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Overnight Defense: US, Russia trade blame over Syria incident | Pentagon calls out China's 'counterproductive' military exercises, missile test | Democrats press Esper on COVID-19 response

Overnight Defense: US, Russia trade blame over Syria incident | Pentagon calls out China's 'counterproductive' military exercises, missile test | Democrats press Esper on COVID-19 response
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. 

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THE TOPLINE: The United States and Russia are trading blame for this week’s  armored vehicle showdown in Syria that injured U.S. troops.

In its first official statement on the issue, the Pentagon on Thursday said Russia engaged in “deliberately provocative and aggressive behavior” when a Russian military vehicle collided with a U.S. military vehicle, injuring the U.S. troops.

“On Tuesday, Russian forces breached our deconfliction arrangement in Syria and injured U.S. service members with their deliberately provocative and aggressive behavior,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in the statement.

“We have advised the Russians that their behavior was dangerous and unacceptable,” he added. “We expect a return to routine and professional deconfliction in Syria and reserve the right to defend our forces vigorously whenever their safety is put at risk.”

Hoffman also praised the U.S. troops for their professionalism.

“We commend our personnel on the ground for de-escalating this unfortunate encounter through professionalism and restraint, which are hallmarks of the U.S. military,” he said.

Russia’s story: Earlier Thursday, officials in Russia said it was the U.S. military that was to blame for the confrontation.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov told U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in a call this week that the Russians notified the U.S.-led military coalition in Syria about the patrol in advance in accordance with the deconfliction agreement.

But, the ministry said Gerasimov told Milley that U.S. troops tried to block the patrol which "took every step necessary to prevent the incident and proceed with its mission."

Milley’s office announced the call Wednesday, but said the pair agreed not to disclose the contents “in accordance with past practice.”

Reminder: The injuries first came to light Wednesday with a Politico report.

In an unusual move, it was the National Security Council, not the Pentagon, that then confirmed the incident later Wednesday.

During a routine patrol of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition Tuesday morning in northeast Syria, a Russian military vehicle hit a coalition armored vehicle, injuring the crew, National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said in Wednesday’s statement.

The situation was de-escalated when the U.S.-led coalition patrol left the area, Ullyot said.

 

PENTAGON CALLS OUT CHINA, TOO: The Pentagon didn’t just have stern words for Russia on Thursday.

It also issued a statement expressing concerns about Chinese military exercises in the South China Sea that included a ballistic missile test.

“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Defense Department said in a statement.

China’s “actions, including missile tests, further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea,” the statement added.

The Pentagon also said the action violates China’s 2002 commitment to “avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”

China’s story: A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said during a briefing in Beijing that the country had conducted previously planned drills but did not mention the missile launches.

The spokesman said that the exercises “are not directed at any country.”

 

SENATORS PRESS ESPER ON COVID RESPONSE: A group of Senate Democrats is reviving its concerns about the Pentagon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing a spike in cases in July.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the nine senators called reports of a rise in cases among service members “concerning.”

“We are pleased to see that the department is taking some precautionary measures to address the spread of the virus, but are concerned that the department is still not properly prioritizing the health and well-being of our service members,” they wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday.

The senators specifically highlighted that the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the Pentagon grew by more than 21,000 in July, a more than 100 percent increase.

The letter was organized by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Mass.) and co-signed by Democratic Sens. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoSenate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack Democratic senator raises concerns about inauguration security Senate Democrats urge Google to improve ad policies to combat election disinformation MORE (Hawaii), Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayHawley pens op-ed to defend decision to object to electoral votes amid pushback Demolition at the Labor Department, too Hawley, Cruz face rising anger, possible censure MORE (Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyBiden signs executive order invoking 2-year lobbying ban for appointees K Street navigates virtual inauguration week Senate Democrats make democracy reform first bill of new majority MORE (Ore.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack Facebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs MORE (Ohio), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack With a new president and a new Congress, it's time for Medicare drug price negotiation The Hill's Morning Report - President Biden, Vice President Harris begin work today MORE (Ore.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharA Day in Photos: The Biden Inauguration Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department Democrats shoot down McConnell's filibuster gambit MORE (Minn.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyDemocrats shoot down McConnell's filibuster gambit Biden signs executive order invoking 2-year lobbying ban for appointees Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (Mass.).

Background: The latest letter follows one sent in April by the same group of senators including Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris takes up temporary residence at Blair House Amanda Gorman captures national interest after inauguration performance Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE (D-Calif.), who has since become the Democratic vice presidential nominee. The April letter sparked a fierce response by the Pentagon.

In the April letter, the senators expressed “grave concern” with how the Pentagon was handling the pandemic, citing incidents such as the outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and images of Marines standing close together in long lines without face masks to get haircuts to comply with grooming standards.

Pentagon response: The April letter elicited a six-paragraph statement from the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, a rebuke from Esper during a Pentagon press briefing and a letter from Esper to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeJustice Dept. closes insider trading case against Burr without charges Biden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Okla.).

The Pentagon, though, says it is not publicly commenting on the newest letter.

“As with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter,” Pentagon spokesperson Jessica Maxwell told The Hill on Thursday.

Most recent stats: As of Wednesday, the Pentagon has reported a total of 53,033 coronavirus cases connected to the department, including 36,600 cases in the military.

The Pentagon updates its online chart of coronavirus case counts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The cumulative cases also include 8,058 civilians, 4,882 dependents and 3,493 contractors.

There have been a total of 80 deaths reported across the department due to the disease, including six service members. There have also been 50 civilian deaths, seven dependent deaths and 17 contractor deaths.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville gives a keynote speech to the virtual National Guard Association of the United States General Conference at 4 p.m. https://bit.ly/3hAmeFB

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