But in this case, the government’s response was still unfolding as Harris flew across the Atlantic to meet Poland’s president and prime minister, raising the stakes for a journey that has already been one of her deputy’s most intense moments. would be presidency.
“I want to be very clear. The United States and Poland are united in what we have done and are ready to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine, period,” Harris said at a press conference on Thursday with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
As fighting intensifies in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin increases his targets on civilians, Harris has emerged as Biden’s top envoy to a continent suddenly in conflict. This week’s tour of Poland and Romania was her third visit to Europe in the past four months. For a foreign policy novice with aspirations for senior office, it was a rigorous introduction to war diplomacy.
Like most of her events, Harris’s journey was tightly scripted. Only a bow to the Polish president when he kept asking her to answer first during a joint press conference – “A friend in need is indeed a friend,” she said with a sly laugh – drew some criticism, as the question was about refugees.
Other than that, there was little on Harris’s journey that drew much Republican criticism, which is rare for one of the right’s favorite targets. Even her predecessor Mike Pence’s visit to the Polish-Ukrainian border at the same time she was in the country was not immediately seen as a partisan contest. A White House official said they had received no warning that Pence would be in the area.
By the time she left just before 8 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Harris had already been briefed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken — with whom she often lunches — about his trip to the region this past weekend and had met five Eastern European prime ministers in preparation for her visit. . She had consulted with country experts on Poland and Romania and consulted with other members of the National Security Council.
Harris could hardly be said to have been unprepared; at nearly every public appearance, she reiterated a version of a commitment to defend “every inch of NATO territory” and that an “attack on one is an attack on all”—the words US officials have always used to express their commitment to the collective defense of the alliance. And she came up with new US pledges of humanitarian aid and a patriotic missile defense system for Poland.
“When it comes to what Putin’s future behavior might be, I can’t speculate,” Harris said.
Harris smoothes the dust of Polish fighter jets
The issue of sending fighter jets to Ukraine, which hovered over Harris’s first stop, illustrated the restrictions under which the United States and NATO operate as they work to protect the lives of civilians in Ukraine.
The announcement mitigated some of the potential awkwardness for Harris as she arrived at the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw for talks with Duda. They greeted each other under a bright blue sky and shook hands for over a minute. Inside, they had what one official described as a “tête-à-tête” to talk privately before bringing in their delegations.
Polish officials had been personally annoyed at the impression they were blocking the jet transfers. When Blinken appeared on television on Sunday, giving Poland a “green light” to hand over the jets, the United States seemed to be shrugging off responsibility for what could be seen as an escalation to a country a short distance from Moscow.
For Harris and Duda, it was a topic that could hardly be ignored. US and Polish officials said afterwards that discussions on the issue of the fighter jets focused mainly on the logistics and intelligence issues that prevent a transfer, rather than on the surprising nature of the Polish announcement.
“This is something you are addressing. It has clearly been there. It is a serious and legitimate issue to discuss,” a senior official said after the meeting. “We’ve been discussing the best ways to provide security assistance to the Ukrainians for some time now. So the vice president has discussed it with her colleagues.”
When they later came forward for a press conference, Harris mostly went around the issue. However, Duda seemed much more determined to explain his reasoning.
“These requests are addressed to us by the Ukrainian side and to some extent also by the media,” he said through a translator. “We have behaved as a trustworthy NATO member should behave – a NATO member who does not want to expose NATO to a difficult situation.”
With the Pentagon already shutting down the prospect of getting the fighter jets to Ukraine, Harris and Duda were able to focus their attention on what their countries are willing to do, instead of messing around with an option neither side ever seemed to do. to be committed. But exactly what that looks like is not clear. Harris said only that deliveries of anti-tank and anti-armor missiles would continue “to the extent necessary”.
Humanitarian crisis becomes clear for Harris
“It is painful to see what is happening to innocent people in Ukraine who just want to live in their own country and are proud of themselves as Ukrainians, who want to be at home and speak the language they know, go to the church they know , to raise their children in the communities where their families have lived for generations,” she said, “and now millions have to flee with nothing but a backpack.”
In Warsaw, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe was clearly on its doorstep. Across the street from her hotel was the city’s main bus station, which has welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine since last week.
Inside, volunteers in orange vests led the newcomers to the counters that helped with accommodation, translation and onward travel. Long lines around tables with hot coffee and sandwiches. Boxes of donated clothes stood in corners, and piles of diapers and baby products were up for grabs.
The new refugees seemed dazed and somewhat disoriented, albeit relieved to have arrived in Poland. No one said they knew the US Vice President was also in Warsaw and staying at the hotel next door.
A woman, who refused to give her name, had just arrived with a small family and their husky mix. She said she hadn’t known Harris was visiting Warsaw; after all, she had just finished a long journey from Ukraine.
If she had a message for the United States, it was simply, “Please help Ukraine.”