Overnight Defense & National Security — Biden mobilizes military help amid virus surge

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

It's Tuesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

President Biden unveiled a plan to mobilize 1,000 military medical personnel to help hospitals as COVID-19 cases surge.

More on that, plus the military's 81st recorded COVID-19 death and the expected start of bilateral engagements with Russia.

For The Hill, I'm Jordan Williams. Write to me with tips at jwilliams@thehill.com.

Pentagon to mobilize medical personnel

President Biden is directing the Pentagon to mobilize 1,000 military medical personnel as early as next year to help hospitals that are being overwhelmed by staff shortages and a rush of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

Biden did not say where the additional service members will come from or where they will be sent. But earlier Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Defense Department is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to figure out those details.

"We'll work with FEMA, we'll work with HHS, we'll work with state and local authorities as appropriate to identify the right locations, the right hospitals that they need to go to," Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

Military help with COVID: The Pentagon began deploying teams of military medical personnel across the country in August, an effort which is being managed by US Army North in support of FEMA and Department of Health and Human Services.

Since the discovery of the omicron variant, about 300 military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other personnel have been deployed to seven states.

Most recently, the Army announced Monday that two teams of Navy personnel were supporting hospitals in Wisconsin and Indiana.

In addition, three teams of military medical personnel are working in Michigan, while the states of Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico have each been sent two teams. One team is currently working in Montana.

The bigger picture: The mobilization of troops is part of a broader strategy Biden unveiled Tuesday as the omicron variant becomes the dominant strain.

Among the efforts, Biden said his administration is buying 500 million COVID-19 testing kits for free distribution, and will establish new federal testing sites across the country.

During his speech, the president said that despite rising infections, the US is in a different place than it was last year.

"We should all be concerned about omicron, but not panicked," he said.

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A Navy Reserve forces sailor died last week after contracting COVID-19, marking the military's 81st service member to die of the virus.

Lt. Ivey Quintana-Martinez, 35, of Lake Elsinore, Calif., died of coronavirus-related complications on Dec. 18 at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a Navy statement released Tuesday.

He had battled the virus for more than a month after being admitted to the hospital on Nov. 10.

COVID-19 in the military: COVID-19 deaths within the military have spiked since July, with double-digit deaths recorded in August, September and October. The numbers have tapered off, however, as mandatory vaccinations deadlines loom.

According to data from the Department of Defense, the entire agency has seen 400,960 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, of which 258,800 of those cases are military personnel. Meanwhile, over 1.5 million service members are fully vaccinated.

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Talks between US, Russia likely in January

Bilateral talks between the United States and Russia on Moscow's recently-proposed security demands are expected to begin in January, a State Department official said Tuesday.

Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters on Tuesday that the US will "decide on a date" together with Russia to begin discussions.

She also said the U.S. expects to see "movement" in terms of meetings between NATO and Russia, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in January.

Putin lashes out at West: Russia last week released draft security agreements for the US and NATO as tensions flare over Moscow's military buildup near the Ukrainian border.

In a speech on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday blamed the west for building up tensions in Europe, The Associated Press reported.

He added that Moscow wants "constructive, meaningful talks with a visible end result - and within a certain time frame - that would ensure equal security for all."

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Sullivan to travel to Israel this week

National security adviser Jake Sullivan is traveling to Israel and the West Bank this week, part of efforts to consult with Israel about Iran nuclear talks and strengthen relations with the Palestinian authority.

The visit to Israel was "long" planned and meant to cap off the Biden administration's first year in office and engagement with the Middle East, a senior administration official told reporters on Monday

The trip is also a chance for Biden's top national security official to hold face-to-face discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his national security counterpart as the US looks to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iran 'very high' on agenda: The Biden administration is engaged in indirect talks with Iranian officials in Vienna over a pathway for both sides to return to the JCPOA, with Tehran calling on Washington to lift sanctions imposed by the former Trump administration when it exited the deal in 2018 and the U.S. calling on Iran to roll back its nuclear provocations such as enriching uranium.

The Biden administration maintains that they believe rejoining the JCPOA is the best way to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions and that the U.S. and Israel are "totally aligned in our determination to ensure Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons," the senior administration official said.

Israel is opposed to the revival of the deal, and has pressed Washington to abandon talks.

"Iran will be very high on the agenda for Jake's visit to Israel this week," the senior official said Monday, adding that discussions "will be a continuation of our ongoing consultations on the threat posed by Iran, particularly its nuclear program but also its destabilizing activities in the region."

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That's it for today. Check out The Hill's defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Wednesday.

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