U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says the U.S. is committed to putting Ukraine in the best possible position to end Russia's unprovoked invasion, "whether or not the fighting continues, or whether or not they decide to go to the negotiating table" — but he declined to say whether battlefield victories or diplomacy were the shared end goal.
"Ukraine is gonna decide what victory's gonna look like," Secretary Austin told NPR's Ari Shapiro. "So I don't want to speak for President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy or the Ukrainian people."
Sec. Austin also put the onus of the war's outcome on Russian President Vladimir Putin, noting Russia's significant losses over the last year.
"They can be driven out, or Putin can decide to take his forces back out of Ukraine because he's in such a bad position," he said. "We all know this war is happening because of one man; one man's desire to erase his neighbor's boundaries and occupy his neighbor's territory."
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On how he sees the war in Ukraine ending
We're gonna focus on what's in front of us right now and put [Ukraine] in the best possible position to continue to be successful. And I think that'll lead us to Ukraine being in, again, a good a good place, whether or not the fighting continues; or whether or not they decide to go to the negotiating table.
On U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley's November prediction that Ukraine can't achieve the goal of driving all Russians from Ukraine, including Crimea
I don't want to speculate at this point. I think, you know, my goal is to provide the capabilities required to achieve their objectives. And that's what me and the chairman are going to continue to stay focused on.
I mean, they can be driven out, or Putin can decide to take his forces back out of Ukraine because he's in such a bad position. And that could happen as well. He could do this today. And we all know that this is this war is happening because of one man; one man's desire to erase his neighbor's boundaries and occupy his neighbor's territory. And this is, again, unjustified, unprovoked. And Putin could end this at any point in time in the future.
On whether the U.S. would consider a Russian retreat from most of Ukraine outside of some parts of the east and Crimea a victory
Ukraine is gonna decide what victory's gonna look like. And so I don't want to speak for President Zelenskyy or the Ukrainian people. I think that's for them to decide.
On whether he thinks calls to bring Russia to the negotiating table will grow from allies within the Ukraine Defense Contact Group
I can't predict one way or the other how countries are going to view this, post-offensive. I believe that being successful on a battlefield will put us in the best possible stance to continue operations, and also, if there is some sort of negotiation in the future, Ukraine will have a strong hand and at the negotiating table.
On what he expects in spring offensive operations from Russia and Ukraine
Well, as we've seen for the last several weeks, fighting around the Bakhmut area has been pretty intense.
Russia continues to pour in large numbers of troops that are ill-trained and ill-equipped. In many cases, those troops are meeting their demise in short order. And so we can expect to see more of that.
As Ukraine works to the hold it ground, it's also building combat power ... So I think that that will provide Ukraine an opportunity to begin to change the dynamics on the battlefield.