U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is on a three-day trip to Poland and Romania to rally NATO allies against Russian aggression. But first she needs to patch up a misunderstanding over Warsaw's offer to make its fleet of MiG-29 jet fighters available to Ukraine.
The Biden administration was caught off guard by Poland's public offer on Tuesday to donate the Soviet-era aircraft to the U.S. so they could be transferred to Ukraine. The Pentagon immediately opposed the move, describing it as "high risk" and "untenable." On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted to a "temporary breakdown in communication" with Warsaw.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been asking for the jets, which his pilots know how to fly. He has also been urging NATO to declare a no-fly zone over his country to protect it from Russian airstrikes.
"Obviously, the vice president is on her way there, not — not related to this particular issue, which will be worked through military channels," Psaki said Wednesday.
Psaki's statement stood in contrast to what a senior administration official said to reporters Tuesday when asked about the jet transfer: that the U.S. has been in dialogue with the Poles for some time about how best to provide a variety of security assistance to Ukraine and that the dialogue "absolutely will continue up to and as part of the vice president's trip."
The official declined to speculate further as to why the government of Polish President Andrzej Duda went public with the plan without coordination with Washington.
The MiG situation is an unnecessary misunderstanding amid a crisis, said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund's Warsaw office.
"VP Harris in Warsaw will have a chance to address and smooth over this misunderstanding by clarifying that the U.S. doesn't expect Poland to take an undue risk in organizing the MiG transfer alone," Baranowski told VOA. "VP can reassure the Poles by making clear that NATO as a whole will take on this issue."
Meanwhile, the Polish government has indicated that whether to transfer the planes needs to be a joint decision by NATO. The bigger challenge for Harris and NATO leaders may be to agree on further steps to strengthen NATO's eastern flank and effectively help Ukraine without being drawn into a wider war in Europe.
Imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, even a limited one to provide protection for humanitarian corridors, may mean potentially shooting down Russian jet fighters. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that any attempt to create a no-fly zone would be the equivalent of "participating in the armed conflict."
"That proposal is much harder to implement than transferring MiGs to Ukraine," Baranowski said.
Analysts say the trip could be a litmus test for Harris. A satisfactory resolution on the MiG issue in the context of a broader NATO initiative, in addition to a strong show of unity in the alliance, would be seen as an achievement for the administration that will bolster the vice president's foreign policy credentials.
In Warsaw, she will also face questions about how to respond to the war's latest atrocity: a Russian airstrike Wednesday on a children's hospital in the city of Mariupol.
Can she deliver?
Harris, who served in the Senate from 2017 to 2022 and as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, does not have the same foreign policy credentials that then-Vice President Joe Biden had in the Obama administration as a longtime member and chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
"Harris does not enjoy the perception of experience in foreign policy that President Biden has," Thomas Schwartz, presidential historian at Vanderbilt University, told VOA. Schwartz pointed out that Harris' favorability rating, based on a RealClearPolitics poll, is only 37.8, and "she is seen by many as a lightweight."
Biden has carved out a higher international profile for his vice president. Last month, Harris represented the administration at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, where she met with more than a dozen heads of the state and addressed the world's top national security officials as concerns grew about Russian troops at Ukraine's border.
A lack of diplomatic experience may not matter in this case, said Andrew Cohen, author and professor of journalism at Carleton University. What matters is that to NATO leaders, Harris has "the direct ear" of the president.
Cohen pointed out to VOA that many vice presidents lacked foreign policy experience, including Mike Pence, who was the governor of Indiana before serving in the Trump administration.
Cohen added that in the age of conducting foreign policy over teleconference, sending the administration's second-ranking official to Poland sends a strong message.
"She is not expected to resolve the crisis. She is there as a show of confidence," Cohen said. "She isn't going to make policy, but she'll reflect it at the highest levels."
There's another reason why Biden is sending Harris — to help her be seen as his logical successor in the 2024 election should the 79-year-old president choose not to run again.
"She needs to make both Democrats and independents see her as effectively an assistant president," Schwartz said. "Foreign policy could be a way to do this."
According to a preview of her schedule provided by the White House, Harris will hold a bilateral meeting with Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday, followed by a separate meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also in Warsaw.
While in Poland, the vice president will visit some of the thousands of Ukrainian refugees. On Friday, she will be in Bucharest to meet with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.