that that’s the case. But again, I think you got to step back here. It’s not just about production of drones, which of course the Russians will use to propagate more violence on the Ukrainian people and civilian infrastructure. It’s about this deepening relationship, which is not only not good for the people of Ukraine, it’s not good for the people of the Middle East. An Iran that benefits from enhanced military assistance capabilities from Russia is an Iran that becomes an even bigger threat in the region.
VOA: What about the deepening relationship between North Korea and Russia?
Kirby: We still haven’t seen much in terms of the consummation of some sort of transaction here from a military perspective between North Korea and Russia. That said, noteworthy that Russia would reach out to a nation like North Korea. They’re running out of friends. They’re running out of sympathetic ears, and that they would go to a nation like North Korea to procure what we think would be artillery shells … It shows you the degree to which Mr. Putin is under pressure in Ukraine, that his own defense industrial base is having trouble keeping up with the needs, the rate of expenditure of weapons systems and ammunition inside Ukraine, and that he has to reach outward, outside Russia. You know, this was a military that was put forth by Mr. Putin as one of the most powerful on the planet and the most — one of the most advanced, and here he is, after nine months of war in Ukraine, having to reach out to countries like Iran and North Korea.
VOA: Since we’re approaching the end of the year. Let’s wrap it up. And I’m going to ask you about the biggest challenges that you and your team faced during 2022.
Kirby: It’s been the war in Ukraine and Russia’s aggression and the way in which it has literally transformed the security environment in Europe. That security environment is different now as you and I sit here than it was 9, 10 months ago. It has changed; not is changing, not will change. It has changed and the United States has changed with it. We now have 20,000 more troops on the European continent than we did before the war. And those 20, extra 20,000 will stay in a rotational basis. But our relationship with our NATO allies is certainly as vibrant and as strong as ever and getting stronger by the day. And soon, NATO will be joined by two more very modern militaries.
China also has continued to change the security environment around the world. Now, as you’ve heard us say, we, we look at China as a strategic competitor. We don’t want to see conflict with China. And yet, we have to be ready for the security challenges that China has posed in the information environment in 2022, including their efforts to achieve a new normal with respect to Taiwan in the wake of recent activity there in Taiwan.
And then, while we’re in the Indo Pacific, let’s talk about North Korea. The Kim regime, which has now increased the number, the frequency, of missile tests, rocket exercises…
VOA: A muscle-flexing game.
Kirby: …and they are definitely continuing to pursue their nuclear ambitions. We have said time and time again, over the course of this year, that we’re willing to sit down without preconditions to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful diplomatic way. They have rebuffed those offers and instead only increased instability, only made things worse. And so one of the things that we have done over the course of this year is really try to deepen and strengthen our vast network of alliances and partnerships in the region.
The president has made a focus, particularly working with South Korea and Japan, bilaterally, they’re of course treaty allies, and trilaterally between all three countries. We have conducted more exercises, we are much more engaged than we were in the past. And we have also unilaterally, the United States, has increased our intelligence capabilities there off the peninsula.
I might also add counterterrorism. A couple of very, very noteworthy counterterrorism operations in 2022, including taking out al-Zawahiri, de facto leader of al Qaeda, as well as ISIS terrorists.
VOA: It’s been quite a bumpy ride here. But if you were to pick one or two of your biggest achievements in 2022, what would it be?
Kirby: Well, I believe one of the biggest achievements is the manner in which President Biden and this administration has really revitalized this network of alliances and partnerships. When you just take a look at where U.S. leadership on the world stage sits now as to where it was when President Biden came into office, it’s night and day. NATO is a much more, not that it wasn’t before, but it’s just, it’s a much more vibrant alliance. It’s more relevant than ever before. And people will say, ‘Well, that’s because Putin and his war.’ It’s because of the leadership the United States has shown in the wake of those kinds of threats, really unifying the world stage. You just have to see in 2022, how much more important and relevant U.S. leadership is on the world stage, and how President Biden has really worked to solidify that, and I have every expectation that going into 2023 you’re going to see the same thing.