Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he believes Ukraine is “making progress” in the Kherson region of the country as they continue to counter Russia’s invasion, adding that there has been a “kind of change in the dynamics of the battlefield.”
Austin attributed the change to the skill of Ukrainian soldiers and their strategic use of weapons provided by the United States and NATO allies, specifically their use of high-mobility air-to-air missile systems, or HIMARS. He made the comments in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that aired Sunday on “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
“What we’re seeing now is kind of a change in the dynamics of the battlefield,” Austin said. “They have done very, very well in the Kharkiv area and moved to take advantage of the opportunities. The fight in the – Kherson region is a little slower, but they are making progress.”
Austin said that Ukrainian forces have used “technology like HIMARS” and used it in the “right way” to “conduct attacks on things like logistical stores and command and control, it takes — stripped away significant capability from the Russians.”
By doing so, the Ukrainians have “changed the dynamic and created an opportunity for the Ukrainians to maneuver,” he added.
Asked why the U.S. has not delivered longer-range weapons that Ukrainians have requested, Austin said he communicates with his Ukrainian counterpart, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, “routinely,” and believes the U.S. has been “very effective at to give them the things that are very, very effective on a battlefield.”
While the United States has provided Ukraine with HIMARS and guided multiple launch rocket systems, or GMLRS, for use with the HIMAR systems, Ukraine has requested Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, which have a longer range than the GLMR systems in the United States have provided so far.
ATACMS has a range of about 185 miles. The maximum range of US-supplied weapons to Ukraine is about 49 miles.
Austin praised the successes Ukrainians have had on the battlefield, noting that they are using the weapons and technology given to them by the United States in the “right way.”
“It’s not just about the equipment you have. It’s about how you deploy that equipment, how you synchronize things together to create battlefield effects that can then create opportunities,” he said.
Austin said what will happen in Ukraine is “difficult to predict,” but he said the United States will “continue to provide security assistance to the Ukrainians as long as it takes.”
“The Ukrainians have amazed the world in terms of their ability to fight back, their ability to exercise initiative, their commitment to defend their democracy,” he said. “And this willingness to fight has brought the international community together in an effort to help provide them with security assistance so that they can continue to fight.”
Austin said that while he does not “see an imminent invasion” of Taiwan by China, he believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping used the Aug. 3 visit to the self-governing island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an opportunity to ” start trying to create a new normal.”
Pelosi was the first sitting representative of the US House to visit the island in 25 years. China responded by launching military exercises in the seas and airspace around Taiwan.
“We saw a number of centerline crossings of the Taiwan Strait by their aircraft, and that number has increased over time. We have seen more activity with their surface vessels in the waters in and around Taiwan,” Austin said.
China’s ruling Communist Party considers Taiwan part of its territory, despite never having ruled it, and has vowed to “reunify” it with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary.
Austin said he has spoken with his Chinese counterpart, Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe, “on the phone and in person” during his time as defense minister, but the channel of communication between the two is “not open” right now.
“We’re going to do everything we can to continue to signal that we want these channels open, and I hope that China will start to lean a little more and work with us,” Austin said.
When asked if the US military was prepared to defend Taiwan, Austin said the military “is always prepared to protect our interests and live up to our obligations.”
In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired last month, President Joe Biden repeated an earlier pledge to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion, but he specified that “American men and women” would be involved in the effort.
“I think the president was clear with his answers when he answered a hypothetical question. But again, we continue to work to make sure that we have the right capabilities in the right places to make sure that we helping our allies maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Austin said.
Austin reiterated that the Biden administration’s policy toward Taiwan, the One China Policy, “has not changed.”
Under the “One China” policy, the United States recognizes China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized the Communist Party’s claim to the 23 million-square-mile island. The US supplies Taiwan with defensive weapons but has been deliberately ambiguous about whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
“In accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, you know, we are committed to helping Taiwan develop the ability to defend itself, and that work has continued over time,” he said.