While Russian President Vladimir Putin masses 150,000 Russian troops on the Ukraine border, Harris will be holding a series of meetings with European leaders and delivering an address to hundreds of officials. It’s a pivotal moment for a vice president with little foreign policy experience, one who has presidential ambitions but no long-term connection to President Biden.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, said that other nations will be turning to the U.S. — meaning Harris — for guidance, especially if hostilities erupt during the three-day conference, which starts Friday.
“If this war starts, everybody will be looking to her for ‘Where are these sanctions?’ and ‘What are these sanctions?’ and ‘What are you guys prepared to do?’ ” Rhodes said. “And she could be the tip of the spear of a U.S. response.”
That could be a challenge for a political figure whose experience is almost entirely domestic, having been California attorney general and then a U.S. senator before becoming Biden’s running mate. Her political instincts have been inconsistent; her presidential campaign imploded before a vote was cast, and a staff exodus has raised questions about her prospects.
But Harris is also known as a charismatic personality who can be quick on her feet, and the summit gives her a rare opportunity to project a presidential stature on a global stage. “If she’s leading the delegation,” Rhodes said, “every eye in the room will be on her.”
And she will face an array of often-competing pressures from America’s allies while in Munich. Countries such as France and Germany will be looking for Harris to emphasize diplomatic efforts to defuse the conflict. Other NATO allies, such as Britain, Poland and the Baltic nations, will want her to prioritize deterring Russian aggression by deploying arms and soldiers along Europe’s eastern flank.
On Friday, Harris will meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and will attend a multilateral meeting with members of the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — aides announced on Wednesday. On Saturday, she will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany.
Biden’s decision to dispatch Harris to Europe in the middle of a security crisis suggests trust in her ability to represent him on the world stage — to an extent. She will be joined at the conference by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, one of the president’s most trusted aides.
For Blinken, a fluent French speaker who has negotiated and hobnobbed with European leaders of every stripe, the annual Bavarian confab represents familiar turf. The longtime foreign policy hand has worked for Biden for over two decades in the Senate and White House; in contrast, Harris joined Biden’s orbit less than two years ago.
For the past few months, Blinken has been managing America’s elaborate web of alliances, trying to minimize the different impulses of European countries and project a united front against Moscow. That could force Blinken and Harris into a delicate dance this week.
Although loyal to the president above all others, Blinken has been scrupulous about elevating Harris’s stature within the administration, continuing to deploy the campaign-era term “Biden-Harris administration” a year into the presidency. A number of officials at the State Department, like others in the administration, see Biden’s presidency as a bridge linking the old guard of the Democratic Party to the next generation.
But starting Thursday, it is Harris who will be the public face of American might in this crisis.
The White House has said it has no intention to downgrade her role. “I don’t think there’s any plans to limit or reduce the vice president’s role at the Munich Security Conference or … on the global stage,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “She’s going to give a speech while she’s there, and she is a vital and important representative for the United States and our values and our intentions at this point in the world.”
Putin’s aggressive actions and rhetoric toward Ukraine have jolted Europe and drawn the United States into an international game of chicken. Amid Russia’s recent unconfirmed claims that it has begun withdrawing its military, it remains unclear whether history will mark this moment as 21st-century saber-rattling or the precursor to a land war in Europe.
Adding to the pressure on Biden, his response to the crisis will likely factor into how Americans perceive his overall competence.
In August, a bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan — including the deaths of 13 service members, images of desperate Afghans plummeting from evacuation planes and concerns about Americans left behind in the chaos — struck a blow to Biden’s approval ratings that he has not recovered from. And it has become Exhibit A for Republicans who say a president who campaigned on his foreign policy experience is ill-equipped for another international chess match.
In a speech from the White House on Tuesday, Biden said his administration continues to work toward a diplomatic solution on Ukraine, but reiterated that the U.S. is prepared to help protect its allies from Russian aggression. He said he was hopeful — though still awaiting confirmation — about reports that Russian military units were withdrawing from Ukraine’s border. A day later, a senior U.S. official said the administration now believes that Russia has actually sent 7,000 more troops to the border and that public statements about a drawdown were simply “false.”
And if Russia does mount an invasion of Ukraine, Biden promised sanctions that go far beyond those the U.S. imposed after Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“We are ready with diplomacy — to be engaged in diplomacy with Russia and our allies and partners to improve stability and security in Europe as a whole,” Biden said. “And we are ready to respond decisively to a Russian attack on Ukraine, which is still very much a possibility.”
At the same time, Biden sought to brace Americans for the potential costs of backing up his tough talk. He encouraged Americans in Ukraine to get out before escalating tensions made escape impossible, and he warned about potentially steeper gas prices amid the uncertainty.
“I will not pretend this will be painless” if sanctions are imposed on Russia, the president said. “There could be impact on our energy prices, so we are taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets and offset rising prices.”
He also spoke to the Russian people: “You are not our enemy. And I do not believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine.”
Behind closed doors, the administration’s diplomatic efforts have continued. Blinken spoke Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron about the crisis.
Harris, viewed by many as a potential heir to Biden in 2028 — or 2024 if the nation’s oldest president opts against running for a second term — has turned in uneven performances on international trips in her first year as vice president.
On her first international trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, she sought to deliver a tough message following months of chaos at the southern U.S. border, telling would-be immigrants, “Do not come.” That was criticized by immigration advocates who saw the message as insensitive toward suffering Latin Americans.
Harris also granted an interview on that trip to NBC News’s Lester Holt, awkwardly dismissing questions about why she had yet to visit the U.S.-Mexico border — first noting that she also hadn’t visited Europe, then conceding that she would visit the border.
On a more recent trip to Paris, Harris won more praise, touring a medical institute where her mother once worked and helping mend a U.S.-French relationship that had become frayed.
Her advisers wave away criticism of her performance, saying the groundbreaking vice president has faced unprecedented scrutiny, including a pool of reporters who shadow her movements and catalogue her poll numbers, unlike the 48 White men who preceded her. Critiques of her competence, allies say, are often rooted in sexism and racism from people uncomfortable with the notion of a powerful woman of color.
Rhodes noted that even in less dramatic times, the Munich conference is “the premier event of the year for the national security crowd on both sides of the Atlantic,” and that presents Harris with an opportunity.
“I think most everyone there will want her to succeed … They will want the U.S. to be leading, and they will want there to be foreign consensus,” Rhodes said. “But the trick is, not everybody will be on the same page in that room.”