(CNN) — Vice President Kamala Harris heads to Europe on Wednesday for a complicated trip after one of her hosts – Poland – blindsided the United States with a proposal to supply its Soviet-era fighter jets to the Ukraine.
The Polish government announced on Tuesday that it was making its fleet of MiG aircraft available to the United States to supply to Ukraine, an idea the United States has flatly rejected. The Polish offer caught the White House completely off guard, according to people familiar with the matter, although officials said earlier they had discussed the options with their counterparts.
Harris will defuse the situation when he arrives in Poland on Wednesday evening for a mission to reassure one of NATO’s easternmost allies that the United States remains committed to its safety amid renewed concerns over the Russian 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 its efforts to isolate and punish Russia for the war in Ukraine.
What seemed like a simple mission with high stakes became more tense when the Polish Foreign Ministry announced that it was ready to deploy the planes to the US Air Force’s Ramstein air base in Germany, which , in theory, could then be supplied to Ukraine. . Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked 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 tell Secretary of State Antony Blinken about it 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 determined to avoid a direct conflict with Moscow.
The episode clearly illustrates the fragile NATO politics that Harris will enter when he arrives in Europe on a mission to strengthen Western unity in the face of Russian aggression. Eastern NATO members like Poland fear Russian President Vladimir Putin is watching them, and the United States is working overtime to reassure them that their security is paramount.
At the same time, the NATO alliance is trying to avoid direct involvement in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has prevented measures such as the imposition of an exclusion zone aerial over Ukraine. The option of equipping Ukraine with Soviet-era aircraft is seen as 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. “said a senior administration official. an official said before Harris left for Warsaw.
“This is a key priority for us and for all of our NATO allies,” the official continued. “And so hopefully we will continue to talk about how to achieve this very important goal.” Various people had a variety of ideas and we think they’re all worth discussing and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
US officials have privately considered sending planes to Ukraine, but have repeatedly pointed to difficult logistical challenges.
Before he left on Wednesday morning, there were intense discussions within the administration about how to work with Poland to reach some sort of deal that would allow the planes to reach Ukraine.
The Vice President is tasked with calming nervous allies
Harris is traveling to Poland and Romania at a critical time for Europe and for the Biden White House.
“The past 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 issues related to the current crisis resulting from the Russian invasion.”
The 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 made a mistake that will mean a “resounding defeat” for Russia.
Harris plans to focus intensely on “next steps” with his interlocutors in Europe this week, officials said, including enforcing sanctions, welcoming a large influx of refugees and developing plans to provide more military assistance to Ukraine.
Discussions will focus on “how to move the ball forward”, said the second official. “As proud as we are of what we have achieved together as an alliance so far, we are well aware that many challenges lie ahead.”
It is Harris’ third trip to Europe in the past five months and comes just weeks after he traveled to the Munich Security Conference to deliver a message of resolve as Russia massed troops at the Ukrainian border.
On Thursday, Harris is due to meet Polish President Andrzej Duda, a far-right nationalist whose erosion of the country’s justice system has prompted statements of concern from the European Union. However, amid tensions with Russia, the Biden administration shut down Duda and deployed thousands more troops to bases in Poland.
In Warsaw, Harris will also meet with refugees who have fled violence in Ukraine, as well as US diplomats who have traveled to Poland from the closed US Embassy in Kyiv.
He will then travel to Romania, where refugees fleeing the bombings in Ukraine are arriving in their thousands. Like Poland, Romania is a member of NATO, where the United States has deployed troops amid growing tensions with Russia.
President Joe Biden is eager to demonstrate his commitment to security in Europe as the continent suffers its first ground invasion in nearly 70 years. The flow of people out of Ukraine, which reached two million this week, is the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations.
“Many of these countries, including those she will visit, have taken in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “She will also talk about our current range of options and assistance that we provide to the people of Ukraine.”
Harris became its highest-ranking envoy to a continent facing
suddenly to questions about its stability and security. In February, he visited the Munich Security Conference as Russia massed 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 the Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian leaders, three other NATO members concerned about Putin’s future ambitions. He also met 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 was an intense introduction to wartime diplomacy for a vice president with little foreign policy experience. Its presence in Europe is a signal from the White House that it takes its NATO obligations seriously and that coordinating support for Ukraine is a key objective.
Harris 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 have said they do not envision Biden himself traveling to Europe anytime soon. A presidential trip abroad requires a much stronger infrastructure and would be difficult to execute quickly. By comparison, the vice-president’s team had just over a week to prepare for their visit.
Harris has worked over the past year to polish her foreign policy credentials, helped in part by Biden’s assignments that have introduced her to foreign leaders and placed her at the center of critical global issues.
Her experience before becoming vice president focused primarily on national issues, such as when she was California’s attorney general and later when she was a U.S. 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. A fall trip to Paris was calmer, and Harris received an enthusiastic reception at the Munich conference, which was a regular stop for Biden when he was in office.