Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Friday became visibly emotional as he talked about the horrors that have been unfolding in Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Kirby was asked if he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “rational actor” after launching a war that has reportedly killed at least 10,000 civilians in Ukraine, including at least two Americans.
“It’s hard to look at what he’s doing in Ukraine, what his forces are doing in Ukraine, and think that any ethical, moral individual could justify that. It’s difficult to look at,” Kirby said, his voice starting to strain.
He paused for around 10 seconds and said “sorry” to reporters as he looked away from them, seemingly needing a moment to gather his thoughts. He went on to say that it is “difficult to look at some of the images and imagine that any well-thinking, serious, mature leader would do that. So I can’t talk to his psychology, but I think we can all speak to his depravity.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pauses during an emotional moment while talking about Russia's war in Ukraine at a press briefing on Friday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pauses during an emotional moment while talking about Russia’s war in Ukraine at a press briefing on Friday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Kirby, a retired Navy admiral, added that he “didn’t mean to get emotional; I apologize for that. I don’t want to make this about me.” The spokesman said he’s “been around the military a long, long time, and I’ve known friends who didn’t make it back.”
“It’s just hard,” he added, noting the journalists who “have people there who are seeing this and bringing these images back — it’s just difficult to look at it.”
“It’s hard to square [Putin’s], let’s just call it what it is, his BS, that this is about Nazism and Ukraine, and it’s about protecting Russians in Ukraine and it’s about defending Russian national interests, when none of them — none of them — were threatened by Ukraine,” Kirby added, while lightly pounding his fist on the podium.
“It’s hard to square that rhetoric by what he’s actually doing inside Ukraine to innocent people: shot in the back of the head; hands tied behind their backs; women, pregnant women being killed; hospitals being bombed. I mean, it’s just unconscionable,” he said. “It’s just beyond me.”
At the White House press briefing a short while later, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Kirby’s response, and whether the idea that Putin is “depraved” is something that President Biden agrees with.
“You’ve heard the president call him a war criminal, so I don’t think the president thinks of President Putin as somebody who is a model in the world. He views him as a pariah and somebody who is guilty of war crimes and of genocide,” Psaki said.
A Ukrainian flag is seen in an Irpin apartment building damaged in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian flag in an apartment building in Irpin, Ukraine. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
In the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, men, women and children — many seeking shelter from the war or trying to escape the country — have found themselves in harm’s way. The International Criminal Court, alongside teams from Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, is investigating thousands of war crimes that have allegedly been carried out in the country.
On Thursday, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said 8,653 war crimes have been registered with the office thus far, and 620 suspects have been accused of aggression. The office also said 217 children have been killed and another 393 have been injured in the war.
In early April, satellite images appeared to show what officials and witnesses said were the bodies of 300 people killed during Russia’s monthlong occupation of Bucha, a city outside the capital, Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded by saying, “Russia is worse than ISIS in the scale and ruthlessness of crimes committed,” while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared it was “a deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape.