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Soon: Top Pentagon Officials Speak After Russia Downs U.S. Drone. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2023 - 14:00   ET






In moments, the nation's top defense officials are expected to take reporters' questions. This, of course, after the Pentagon says Russia downed an American drone over the Black Sea. A high-level Russian official said Russia will try to retrieve the wreckage of the MQ-Nine Reaper while White House officials say finding the debris may be impossible. The US military said on Tuesday a Russian jet dumped fuel on the unmanned U.S. aircraft which it says was doing routine operations in international airspace.

BLACKWELL: The Russian jet then hit the propeller of the Reaper, forcing its remote pilots to bring it down in international waters. Now, the Pentagon says the move was part of a Russian pattern of aggression. But the Kremlin gives a different version of events and declared today that U.S. and Russia relations are at their lowest point and in a deplorable state.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is standing by at the Pentagon waiting for this press conference to begin. Oren, do you have some new developments to report about a call between the U.S. and Russia?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Unexpected call at this point. We're waiting to find out if this happens and when it happens. This would be between the top U.S. General and his Russian counterpart according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the plans. That would be Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley expected to speak to general Valery Gerasimov.

They haven't spoken all that often. In fact, according to the readouts, the last time they spoke was about three months ago in December. But they have spoken at critical moments. And this would certainly be one of those critical moments just one day after the two Russian jets essentially harassed, intercepted, and then collided with the MQ-Nine Reaper drone over international airspace over the Black Sea.

So, we'll wait to find out if and when this happens. It is worth noting that occasionally or frequently, I should say these calls happen in tandem with a call between defense secretary Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart, Russian Ministry of Defense Sergei Shoigu. But we're not sure if that call is expected to happen. That's what we're waiting to find out. And we'll see if we learn more about those expected calls or call in just a few minutes when the two hold a press conference here at the Pentagon.

GOLODRYGA: And there's great interest on any information that drone would contain. What is the military saying it's doing to protect U.S. information from that drone getting into the wrong hands?

LIEBERMANN: Of course. We first heard from John Kirby, the Strategic Communications Coordinator for the National Security Council that the U.S. had taken steps to protect the equities on that drone. We now have a far better sense of what exactly that means to make sure that sensitive information doesn't fall into Russian hands or other hands.

According to two U.S. officials familiar with the incident, the U.S. was able to remotely wipe the software from the drone, essentially erasing the sensitive software that carries out the signal's intelligence gathering, and essentially carries out the sensitive part of the mission of the drone, which is the intelligence collection and the surveillance. The U.S., after the incident, after the collision in the interception was able to remotely wipe the software off the drone before it crashed into international waters in the Black Sea. Russia has said they'll try to essentially go recover or collect the drone from the Black Sea. Although even they acknowledged they might not be able to.

There are no U.S. Navy assets in the Black Sea that would be able to carry out that mission. So, to protect the information, to protect the sensitive software on the drone, which is the most sensitive part of this, the U.S. was able to remotely wipe it after the incident -- after that interception, Bianna and Victor.

BLACKWELL: Oren Liebermann, thank you. Stand by, we'll talk to you after this news conference. Until then, let's bring in CNN anchor and chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, and CNN national security analyst Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations. Gentlemen, good to see you.

Jim, let me start with you. And we heard from Ned Price, the spokesman at the State Department today, he told NBC News that this Russian jet appeared to be careening and potentially out of control. And he actually said that the assessment was that this was unintentional. I heard that from him, but not administration-wide. What are your sources saying? Is there a consensus around that?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it doesn't seem to be a hard consensus here. It's possible two things are true that it was flying particularly close, which you'll often see Russian jets do with U.S. surveillance aircraft -- or Chinese jets do with U.S. surveillance aircraft in East Asia fly close. That's intentional, to show that they're watching and perhaps inject a little bit of bravado from the pilots there which you'll often see. And it's possible that the collision wasn't intentional, but that that happened while the pilot was operating that way.


