Harris lands in an Eastern Europe bloodied by war
Vice President Harris will become the face of the Biden administration in Europe amid Russia’s war in Ukraine when she engages with leaders in Poland and Romania starting Thursday.
The trip is Harris’s highest-profile one yet, coming nine months after a shaky visit to Mexico and Guatemala that drew criticism from both sides of the aisle.
Harris is expected to engage with world leaders including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and will also meet with refugees and service members stationed near the Ukrainian border, trying to show solidarity while tensions are high following the latest round of sanctions on Russia.
“I think this is the opportunity her team has been looking for to showcase her strengths,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “She’s had a few missteps on the international stage, but this is a chance for her to shine while the world is watching these horrific events play out.”
Senior administration officials say Harris will be “carrying a three-part message” on the trip. She will be conveying a sentiment that the U.S. “stands firmly and resolutely” with NATO allies while also showing support for the people of Ukraine. Nearly 2.2 million Ukrainians have fled the war-torn country, with nearly 1.3 million in Poland alone.
But perhaps the strongest message Harris will deliver is that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has made a mistake that will result in resounding strategic defeat for Russia,” one senior administration official said.
“And you’re already seeing evidence of that in terms of what’s going on inside Ukraine as well as the impact of sanctions that we have imposed on the Russian economy,” the official said.
One of the vice president’s first stops on Thursday will be to meet with refugees in Warsaw. She also will participate in bilateral meetings with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Trudeau, who will be in Poland at the same time. And she plans to meet with Kyiv embassy staff who have relocated to Poland, as well as embassy staff in Warsaw.
In Bucharest, Romania, Harris will participate in a bilateral meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and meet with embassy staff there as well.
Hours before her departure, the U.S. rejected a sudden offer from Poland to transfer its Russian-made fighter jets to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that it’s unclear that there is “substantive rationale” for the transfer.
“The prospect of fighter jets ‘at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America’ departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” Kirby said in a statement.
Earlier this week, Biden announced a ban on Russian oil, the latest in a series of sanctions against Russia and a risky move amid already high gas prices in the U.S. The White House has sought to pin the blame for the high cost of gas on Putin since the announcement, increasingly arguing that the invasion is the cause and calling it “Putin’s price hike.”
When asked for specifics on how the vice president is preparing for such a consequential trip, administration officials said she has been in a number of sessions and briefings on the situation in Ukraine.
“She has really been immersed in this issue, as has the president and the rest of the national security team, working intensively on a daily basis on all of the issues that are related to the ongoing crisis resulting from the Russian invasion,” one official said.
Harris’s trip to Poland is her sixth foreign trip as vice president. She previously visited Germany; Guatemala and Mexico; Singapore and Vietnam; France; and Honduras.
Harris just last month traveled to the Munich Security Conference and met with several leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At the time, days before the invasion began, she warned that the world is looking at “the real possibility of war in Europe” and said that the U.S. may “incur some cost” if Russia invades Ukraine.
Harris got off on the wrong foot in June with her trip to Mexico and Guatemala, after which she took major heat from activists and Democrats for telling migrants “do not come” to the U.S., which was the administration’s message at the time.
David Thomas, former senate liaison to former Vice President Al Gore, marked the significance of Harris going to the border of Ukraine to show Americans and allies that the administration is focused on the invasion.
“The days of vice presidents just traveling abroad to funerals of foreign leaders are long gone. Most modern-day presidents have come to rely on their VPs to represent the United States abroad and to report back unvarnished intelligence,” said Thomas, a Democratic lobbyist.
“Nobody knows this better than Joe Biden, who did the job himself for eight years. He is sending Vice President Harris to the region to show both our friends and the Russians how critical this conflict is to the United States and the rest of the world,” he added.
Democratic strategist Joel Payne added that the trip is symbolic because it “allows for more consequential engagement to help manage this crisis moment in Ukraine.”
Harris’s focus on refugees while in Poland is reminiscent of when the Clinton administration gave Gore the responsibility of announcing that the U.S. government would temporarily shelter 20,000 refugees from Kosovo in 1999.
Experts hope that Harris’s meeting with refugees will cause a similar response from the Biden administration, which so far has not announced any plans to take in Ukrainian refugees. Biden has said he is committed to providing financial support for refugees.
“The question is, let’s make this photo opportunity into something really meaningful and that we’re actually going to make an announcement that we’re going to start to accept refugees into the United States that have family ties here,” said Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, a Jewish humanitarian organization that provides services to refugees.
“It’s nice that she’s meeting with refugees, it’s important, but it could be much more significant,” he said.