Bucharest, Romania (CNN) – As Vice President Kamala Harris was jetting to Poland this week, she got a mid-flight call from the White House.
It was President Joe Biden, looking to make sure his No. 2 was up to speed on the administration’s scramble to deal with a problem awaiting her in Warsaw, a senior administration official said. The Polish government was offering to send fighter jets through the US to Ukraine, an idea the administration had no choice but to firmly decline in a Pentagon statement the day before Harris’ departure. Ordinarily such a scenario might prompt a cursory phone call between leaders to clear the air.
But in this case, the administration’s response was still unfolding as Harris was flying across the Atlantic to meet Poland’s President and prime minister, raising the stakes for a trip that was already set to be one of the most intense moments of her vice presidency.
She managed to avoid any public discord. But even a diplomatic victory left questions about how the conflict roiling Eastern Europe will end.
“I want to be very clear. The United States and Poland are united in what we have done and are prepared to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine; full stop,” Harris said during a news conference Thursday alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda.
As fighting intensifies in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin increases his targeting of civilians, Harris has emerged as Biden’s top-ranking envoy to a continent suddenly thrust into conflict. This week’s swing through Poland and Romania was her third visit to Europe in the past four months. For a foreign policy novice with aspirations for higher office, it has been a rigorous introduction to wartime diplomacy.
Like most of her events, Harris’ trip was tightly scripted. Only an arch aside to the Polish President when he kept asking her to answer first during a joint news conference — “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” she said, laughing slyly — generated some criticism, since the question was about refugees.
Otherwise, there was little on Harris’ trip that generated 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 wasn’t immediately viewed as a partisan contest. A White House official said they had not received a heads up 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 his trip to the region last weekend and had spoken to five Eastern European prime ministers in preparation for her visit. She’d consulted with country experts on Poland and Romania and conferred with other members of the National Security Council.
It could hardly be said of Harris that she wasn’t prepared; at nearly every public appearance, she repeated some version of a commitment to defend “every inch of NATO territory” and that an “attack against one is an attack against all” — the words American officials have always used to affirm their commitment to the alliance’s collective defense. And she did come bearing new American commitments on humanitarian aid and a Patriot missile-defense system for Poland.
But it was evident there were limits to what Harris could do to entirely reassure this anxious region at a moment of deep reckoning. When a Romanian reporter asked her if that country was the next to be invaded, Harris could only say she didn’t know.
“As it relates to what might be the future conduct of Putin, I cannot speculate,” Harris said.
The question of sending fighter jets to Ukraine, which hung over Harris’ first stop, illustrated the constraints the United States and NATO are operating under as they work to protect civilian lives in Ukraine.
When Biden called up Harris on her airplane as she was making her way to Poland, his administration was arriving at a decision to put a stake in the entire prospect of sending Polish planes to Ukraine, a signal of how intent the President is on avoiding direct conflict with Russia.
The announcement blunted some of the potential awkwardness for Harris when she arrived at the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw for talks with Duda. Greeting each other under a bright blue sky, the pair shook hands for more than 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 privately been annoyed at the impression they were holding up the jet transfers. When Blinken appeared on television Sunday giving Poland a “green light” to transfer the jets, it appeared to some like the United States was shirking off responsibility for what could be viewed as an escalation onto a country within easy striking distance of Moscow.
For Harris and Duda, it was a topic that could hardly be ignored. US and Polish officials said afterward that the discussions on the fighter jet issue were focused mostly on the logistics and intelligence issues that prevent a transfer, rather than on the surprise nature of the Polish announcement.
“This is something you address. It’s obviously been out there. It’s a serious and legitimate issue to discuss,” one senior administration official said after the meeting. “We’ve been discussing for some time the best ways to provide security assistance to the Ukrainians. So the vice president did discuss it with her counterparts.”
When they emerged for a news conference later, Harris mostly skirted the issue. Duda, however, appeared far more intent on explaining his rationale.
“Those requests were addressed to us by the Ukrainian side and also, to a certain extent, by the media,” he said through a translator. “We behaved in such a way as a reliable member of NATO should behave — a member of NATO who does not want to expose NATO to any difficult situation.”
With the Pentagon having already shut down the prospect of getting the fighter jets to Ukraine, Harris and Duda were able to turn their attention to what their countries are willing to do, rather than muddle through an option to which neither side ever seemed committed. But what exactly that looks like isn’t clear. Harris said only that deliveries of anti-tank and anti-armor missiles would continue “to the extent that there is a need.”
Humanitarian crisis becomes apparent for Harris
There were no signs of the need dissipating this week. Even Harris appeared taken aback by the gruesome level of atrocities taking place in Ukraine, growing most impassioned when condemning the bombing of a maternity hospital.
“It is painful to watch what is happening to innocent people in Ukraine who just want to live in their own country and have pride in themselves as Ukrainians, who want to be home speaking the language they know, going to the church that they know, raising their children in the community where their families have lived for generations,” she said,
“And by the millions, now, are having to flee with nothing but a backpack.”
The human crisis the war in Ukraine has inflicted on an entire region was unmistakable on each of Harris’ stops, as Poles and Romanians compassionately welcome refugees while wondering if their countries can handle them.
In Warsaw, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe was evident right outside her door. Just across the street from her hotel was the city’s central bus station, where refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine have been arriving by the thousands since last week.
Inside, volunteers in orange vests directed new arrivals to counters helping with accommodation, translation and onward journeys. Long lines wrapped around tables offering hot coffee and sandwiches. Boxes of donated clothes were positioned in corners and piles of diapers and baby products were available for the taking.
The new refugees appeared dazed and somewhat disoriented, albeit relieved to have arrived in Poland. None said they had known the American vice president was also in Warsaw, staying in the hotel next door.
One woman, who declined to provide 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’d just completed a long journey out of Ukraine.
If she had a message for the United States, it was simply: “Please help Ukraine.”