I mean, I think big picture. One thing to be concerned about here is there's a lot of U.S. and NATO hardware flying very close to a lot of Russian hardware. And there's been a very concerted effort in the 13 months since this war started, a war in which you have Russia of course on one side having invaded Ukraine, U.S. and NATO on the other, supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself.

There's been a concerted effort to avoid U.S. and Russian hardware from coming into direct conflict. And here, you have it happening. And it just shows the danger of that. And that, of course, then raises the possibility of escalation when this kind of thing happens.

GOLODRYGA: And it's -- of course, it's coming at a precarious time when the West is trying to negotiate or renegotiate an export grain deal out of Odessa there. Obviously, that would impact millions of people around the world.


GOLODRYGA: Steve, let me ask you about Russia's attempt, as they said, to retrieve the wreckage from this drone. The United States said that likely is not retrievable at this point but they effectively wiped the drone of any sensitive information. That still doesn't deny Russia access to the drone itself, the physical hardware if they're able to retrieve it. Would they be able to reverse engineer it in that situation, either domestically or via Iran?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Bianna, the actual outside of the -- of the -- of the aircraft -- of the drone itself, I think has been widely observed by the Russians. So, in terms of them having a better understanding of how the airframe itself works, and all that sort of thing, there's probably some limited return. As was being reported earlier, the more sensitive stuff inside the drone that processes the imagery that encrypts that does sort of bad things that the Russians would be much more interested in, you know I can't say a whole lot about it. But suffice it to say that the U.S. defense system takes into account the probability that these things happen and takes appropriate measures to make sure that the bad guys in this case, the Russians, don't get anything.

It is interesting that Patrushev, who's a former intelligence officer himself is the one who said, yes, we're going to go after and try to get this thing if we can -- if we can get it. So, that's sort of message sent here, I think by the Russians.

BLACKWELL: Again, what you're seeing on the screen -- let's pop that backup. We're awaiting a news conference here from the Pentagon. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs who will be speaking in just a moment.

Jim, let me come back to you. The message sending that Steve just mentioned from the Russians, the U.S. also sending its own message saying that there's a good chance we won't get to it, we've wiped it clean. How much of that is a message sending that what you'll find really isn't worth anything?


BLACKWELL: It's such deep water.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it'll be worth something, right? I mean, the -- look at the efforts that the U.S. went to go after the remaining pieces of the Chinese surveillance balloon, right?


SCIUTOO: There were a lot of ships and there were a lot of divers involved. You can wipe a certain amount but there's hardware in there that you can't get rid of even with a high-speed impact with the water. So, there may be some value. The question is to what degree there's value here.

I think as you -- as you look at this, we already know that some U.S. weapons -- high technology weapons have fallen into Russian hands in the Ukraine war. It happens as Ukrainian positions are overtaken in some places. And CNN reported recently that some of those weapons, javelins, for instance, stingers have been sent to Iran expressly for the purpose of reverse engineering.

And by the way, China is another country that does this kind of thing, both with surreptitious means, stealing plans via cyberattacks, and also through gaining hardware. This is -- this is what adversaries do to gather intelligence on each other. And when you fly this stuff around or supplied as weapons in ongoing wars, there's a risk that some of it ends up in the other side's hands.

GOLODRYGA: And, Steve, the incident itself may have been unintentional, but Russia's response has been unsurprisingly belligerent. We've seen Russia's ambassador to the U.S. telling the Americans that we won't allow anyone to violate our waters anymore.

HALL: Yes.

GOLODRYGA: It's international waters, but they're calling it Russian. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov just today also said that the United States was ignoring the fact that Russia had established airspace restrictions around the area. What does that tell you in terms of how Russia views the entire Black Sea which borders many other countries not just Russia alone?

Hall: Right. Sure. Some NATO countries, in fact, bordered the Black Sea. But there's a couple of things that's interesting about it. The first is, is really interesting and obviously -- clearly sort of funny to me, whenever the Russians start claiming things along the lines of international law. So, you know despite the fact that they've invaded a foreign or a neighboring country and that they've done all of these horrific war crimes, they're still willing to say. But in terms of international law, we were in the right on this one. So that's always kind of -- it's kind of -- it's kind of good for a lap, I think.

