As chaos spreads in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden is dispatching Vice President Harris to Eastern Europe on an urgent mission this week to reinforce Western unity, reassure allies of U.S. protection and promise aid as more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees flee their homes.
“It’s clearly an important mission,” said Richard Weitz, a former Defense Department official who is now with the Hudson Institute. “These countries took unprecedented risks in coming to Ukraine’s defense, clearly to the annoyance of the Russian leadership, and so they’re probably looking for reassurance.”
The fractious politics of NATO has been one of the central challenges of the current crisis. The Biden administration has worked hard, with significant success, to unify the military alliance of 30 countries who have a variety of interests and sensitivities. NATO’s easternmost members, such as Poland and Romania, have been especially anxious that Russia will turn its aggression on them next.
Harris is likely to discuss with those country’s leaders such issues as Poland’s desire to supply fighter jets to Ukraine at a time the United States is seeking to avoid anything that the Kremlin could construe as a direct engagement between NATO and Russia. At the Munich Security Conference last month, Harris met with the leaders of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, three other former Soviet bloc nations that asked the United States to send more troops to their territory.
Harris’s outreach suggests Biden is coming to rely on her more for sensitive assignments after a stretch in which she seemed to draw only unenviable, politically perilous tasks such as tackling the root causes of immigration. It is also part of the administration’s larger effort to address the aftershocks of the invasion, from calming Russia’s jittery neighbors to keeping Moscow isolated and managing the world supply of oil.
On Monday, Biden held a call with the leaders of Germany, France and the United Kingdom, where they spoke of how to increase the penalties on Russia and provide an array of assistance to Ukraine. But the sprawling diplomatic needs are requiring reinforcements.
“Joe Biden doesn’t have enough time to do everything, so they need a second senior in the room to double down on the efforts,” said one European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about a fluid situation. “You can see her trip as a reassurance for the eastern flank [of Europe].”
While Harris offers the administration a force multiplier on the international stage, her talks over the next few days will remain delicate as the United States tries to toe the line between supporting Ukraine and stumbling into direct conflict with Russia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington is exploring how it might help Poland supply Ukraine with fighter jets, potentially with the United States transferring American planes to Poland to compensate for those given to Ukraine.
In the lead-up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, cracks had appeared among NATO allies. France was skeptical of what Britain and the United States insisted was Putin’s determination to invade. And Germany for months resisted publicly abandoning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a long-planned project that was expected to lower energy prices in Europe. Divisions also emerged on how far to go in imposing sanctions on Russia.
But when the bombs began falling, European nations came together with remarkable speed to apply far-reaching sanctions, dealing major blows to Russia’s economy in combination with unprecedented penalties from the United States. The European Union authorized, for the first time, the financing and export of arms to a nation under attack.
Beyond that, countries such as Poland, an E.U. and NATO member that had been drifting away from Western norms, has thrust itself firmly back into Europe’s embrace, while countries outside the alliance have shown renewed interest in joining the two organizations.
That cohesion is not without fissures, though, and tension has been visible as Ukrainian leaders plead for expanded military assistance, including a no-fly zone and combat aircraft to counter Russian air attacks. In a tour of Europe this week, Blinken ruled out U.S. support for a no-fly zone because, he said, it could require NATO planes to shoot down Russian jets, potentially plunging the continent into a much larger war. NATO chief Stoltenberg also dismissed the idea.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed Monday that Harris would also seek to find ways for the United States to help assuage the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, as some 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled their homes seeking succor in neighboring countries.
“A number of these countries, including the ones she will be visiting, have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine,” Psaki said. “She’ll also be talking about our ongoing range of options and assistance that we’ve been providing to the Ukrainian people.”
Since Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine began last year, the Biden administration sought to orchestrate a message of NATO unity and strength, one that officials hoped would deter Putin from launching an attack, and now hope will isolate Moscow enough to force a change in course.
The months of consultations with NATO partners also offered the administration a chance to illustrate its competence in navigating global challenges following the troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan, which laid bare U.S. intelligence failures and left many allies feeling ignored.
And in many ways, Harris’s trip to Europe — her second in less than a month — is in line with the precedent of previous vice presidents, who often found themselves sent on overseas reassurance missions that their boss was unable or unwilling to do. The first trip Mike Pence took as President Donald Trump’s second-in-command was to the Munich Security Conference in early 2017.
Pence’s role was to comfort nervous European allies with promises of America’s deep commitment to a robust transatlantic defense, and he hit on themes not dissimilar from Harris’s speech in Germany last month, calling for an end to the tensions that surrounded Ukraine even then and promising “to hold Russia accountable.”
Later in 2017, Pence journeyed to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro for a trip intended to reassure Eastern European nations of the United States’ commitment to NATO in the face of Russian aggression. “Russia’s destabilizing activities, its support for rogue regimes, its activities in Ukraine, are unacceptable,” Pence said at the time, offering the sort of line that Harris could just as easily deliver later this week.
Trump, however, went on to undermine that message throughout his presidency, challenging the NATO alliance, showcasing his disdain for European leaders and expressing admiration for Putin. When Biden took office, he sought to rebuild these alliances, but that has sometimes been an uphill battle as foreign leaders question the United States’ reliability.
Harris is widely considered a potential successor to Biden in 2028, or 2024 if the oldest president in the nation’s history chooses to not seek reelection. But she entered the vice presidency with little foreign policy experience, especially compared with Biden, who boasted of long-standing relationships with many national leaders.
Harris’s supporters were buoyed by her performance in Munich and hope it is a matter of time before she sheds the image of a novice on the international stage. By the end of this week, she will have traveled to five countries in as many months: France, Honduras, Germany, Poland and Romania.
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