Overnight Defense & National Security — Biden prepares for second Putin call

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin

It’s Wednesday, 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 will hold another call with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. More on that, plus a ruling on Oklahoma’s bid to block the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate for the National Guard.

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

Let’s get to it.

Biden, Putin to talk again Thursday

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets virtually via a secure video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets virtually via a secure video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin

President Biden will hold another phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday amid ongoing tensions with Ukraine and ahead of upcoming discussions on Moscow’s security demands.

National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement that the two leaders will discuss “a range of topics, including upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia.”

Thursday’s call between the two leaders is “at the request of the Russian side,” a senior administration official told reporters on a phone briefing.

“President Biden has always believed that there is no substitute for direct leader to leader dialogue and engagement and that is especially true when it comes to Russia and to his engagement with President Putin,” the official said.

Upcoming talks: U.S. and Russian officials are scheduled to speak on Jan. 10 regarding Moscow’s security demands, which were laid out earlier this month.

That meeting will be followed by a Jan. 12 meeting of the NATO-Russia council and a Jan. 13 meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Permanent Council.

Biden and Putin are not expected to directly participate in those talks, the official said. That dialogue will be led by the State Department and include representatives from the National Security Council and Department of Defense.

Also on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to a readout of that call, “the two discussed efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia.”

Moves from the Pentagon: Amid heightened tensions with Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the USS Harry Truman carrier strike group to remain in the Mediterranean instead of transiting to the Middle East.

The change “reflects the need for a persistent presence in Europe and is necessary to reassure our allies and partners of our commitment to collective defense,” a defense official told The Hill.

Separately, CNN reported that the U.S. Air Force flew an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System over eastern Ukraine this week. Kyiv approved the flight, but it reportedly stayed clear of the Donbass region which is occupied by pro-Russian separatist forces.

More here.

Other coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict:


Judge rejects Okla. lawsuit over vax mandate

An Oklahoma federal judge on Tuesday denied an attempt from the state to block the Department of Defense’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for National Guard members.

The ruling is a major development in the battle between Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) and the Pentagon which began in November after the governor asked Austin to exempt his state’s National Guard from the mandate.

Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor (R) asked an Oklahoma federal judge to declare the mandate unconstitutional and to preliminarily enjoin the mandate.

What the judge said: “The court is required to decide this case on the basis of federal law, not common sense. But, either way, the result would be the same,” U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot wrote in a 29-page ruling. “The claims asserted by the Governor and his co-plaintiffs are without merit.

But even though he rejected the motion, Friot still asked the defendants to provide a period for compliance with the mandate given the consequences of not complying, especially because the Guard members who are not complying “did not have the benefit of well-informed leadership at the highest level of the Oklahoma Guard.”

“The court strongly urges the defendants to give every consideration to providing a brief grace period-to facilitate prompt compliance with the vaccination mandate-before directly or indirectly taking action which would end the military careers of any Oklahoma Guard members,” he continued.

Oklahoma responds: Oklahoma was the first of seven GOP-led states to voice objections to the mandate, and is so far the only state to sue in an attempt to block it from taking effect.

In a statement to The Hill, O’Connor’s office said “we are disappointed” by the ruling.

“We expect the Biden administration to review in good faith all exemptions and religious accommodations requested by our fellow Oklahomans. We will not be surprised if the President’s vaccine mandate actually reduces the nation’s military readiness instead of promoting it. We are analyzing the State’s response to this decision,” the statement continued.

The Pentagon had no comment on the ruling.

Read the full story here.



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