[14:10:00] But the second point, getting back to that messaging thing is, this isn't an entirely bad incident for the Russians because what it does, they're keenly aware, Putin is, of what the political situation is here in the United States and that there's some concern on various parts of the U.S. political spectrum. Some of it on the -- on the right, a bit of it on the left, about getting sucked into this war as Jim was talking about earlier.

And if these types of things start to happen, they know we get nervous. And if we're nervous, then there's a greater likelihood we're going to give less support to Ukraine in the future. That's the Russian hope. And so, a situation like this perhaps works in their favor in that regard.

SCIUTTO: It's such a -- it's such a great point if I could add because you saw a similar domestic disagreement over the reaction to the Chinese surveillance balloon, Bianna and Victor. And in fact, some senior U.S. military officials commented afterwards that part of China's sort of modus operandi in that whole event was to seed those internal disagreements, as it often does because that's to their benefit. So, when you hear the public comments from various prominent U.S. officials and some on opposing sides of this, those are things that both Russia and China are happy to see it attempt to profit from.

GOLODRYGA: Well, the U.S. has flown these Reaper drones in the Black Sea area before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, and the United States in response says they will continue to do so. Jim Sciutto and Steve Hall, standby --


GOLODRYGA: -- as we're awaiting this press conference at the Pentagon from defense secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley as well.

And we're going to move on now to other news of the day. Any moment, we will bring you that news conference. We're going to take a quick break, though, right now.



BLACKWELL: All right. So, we're waiting for this pentagon briefing to begin. We're expecting to hear from the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Until then, we've got CNN's Jim Sciutto with us.

Jim, let me ask you about something we heard from Republican congresswoman Nancy Mace that there should be some sanctions imposed on Russia for the clipping of this drone. We've seen that sanctions have been overwhelmingly influential in the -- in relation to the invasion of Ukraine, but do you expect that that will happen? And what will it mean? SCIUTTO: It's hard to imagine what other sanctions you would add, given the raft of sanctions already applied to Russia by the U.S. and its allies. And not just sanctions like we've often seen the categories of individuals and entities, you'll often hear that with relation to Russia, North Korea, Iran, China as well.

But it's really been a concerted effort to cut off Russia from the global economy right from the west. You have Europe in effect in a very short order, taking its entire dependence on Russian -- ending its dependence on Russian energy. So, hard to see what specific steps -- and I see Secretary Austin coming in now.

GOLODRYGA: Jim, we're going to interrupt you. All right.


BRIG. GEN. PAT RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: It is my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. The secretary and the chairman will each deliver opening remarks and then have time to take a few questions.

Please note, I will moderate those questions and call on journalists and would ask that you limit your follow-ups due to our tight schedule today. And I appreciate your assistance with this. Secretary Austin, over to you, sir.

LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Thanks, Pat. Well, good afternoon, everybody. We just concluded our tenth highly successful meeting of the Ukraine defense contact group. But before I get to that important work, I want to say just a few words about a troubling episode yesterday.

On Tuesday, Russian aircraft again engaged in dangerous and reckless, and unprofessional behavior in the international airspace over the Black Sea. And two Russian jets dumped fuel on an unmanned U.S. MQ- Nine aircraft conducting routine operations in international airspace. And one Russian jet struck our MQ-Nine aircraft resulting in a crash. And this hazardous episode is a part -- is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky, and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace.

Now, I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister Shoigu. As I've said repeatedly, it's important that great powers be models of transparency and communication. And the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows. And it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.

