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

NBC News logo NBC News 3/10/2022 Josh Lederman and Courtney Kube and Dan De Luce and Laura Saravia
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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 with 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.

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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 and counting.

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 planned to meet Thursday with Polish President Andrzej Duda and visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as visit with 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.”

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 be likely to 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.”

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