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Harris faces big diplomatic test with Poland amid fallout over planes for Ukraine

The vice president is visiting Poland and Romania to reassure the NATO allies as Russia steps up its attacks on Ukraine.

WARSAW, Poland — Vice President Kamala Harris’ mission to reassure Poland amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is hitting early diplomatic speed bumps after a very public communication breakdown between Poland and the U.S. over efforts to send Soviet-era fighter jets to Kyiv.

The U.S. has sought to project lockstep unity with its 29 NATO allies ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin opened his assault on Ukraine last month, insisting that any aggression from Moscow that spills beyond Ukraine's borders will be met with unanimous resolve.

But NATO and Harris now face a major test after Poland caught the Biden administration off-guard with a proposal — immediately rejected by Washington — to make the U.S. the middleman in supplying Ukraine with Polish-owned MiG planes.

Image: Vice President Kamala Harris disembarks from Air Force Two upon arrival at Warsaw Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland, on March 9, 2022, as she travels on a 3-day trip to Poland and Romania for meetings about the war in Ukraine.
Vice President Kamala Harris disembarks from Air Force Two upon arrival at Warsaw Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland, on March 9, 2022, as she travels on a 3-day trip to Poland and Romania for meetings about the war in Ukraine.Saul Loeb / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

Poland proposed putting the planes under U.S. custody at a U.S. base in Germany for later transfer to Ukraine as the U.S. saw fit. The plan was a nonstarter for the Biden administration, which seeks to avoid becoming a direct or indirect combatant in Putin’s war.

“We do not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian air force at this time and therefore have no desire to see them in our custody, either,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday, putting the nail in the coffin of a plan the Polish government announced Tuesday. He said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had conveyed that brusque message directly to Poland’s defense minister.

It now falls on Harris, in one of her biggest moments yet on the world stage, to mend the diplomatic rift while trying to keep the focus on her trip’s dual priorities: affirming the U.S. commitment to defend Poland and other NATO allies and encouraging Poland to stay the course as the largest recipient of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war — well more than a million people and counting.

Harris, in a joint news conference Thursday with Polish President Andrzej Duda at Belwelder Palace, did not directly answer when asked about the U.S.-Polish miscue on MiG planes.

“The United States and Poland are united in both what we have done and are prepared to do to help Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” Harris said, calling it an “ongoing process.”

Duda, for his part, was more direct, casting Poland’s move as an attempt to find a way to help NATO without boxing it into a decision to arm the Ukrainians with planes, potentially creating more risk for the alliance.

"We decided to put those jets at the disposal of NATO, not expecting anything in return," Duda said through a translator.

Harris arrived in Warsaw late Wednesday for the start of a two-country trip in which she will also visit Romania, another NATO ally and neighbor of Ukraine that is deeply concerned about Putin’s potential military ambitions beyond Ukraine.

She met Thursday with Duda and planned to meet with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as Ukrainians now in Poland who have fled the war. Before she heads to the Romanian capital, Bucharest, on Friday, she plans to spend time with U.S. and Polish soldiers in a further show of support for the NATO alliance.

To that end, the Biden administration announced ahead of Harris' trip that the U.S. was moving two Patriot anti-missile batteries to Poland — not to defend Ukraine but “to counter any potential threat to U.S. and Allied forces and NATO territory.” The U.S. military said it was “a prudent force-protection measure” that would “in no way support any offensive operations.”

Harris also used the stop in Warsaw to announce the U.S. would commit another $53 million in humanitarian aid to help civilians in Ukraine and in eastern Europe. The funds will flow from the U.S. Agency for International Development and will benefit the U.N. World Food Program and other causes, the White House said.

Yet the debacle over the fighter jets hangs conspicuously over Harris' visit. Senior Biden administration officials briefing reporters before she left Washington said that while Harris would be likely to leave the specifics to military officials to sort out, she would, indeed, discuss with the Poles how the two countries can better coordinate their security assistance to Ukraine.

The U.S. for days had tiptoed around the question of whether Warsaw should send fighter jets to Ukraine, calling it a decision for the Polish government to make, while floating the possibility that the U.S. could “backfill” the loss of planes in Poland’s fleet by providing it with U.S. aircraft.

Then came the surprise announcement that Poland planned to put its aging MiG planes in U.S. custody in Germany, presumably to be transferred to Ukraine by the U.S. The Biden administration has warned that such a move could perceived by Putin as concrete U.S. military involvement in the war, in addition to endangering U.S. pilots if they were the ones flying them into Ukraine, where the Russians might shoot them down.

The Biden administration said Poland never consulted the U.S. before it made the announcement.

“I think the Poles got carried away with themselves. They want to be helpful,” Stephen Mull, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said in an interview. “Rather than waiting to make sure that all this was tied up, they just went ahead and announced it to get headlines for themselves that they’re willing to help while putting all the risk to the U.S.”

Mull, who was ambassador during the Obama administration, said Harris would probably avoid directly criticizing Poland for the diplomatic ambush, but he predicted that she would try to convey the need to avoid surprises given the gravity of the crisis.

“We need to be coordinating, very, very closely, to make sure that we don’t create an impression of lack of unity or lack of coordination in the alliance,” he said.

Sending fighter planes to help repel Russia’s military has been a top request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has described it as the next-best option after the U.S. and NATO both rejected his calls to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Julie Smith, said Poland could have opted for a plan to transfer the planes to Ukraine directly but “proposed a different path.”

“The United States, the Pentagon specifically, said they thought that particular proposal was untenable,” Smith said Wednesday on MSNBC. “But again, it comes from the best of intentions.”