Now, let me turn to the important work of this contact group. Today, our extraordinary allies and partners reaffirmed our unity and resolve in supporting Ukraine's fight for freedom. We were joined again today by some 50 nations of goodwill from all around the globe. And they all understand that Ukraine's battle to defend itself from Russian aggression is vital to -- for everyone who values the core principles of sovereignty, self-determination, and freedom. Today, we were joined again by my good friend Minister Oleksii Reznikov. He comes to each contact group meeting with a clear message for the next steps in Ukraine's resistance to Russia's campaign of conquest. And the presentations from him and his team underscore the continued urgency of our support.

This contact group has pushed hard to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself from Putin's imperial aggression. Brave Ukrainian stood firm during Russia's ground invasion, with the help of their new anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles which contact group countries have provided. And Russia's -- Russia hopes to grind down Ukraine in a war of attrition. But Ukraine has been supplied by more than 40 countries.


Meanwhile, Russia has had to depend on Iran and North Korea and has had to use equipment dating back to World War Two. So, Russia is running out of capability and running out of friends. Putin has now -- had a year's worth of proof that the United States and the contact group will support Ukraine's right to defend itself for the long haul. But Putin still hopes that he can wear down Ukraine and await us out so we can't let up. And we won't.

Ukraine doesn't have any time to waste. And I heard clearly today that our fellow contact group members also know that we have to deliver swiftly and fully on our promised commitments. And that includes delivering our armored capabilities to the battlefield and ensuring that Ukrainian soldiers get the -- get the training, spare parts, and maintenance support that they need to use these new systems as soon as possible.

And we'll continue to dig deep for new donations. And today, we heard updates on our progress, and some significant new commitments. Sweden has announced that it will provide Ukraine with ten Leopard tanks, and key air defense components. Norway is partnering with the United States to donate to NASAMS systems to Ukraine. The Netherlands is making great progress in initiating new contracts to ensure that new capabilities continue to arrive on the battlefield.

And I want to thank Slovenia for its latest contribution, which helps meet several of Ukraine's priority requirements including armor. For more than a year now, farsighted donations like these, by members of this contact group have been crucial to Ukraine's fight for sovereignty. And we have provided crucial combat capabilities that Ukraine's defenders will use to further repel Russia's invasion and to exercise initiative and to create favorable conditions on the battlefield.

But for Ukraine to protect its sovereign territory and defend its citizens over the long term, we must keep going. So, we're going to help Ukraine sustain the tanks, the infantry fighting vehicles, and other armored vehicles that are making their way into the front lines. And we're going to continue urgently training Ukrainian soldiers on the capabilities that we're providing, and on a combined arms maneuver tactics that they need to succeed. We're going to keep looking into our stocks and into our budget to resupply Ukraine throughout the year. And we're going to continue to -- continue our important work in lockstep with our Ukrainian partners to maintain accountability for the security assistance that we're providing.

And finally, above all, we're going to stay united. Together, we're helping Ukraine fight to live free. And together, we're helping to show that rules matter. And together, we're helping to advance our shared security in an open world of rules and rights. And so, thank you very much. And I'll now turn it over to the chairman for his comments.

MARK MILLEY, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Good afternoon, everyone. And thank you, Secretary Austin, for your leadership. This, as the secretary pointed out is our tenth contact group and these meetings and the donations that come from it would not be happening without the incredible leadership of Secretary Austin. So, thank you for that. Your direction remains critical to the future success of the group.

And also, thank you to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Reznikov. My counterpart, General Zaluzhnyi, he was not on the call today but I've talked to him several times in the past week. And the deputy chief of defense who represented Generals Zaluzhnyi, John Moisiuk. All of them continue to lead the Ukrainian military in their fight for freedom.

Also, thanks to all the ministers of defense and the chiefs of defense from 51 participants in today's meeting, including NATO and the European Union. They join the meeting and they continue to provide critical support to Ukraine. Each nation is contributing what they can to ensure Ukraine has the means to defend itself against the illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion.

It's been nearly 13 months since Russia invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Ukraine has been independent since 1991 and is presented no threat whatsoever to Russia. Russia launched and has continued for over a year now a war of aggression, in flagrant violation of international law. This is and remains a Russian frontal assault on the rules-based international order that has been in place for 80 years, eight decades since the end of World War Two.


