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U.S. to send Ukraine more air defense systems after Russia stepped up missile attacks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The mayor of Kyiv says that Russia fired drones packed with explosives at the center of Ukraine's capital again today. Officials say at least three people were killed. Volodymyr Gryston (ph) was at a train station in central Kyiv when he spotted one of the drones overhead.

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VOLODYMYR GRYSTON: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTINEZ: Gryston says police fired at the drone with assault rifles when it suddenly turned toward them, and they ran underground. The deadly days-long Russian bombardment has knocked out power and water supplies in several cities. In response, the White House is speeding up shipments of air defense systems to Ukraine, part of an additional authorization of $725 million in arms and equipment for Ukraine. Now John Kirby is with us. He is the White House national security coordinator for strategic communications. Admiral, Russia is expected to hold its annual nuclear forces drills soon. And this year, it feels a lot more ominous considering Vladimir Putin's threat to use nuclear weapons. What will the U.S. be looking for to ensure that this isn't something more than just drills?

JOHN KIRBY: Well, we're certainly going to be monitoring this exercise, as we do every year, A. This is an exercise that the Russians perform annually to test and evaluate their strategic nuclear capabilities. And again, we'll watch it as closely as we can. Everything we have seen to date tells us that this is an exercise that will be conducted normally, within the bounds of the way Russia has done it in the past. And we do expect that, as a part of this exercise, they'll be moving some of these strategic assets around. But again, we see no indication that either this exercise or in other contexts President Putin has decided to move forward with the use of a nuclear weapon or weapon of mass destruction inside Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: Let's just remember - the last time Russia was running drills, that was right before they invaded Ukraine. So I think maybe that worries a lot of people, Admiral.

KIRBY: Yeah. No. Look; I understand that. And that's why I said we're going to be watching this exercise as close as we can. But the indications we have now are that this will be conducted within the normal bounds, very similar to exercises that they have had - that they had last year. I would like to just - the exercises we saw last year in advance of the invasion were not just these nuclear exercises. There were other, more conventional exercises, too, that did, you know, prepare their forces for the ultimate invasion.

MARTINEZ: How would the U.S. deter a dangerous nuclear power from further escalation? How would that work?

KIRBY: Well, there's a variety of means that we would use to try to deter that use. We have already made it very clear publicly and privately to the Russians that should they move forward with a weapon of mass destruction or a nuclear weapon of whatever size, that there would be severe consequences for Russia, for the Kremlin. And of course, there would be consequences across the region. Again, we're watching this very, very closely. We have seen nothing that would cause us to change our strategic deterrent posture. And a change in our posture would be another way of trying to help deter such use. But again, we've just not seen any indication that that decision has been taken or that they're even preparing for the possibility of that sort of a decision.

MARTINEZ: I know Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, keeps calling for more sanctions and more weapons, specifically long-range Patriot missiles. Is that something, Admiral, that the U.S. is prepared at any point to say yes to?

KIRBY: I don't want to get ahead of decisions that we haven't made yet with respect to capabilities to Ukraine. As you said just before we started talking, last week, we announced yet another package of security assistance, our 23rd. This brings to more than $17 billion, the kinds of security assistance that we've given to Ukraine just in the military front alone since the invasion. And that's significant. We're going to continue to do that. And we are doing it in lockstep with the Ukrainians, A. We talk to them almost every day about what their needs are.

As you heard when President Biden spoke to President Zelenskyy last week, he promised that we would continue to provide air defense capabilities to Ukraine. And we will do that. We've been doing it, quite frankly, since the very beginning of the war when we were starting to send Stinger missiles, and ultimately ended up - over 1,400 of them were provided to Ukraine, as well as helping them acquire an S-300 system and other long-range defense systems. In fact, just last week, Secretary Austin was in Brussels meeting with the contact group for Ukraine, 50-some-odd nations. And nations like Germany and Spain have agreed to now pony up various levels of air defense capabilities to the Ukrainians that they'll be able to use in relatively short fashion.

MARTINEZ: And is the Biden administration still committed to sending aid to Ukraine for as long as Russia is attacking or occupying Ukraine?

KIRBY: President Biden has been crystal clear. We're going to continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

MARTINEZ: And one last thing, Admiral. OPEC's decision to cut oil production seems to be a clear signal to the White House on where the Middle East stands in this conflicts. How will the U.S. respond to that?

KIRBY: The president wants to take a look at what his options are. You heard him say there will be consequences, and there will be. He wants to review this bilateral relationship and make sure that it's actually performing in the best interest of the American people and our national security. So he wants a wide-ranging, comprehensive review. He wants to include members of Congress in that. Again, I won't get ahead of the president's thinking, but he'll be presented options to consider.

MARTINEZ: White House national security coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby, thanks a lot.

KIRBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.