Harris avoids public discord in one of the most intense moments of his vice presidency
But in this case, the administration’s response was still ongoing as Harris crossed the Atlantic to meet Poland’s president and prime minister, raising the stakes for a trip that was already expected to be one of the most intense of his vice-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 Ukrainian people, period,” Harris said at a press conference on Thursday. alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda.
As fighting escalates in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin increases his targeting of civilians, Harris has become Biden’s top envoy to a continent suddenly embroiled in conflict. This week’s pass through Poland and Romania was his third visit to Europe in the past four months. For a foreign policy novice aspiring to higher office, this is a rigorous introduction to wartime diplomacy.
Like most of its events, Harris’ journey was tightly scripted. Only a sideways bow to the Polish president when he asked her to answer first at a joint press conference – ‘A friend in need is really a friend,’ she said with a sly laugh – a sparked criticism because the question was about refugees.
Otherwise, there was little about Harris’ trip that drew much Republican criticism, which is rare for one of the right-wing’s favorite targets. Even his predecessor Mike Pence’s visit to the Polish-Ukrainian border while in the country was not immediately seen as partisan competition. A White House official said they had no warning that Pence would be in the area.
By the time she took off just before 8 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Harris had already been briefed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken – with whom she often has lunch – about her trip to the area last weekend and had spoken to five Eastern European countries. Prime Ministers for his visit. She had consulted national experts on Poland and Romania and had spoken with other members of the National Security Council.
Harris could hardly be said to be unprepared; at nearly every public appearance, she repeated some version of a pledge to defend ‘every square inch of NATO territory’ and that an ‘attack on one is an attack on all’ – the words US officials have always used to affirm their commitment to the collective defense of the alliance. And it came with new US commitments on humanitarian aid and a Patriot missile defense system for Poland.
“As to what Putin’s future conduct might be, I cannot speculate,” Harris said.
Harris softens the dusting of a Polish fighter jet
The issue of sending fighter jets to Ukraine, which loomed over Harris’ first port of call, illustrated the constraints the United States and NATO operate under as they work to protect civilian lives in Ukraine.
The announcement blunted some of Harris’ potential awkwardness when she arrived at Belvedere Palace in Warsaw for talks with Duda. Greeting each other under bright blue skies, the pair shook hands for over a minute. Inside, they had what one official described as a “tete-a-tete” to talk privately before bringing in their delegations.
Polish officials had privately been annoyed by the impression that they were delaying air transfers. When Blinken appeared on television on Sunday giving Poland a ‘green light’ to transfer the jets, it appeared to some like the US that it was shitting responsibility for what could be seen as an escalation to a country within easy striking distance of Moscow.
For Harris and Duda, it was a subject that could hardly be ignored. U.S. and Polish officials later said discussions on the fighter jet issue focused primarily on the logistical and intelligence issues preventing a transfer, rather than the surprise nature of the Polish announcement.
“It’s something you bring up. It’s obviously been there. It’s a serious and legitimate issue to discuss,” a senior administration official said after the meeting. “We have been discussing the best ways to provide security assistance to Ukrainians for some time, so the Vice President has been discussing this with her counterparts.”
When they emerged for a press conference later, Harris mostly skirted the issue. Duda, however, seemed much more determined to explain his reasoning.
“These requests were made to us by the Ukrainian side and also, to some extent, by the media,” he said through an interpreter. “We behaved the way a reliable NATO member should behave – a NATO member who does not want to expose NATO to a difficult situation.”
With the Pentagon already shut down the prospect of getting the fighter jets to Ukraine, Harris and Duda were able to focus their attention on what their countries are prepared to do, rather than getting embroiled in an option that neither parties never seemed engaged. But what exactly that looks like is unclear. Harris only said deliveries of anti-tank and anti-armour missiles would continue “to the extent there is a need.”
Humanitarian crisis becomes apparent for Harris
“It is painful to see what happens to innocent people in Ukraine who just want to live in their own country and be proud of themselves as Ukrainians, who want to be at home speaking the language they know, going to the church they know, raising their children in the community where their families have lived for generations,” she said, “and millions now have to flee with nothing but a bag back.”
In Warsaw, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe was evident right outside his door. Directly opposite his hotel was the city’s central bus station, where refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine have arrived in their thousands since last week.
Inside, volunteers in orange vests directed newcomers to counters helping with accommodation, translation and onward travel. Long queues wrapped around tables offering hot coffee and sandwiches. Boxes of donated clothes were placed in corners and piles of diapers and baby products were available for the taking.
The new refugees seemed stunned and somewhat disoriented, though relieved to have arrived in Poland. None said they knew the US vice president was also in Warsaw, staying at the nearby hotel.
A woman, who declined to be named, had just arrived with a small family and their husky mix. She said she did not know Harris was visiting Warsaw; after all, she had just completed a long trip out of Ukraine.
If she had a message for the United States, it was simply: “Please help Ukraine”.