In the face of this act of aggression in a war of conquest, this group remains unified. NATO is united. The people of Ukraine are unyielding. They are standing steadfast in the face for the Russian onslaught.

Russia remains isolated. Their military stocks are rapidly depleting. The soldiers are demoralized, untrained, unmotivated conscripts and convicts, and their leadership is failing them.

Having already failed in their strategic objectives, Russia is increasingly relying on other countries such as Iran, and North Korea as the secretary pointed out. They are using Iranian drones to continue to terrorize Ukrainian civilians.

This relationship is built on the cruel bonds of oppressing freedom, subverting liberty, and maintaining the tyranny. Yet, free people will not return to the shackles of tyranny. Ukrainians remained defiant with steel in their spines and courage in their veins and they have the broad support of the United States and the international community. The battle of Bakhmut continues. But Ukraine is fighting the valor.

With the robust defenses Ukraine has fixed, the Russian forces at that city and they're exacting very heavy costs on the Wagner group and the Russian regular military. Ukraine remains strong. They are capable and trained. Ukrainian soldiers are strength -- strong in their combat units. Their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored vehicles are only going to bolster the frontline.

Ukrainian precision munitions continue to target the logistics and communication systems of Russia. Lacking effective small unit leaders and absent the proper equipment, this is a grinding attrition warfare that Russia is trying to execute. Wave after wave of Russian soldiers are thrown into the chaos of war, absent any sort of synchronized coordination and direction. Russia continues to pay severely in terms of lives and military equipment for its continued war of choice.

Right now, there is intense fighting in and around Bakhmut, and the Russians are making small tactical advances, but at great cost. Elsewhere, the front line remains relatively static with significant changes of artillery, but no significant maneuver gains by either side. Right now, as you know, there was a significant ongoing effort to build up the Ukrainian military in terms of equipment, munitions, and training in a variety of countries in order to enable Ukraine to defend itself. The increased Ukrainian capability will allow the Ukrainian leadership to develop and execute a variety of options in the future to achieve their objectives and bring this war to a successful conclusion.

This is an act of brutal aggression by President Putin and the Russian military with complete disregard for human life, both civilian and military. The Russians are wantonly killing civilians and large attacks on civilian infrastructure in densely populated urban areas. The severely under-trained, poorly led, poorly equipped Russian forces are conducting mindless frontal attacks and sacrificing hundreds per day.

The political objectives that Putin intended to achieve 394 days ago are obvious to the world and it should be obvious to Putin that these objectives are no longer achievable by continuing this war. And Putin can end this war and he can end it today and he needs to do so. Free People are not easily conquered. And the Ukrainian people are free, and they will never give up in their fight to stay free.

Two weeks ago, the United States released another security assistance package, which included HIMARS, ammunition, artillery, vehicle maintenance, and vehicles. The nine countries have pledged over 150 Leopard tanks for example. This group that met today is providing air defense, artillery, regular artillery, rocket artillery, armor, ammunition, and that will be critical to Ukraine's ability to continue the fight.

A broad mix of air defense systems had been promised and they will protect the skies of Kharkiv and the free cities of Ukraine. Artillery and armor are going to strengthen Ukraine's lines, enable their forces to synchronize fire and movement for either offensive or defensive operations. Long-range fires with challenge Russia's ability to command and control protect and sustain their forces.

The Ukrainian soldiers wear the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. But the colors of 50 other nations that met today stand beside Ukraine to support the principles of the rules-based international order. A system in place to prevent aggression and uphold the values of liberty and sovereignty. That system is what preserves the peace and provides benefits throughout the globe.

As President Biden and Secretary Austin and many others to include all the leaders of Europe have said many times that we will remain committed for as long as it takes. Thank you and I look forward to your questions.


RYDER: Thank you, gentlemen. The first question will go to Lolita Baldor, Associated Press.