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Harris and Polish president seek to move beyond disagreement over jets

Vice president is visiting Poland and Romania amid Ukraine war to reassure NATO allies who are worried they might be next in Russia’s crosshairs

Vice President Harris prepares to board Air Force Two on March 9 for a three-day trip to Poland and Romania. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

WARSAW — Vice President Harris and Polish President Andrzej Duda sought Thursday to downplay a disagreement between their countries over providing fighter jets for Ukraine, emphasizing instead America’s commitment to defend NATO and to help a flood of Ukrainian refugees.

Harris’s meeting with Duda, like a session with Romanian leaders set for Friday, was an effort to reassure NATO countries increasingly anxious about Russian aggression. But its early moments were overshadowed by a surprise statement by Poland earlier in the week that it wanted to transfer an unspecified number of MiG-29 jets to the United States, which could launch them from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

The United States soundly rejected that offer, worried that the prospect of jets taking off from a NATO country to battle it out with Russian planes in the skies over Ukraine could turn a war between two countries into a broader, even global, conflict.

Why the U.S. shot down Poland's offer

Asked about the fighter planes on Thursday, Harris stressed that the tactical disagreement on that issue did not blunt the broad U.S. support for Poland and other NATO member nations.

“I want to be very clear,” Harris told reporters. “The United States and Poland are united in what we have done, and are prepared to do, to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine, full stop.”

She added, “The United States’ commitment to Article 5 is ironclad. The United States is prepared to defend every inch of NATO territory.” Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the alliance’s members agree to come to one another’s aid in case of attack.

Poland and Romania are NATO members, while Ukraine is not.

The disagreement over the proposed jet transfers sent ripples through NATO, highlighting the reality that members who are nearer Russia’s borders, fearing they may be Moscow’s next targets, often favor tougher actions against Moscow.

A senior European official said in an interview that Western officials were taken aback by Poland’s announcement, and another European official said he was “sideswiped.”

In Washington, more than 40 Republican U.S. senators said in a letter Thursday that they “strongly disagree” with the Biden administration’s stance on Poland’s proposal and urged President Biden to aid the transfer of aircraft to Ukraine.

“We implore you to direct your Department of Defense to facilitate the transfer of aircraft, air defense systems, and other capabilities by and through our NATO partners immediately,” the senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wrote.

Duda declined to talk about what, if any, communication he had with the United States before unexpectedly announcing that his country was willing to transfer jets, but defended the decision as an effort to be collaborative.

“Simply, we decided to put those jets at the disposal of NATO, not expecting anything in return,” the Polish president said. “We wanted NATO as a whole to make a common decision, so that Poland remains a credible member of NATO.”

He added, “We have to be a responsible member of the North Atlantic alliance — that’s why there were requests addressed to us. Those requests were addressed to us by the Ukrainian side as well as to some extent the media. We behaved as a reliable member of NATO should behave.”

The diplomatic tiff aside, the image of Harris standing alongside the leader of a NATO ally not far from Russia was intended to send a forceful warning to Moscow — and signal that while the United States is not sending troops to Ukraine, it remains committed to defending the alliance’s members.

Blinken: We will defend every inch of NATO

But Duda said his nation’s most pressing issue is the crush of Ukrainians streaming into Poland, engulfing border towns and arriving in Warsaw by train.

During the meeting with Harris, he said that more than a million Ukrainians had streamed across the Polish border in the past 10 days, overwhelming the country despite its sincere desire to help. Aggravating the challenge, the prices of gas and other goods have shot up in the wake of the invasion, he said, and a humanitarian crisis is quickly morphing into a “humanitarian disaster.”

Poland has taken in 1.5 million refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine, and many of them are staying with Polish families — “a reason to be proud,” Duda said.

Harris praised the generosity of those in Poland who are taking in strangers.

Talks between top diplomats of Ukraine and Russia on March 10 failed to reach an agreement on a cease-fire, while Mariupol, Ukraine, raced to bury the dead. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“We recognize the burden that it places on the government of Poland, on the president and the infrastructure of this country,” Harris said. “So the United States is absolutely prepared to do what we can and what we must to support Poland in terms of the burden that they have taken on.”

Harris announced that the United States would donate $50 million to the U.N. World Food Program, and she met with displaced people later in the day.

But some of the refugees pouring into Poland said the United States and other Western countries were not doing enough to help.

Lena Kosianenko, sitting in the Przemysl train station near the Medyka border crossing, arrived Thursday in Poland from Sumy, Ukraine, where she escaped from constant Russian shelling. The 43-year-old is worried what will happen to her city while she is gone.

The United States and NATO must step in, she said, because other cities will suffer as Sumy has if Putin is not stopped. “They speak in a beautiful way,” Kosianenko said of U.S. and NATO leaders. “But we need more support. They need to close the skies, because our cities are constantly being bombed.”

Kosianenko, who had been volunteering at a food kitchen in Sumy before she left, said she served soldiers who wanted guns and ammunition but received none. If the United States and NATO do not enforce a no-fly zone, she said, she hopes they will at least send Ukraine more weapons.

American leaders have argued that setting up a meaningful no-fly zone over Ukraine would obligate them to shoot down any Russian planes that might violate it, risking a much broader conflict.

Other Ukrainian refugees agreed with Kosianenko, though some said they understood the difficult situation facing NATO. Irena Moiseenko, 44, said she wanted no-fly zone but worried it would have far-reaching consequences.

“That could start the third world war,” said Moiseenko, who was boarding a bus to Germany outside a school turned refugee center in Przemysl. “Still, [NATO and the United States] have done a lot for Ukraine, and we are very thankful for that.”

The native of Dnipro, Ukraine, wants the West to at least send more weapons, a sentiment echoed by several other Ukrainians interviewed Thursday.

“Pilots don’t have planes. Fighters don’t have guns,” said Viktor Ivanonvich, a 64-year-old from Kyiv who left behind his children and grandchildren. NATO, he said, “can always help more. The bombings will not stop without their support.”

Harris’s visit marked another step in her emergence as one of President Biden’s top representatives on the world stage during the Ukraine crisis. At the outset of Russia’s invasion, Harris was at a security conference in Germany where she met with European leaders on how to coordinate their response.

On Thursday, beyond voicing support for Ukrainians and Poles, she sharply condemned Russia, saying the country should be investigated for war crimes, particularly after three people, including a child, were killed in a Russian rocket attack on a maternity hospital.

“Absolutely there should be an investigation,” Harris said. “I have no question the eyes of the world are on this war and what Russia has done in terms of this aggression and these atrocities.”

The vice president also visited the American School in Warsaw, telling the audience, “You are not alone. And I know there’s so much about the experience that you’ve had that has made you feel alone. You are not alone — we around the world are watching.”

Rosenzweig-Ziff reported from Przemysl. Hannah Knowles in Washington contributed to this report.