(Trends Wide) — Vice President Kamala Harris travels to Europe on Wednesday on a trip that is complicated after one of her hosts — Poland — blindsided the United States with a proposal to provide its Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine.
The Polish government announced on Tuesday that it was making its fleet of MiG planes available to the United States to supply them to Ukraine, an idea the United States flatly rejected. The Polish offer caught the White House completely off guard, according to people familiar with the matter, despite officials saying in earlier days that they had been discussing the options with their counterparts.
Harris will defuse the situation when he arrives in Poland late Wednesday on a mission to reassure one of NATO’s easternmost allies that the United States remains committed to its security amid new concerns about Russia’s intentions. . It is the second time in a month that Harris has been sent to Europe as the Biden administration seeks to rally international support for her efforts to isolate and punish Russia for the war in Ukraine.
What seemed like a simple mission with a lot at stake became more tense when the Polish Foreign Ministry announced that it was willing to deploy the planes to the Ramstein airbase of the US Air Force in Germany, which in theory they could then be supplied to the Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for more planes amid the Russian invasion.
But this offer had not been discussed with the United States before Poland announced it publicly, nor did Polish officials mention it to Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he was in Poland recently.
It seemed designed to avoid the appearance that Poland was directly arming Ukraine in its battle against Russia, but it created a conundrum for the United States, which is also intent on avoiding direct conflict with Moscow.
The episode clearly illustrated the fragile NATO politics that Harris will enter when he arrives in Europe on a mission to bolster Western unity in the face of Russian aggression. Eastern NATO members like Poland fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has his eyes on them, and the United States is working overtime to reassure them that their security is paramount.
At the same time, the NATO alliance is striving to avoid direct involvement in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has prevented measures such as imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The option of providing Ukraine with Soviet-era aircraft is considered a possible alternative.
“We have been in dialogue with the Poles for some time about how best to provide a variety of security assistance to Ukraine. And that is a dialogue that will absolutely continue leading up to and as part of the vice president’s trip,” a senior administration official said. before Harris’s departure for Warsaw.
“This is a key priority for us and all of our NATO allies,” the official continued. “And so we hope that we continue to talk about how to achieve this very important goal.” Various people have had a variety of ideas and we think they all deserve to be discussed and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
US officials have privately considered sending planes to Ukraine, but have repeatedly pointed to the difficult logistical challenges of doing so.
Before his departure Wednesday morning, there were intense talks within the administration about how to work with Poland to come to some kind of agreement that would allow the planes to reach Ukraine.
The vice president is tasked with calming nervous allies
Harris travels to Poland and Romania at a critical time for Europe and for the Biden White House.
“The last two months have been very focused on what has tragically become a defining issue for the entire administration,” said a second senior administration official.
Harris, for her part, “has been really immersed in this matter,” the first official said, “working intensely on a daily basis on all the issues that are related to the current crisis resulting from the Russian invasion.”
Officials said Harris would come to Europe with a three-part message: that the United States stands with its NATO allies; that he will continue to support the Ukrainian people; and that Putin has made a mistake that will mean a “resounding defeat” for Russia.
Harris plans to focus intensely on “next steps” with her interlocutors in Europe this week, officials said, including enforcing sanctions, hosting a large influx of refugees and developing plans to provide more military assistance to Ukraine.
Discussions will focus on “how to get the ball forward,” the second official said. “As proud as we are of what we have done together as an alliance thus far, we are well aware that there are many challenges ahead.”
It is Harris’s third trip to Europe in the last five months and comes just weeks after he traveled to the Munich Security Conference to deliver a message of resolve as Russia massed troops on the Ukraine border.
On Thursday, Harris is scheduled to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda, a far-right nationalist whose erosion of the country’s judiciary has prompted statements of concern from the European Union. Amid tensions with Russia, however, the Biden administration has shut down Duda and deployed thousands of additional troops to bases in Poland.
In Warsaw, Harris will also meet with refugees who have fled violence in Ukraine, as well as American diplomats who have traveled to Poland from the closed US embassy in Kyiv.
He will then travel to Romania, where refugees fleeing bombing in Ukraine arrive by the thousands. Like Poland, Romania is a member of NATO, where the United States has deployed troops amid rising tensions with Russia.
President Joe Biden is eager to demonstrate his commitment to security in Europe as the continent endures its first ground invasion in nearly 70 years. The flow of people out of Ukraine, which reached two million this week, is the largest refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations.
“Several of these countries, including the ones she will visit, have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “She will also talk about our current range of options and assistance that we have been providing to the Ukrainian people.”
Harris has become his highest-ranking envoy to a continent facing
suddenly to questions about its stability and safety. In February he traveled to the Munich Security Conference as Russia was massing its troops on Ukraine’s borders, delivered a speech outlining the US position and met with European allies to discuss their response.
In Germany, he met with the leaders of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, three other NATO members concerned about Putin’s future ambitions. He also met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Last week, Harris met with the prime ministers of Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as part of a sustained effort by the administration to engage its NATO allies on the eastern flank.
A fiery start to war diplomacy for Harris
It has been an intense introduction to wartime diplomacy for a vice president with little foreign policy experience. Her presence in Europe is a signal from the White House that she takes her obligations to NATO seriously and that coordinating support for Ukraine is a key objective.
Harris’s supporters also say it demonstrates Biden’s confidence in her to represent the United States in Europe at a critical time for the continent.
White House officials said they have no plans for Biden himself to travel to Europe any time soon. A presidential trip abroad requires a much stronger infrastructure and would be difficult to execute quickly. By comparison, the vice president’s team has had little more than a week to prepare for her visit.
Harris has worked over the past year to polish her foreign policy credentials, helped in part by Biden’s assignments that introduced her to foreign leaders and put her at the center of critical global issues.
Her experience before becoming vice president focused primarily on national issues, such as when she was attorney general for California and later when she was a US senator. But Biden has sent her abroad on several occasions, and she has been relatively well received by leaders eager to make inroads with the new administration.
There have been some stumbles, such as in Central America, where his message to immigrants to “don’t come” to the United States was poorly received by immigration advocates. An autumn trip to Paris was quieter, and Harris received an enthusiastic welcome at the Munich conference, which was a regular stop for Biden when he was in his place.