By Kevin Liptak and Maegan Vazquez, CNN
Vice President Kamala Harris sought to reinforce cooperative ties between the United States and Poland as she met with the Polish President in the wake of an apparent disconnect between the two countries over providing Ukraine with fighter jets.
“I want to be very clear. The United States and Poland are united in what we have done and are prepared to help Ukraine and the people of Ukraine, full stop,” Harris said alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda during a joint news conference.
Harris was tasked on Thursday with smoothing over a relationship with a key ally after the US rejected Poland’s surprise proposal to facilitate the transfer of its jets to Ukraine. Poland’s offer to deliver the jets to Ukraine was designed to avoid the appearance of Poland directly arming Ukraine. However, the proposal created a conundrum for the US, which is also intent on avoiding direct conflict with Russia. The offer had also not been discussed with the US before Poland announced it publicly.
Harris skirted directly addressing the issue during the news conference and instead underscored the military support the United States is already providing Ukraine short of air power, including antitank missiles.
“We’re making deliveries every day in terms of what we can do,” Harris said.
Asked what more Ukraine could expect, Harris said, “That is an ongoing process and that is not going to stop to the extent there is a need.”
Harris emphasized during the news conference that she was traveling to one of NATO’s easternmost allies to show the United States’ commitment to the region’s security and announced the delivery of two new Patriot missile systems to Poland.
“What is at stake, this very moment, are some of the guiding principles around the NATO alliance. And in particular, the issue of the importance of defending sovereignty and territorial integrity and in this case of Ukraine,” Harris said as she began a joint news conference with Polish President
“The United States is prepared to defend every inch of NATO territory. The United States takes seriously that an attack against one is an attack against all,” Harris said.
A tough diplomatic assignment
Alongside Duda, Harris said her presence in Warsaw was a signal of American commitment to the alliance.
“I am here in Poland as an expression of the enduring and important relationship, that, again, has been longstanding, but in particular on the issue of Ukraine is unified and is clear: we will do everything together in partnership, in solidarity to support what is necessary at this very moment in terms of the humanitarian and security needs of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” she said.
She said the US was fulfilling requests to provide Poland with Patriot missiles. A spokesman for US European Command said in a statement Tuesday night that the US was sending two new Patriot missile batteries to Poland as defensive weapons to counter any potential threat to US and NATO allies amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Patriots are air defense missile systems designed to counter and destroy incoming short-range ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft and cruise missiles.
“What compels us also is the moral outrage that all civilized nations feel when we look at what is happening: innocent men, women, children, grandmothers, grandfathers who are fleeing everything,” Harris said.
Harris added that “atrocities of unimaginable proportions” were underway in Ukraine. However, she stopped short of calling Russia’s actions in Ukraine war crimes.
“We are also very clear that any intentional attack on innocent civilians is a violation,” Harris said, adding, “The UN has set up a process by which there will be a review and investigations, and we will of course participate as appropriate and necessary.”
But she said images from Ukraine clearly showed atrocities taking place, even before an investigation determines what to call them.
“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,” she said.
Duda was more direct, calling war crimes “obvious” in Ukraine and saying refugees coming to his country have evidence of it on their phones.
Before they sat down for talks, Harris greeted Duda at the entrance to the Belvedere Palace. Under a blue sunny sky, they shook hands and spoke through face masks before walking indoors.
Harris met first with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the chancellery building, laying out her primary focus for the visit: reaffirming American commitment to eastern flank NATO allies.
“I wish it were under other circumstances,” she said of her visit.
The fighter jet issue didn’t arise directly in Harris’s first public appearance, though she has said she was ready to discuss security and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. She also said she was working to reinforce US commitment to ensure Russia faces a “serious and severe consequence” for its invasion of Ukraine.
And she thanked the Polish Prime Minister and his country for welcoming Ukrainian refugees with “courage and generosity.”
Rejected fighter jet proposal hands over meeting
The timing of the back-and-forth over the Polish fighter jet proposal inevitably meant it would be one of the major flashpoints of Harris’ diplomatic mission, though it was scheduled days before the dust-up unfolded.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday described the situation as a “temporary breakdown in communication.” She said the jets issue will not be the focus of Harris’ meeting with Duda, but the vice president is expected to help patch things up.
“Obviously the vice president is on her way there, not related to this particular issue which will be worked through military channels, but it was more about the mechanism for how it would be delivered and that is the issue that is operational and we’re still discussing,” Psaki said.
Psaki also said there are “clearly logistical challenges” with the proposal from Poland, including getting planes into Ukraine in a way that is not escalatory, potentially having to disassemble and reassemble planes, and ensuring the aircrafts’ safe movement amid a war.
However, the Pentagon on Wednesday flat out rejected the idea, with spokesman John Kirby saying in a briefing that the US doesn’t support the transfer of combat aircraft to Ukraine, either by Poland transferring them to Ukraine with the US backfilling Poland’s fleet or by Poland transferring the MiG-29s to the US to then give them to Ukraine.
The US intelligence community believes transferring the planes to Ukraine now could be seen by Russian President Vladimir Putin as an “escalatory step,” Kirby said.
“The intelligence community has assessed that the transfer of MiG-29’s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO,” Kirby said.
The Defense Department said in lieu of facilitating the transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine, the US is in discussion with “many countries” about providing additional air defense systems to Ukraine.
A show of western unity
Harris’ trip is part of the US’ larger diplomatic push to reinforce the West’s unity against Russian aggression in Ukraine. The vice president is also playing a role in reassuring NATO’s eastern European member countries amid concerns that Russia may have its sights set on them next.
Officials have said Harris plans to use the trip to focus mainly on “next steps” in eastern Europe’s handling of the ongoing conflict, including future plans related to sanctions, refugees and military assistance to Ukraine.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe was evident right outside her door.
Just across the street from her hotel in Warsaw is the central bus station where refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine have been arriving by the thousands since last week.
Inside, volunteers in yellow vests are directing the new arrivals to counters helping with accommodation, translation and onward journeys. Long lines wrap around tables offering hot coffee and sandwiches. Boxes of donated clothes are positioned in corners and piles of diapers and baby products are available for the taking.
The new arrivals appeared dazed and somewhat disoriented, albeit relieved to have arrived in Poland. None said they knew the American vice president was also in Warsaw, staying in the hotel next door.
One woman, who declined to provide her name, had just arrived with a small family and their husky mix. She said she didn’t know Harris was visiting Warsaw; after all, she’d just completed a long journey out of Ukraine.
If she had a message for the United States, it was simply: “please help Ukraine.”
Harris is scheduled to hold a roundtable with refugees later Thursday after meeting with Duda. She will also meet with Ukrainian refugees and American diplomats who relocated to Poland from the US Embassy in Kyiv, which closed amid the conflict.
She’ll also meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is visiting at the same time, and will speak to US and Polish troops on Friday.
The vice president will also travel to Romania to meet with the country’s president and staff at the US embassy. And like Poland, Romania is a NATO member where the US has deployed troops amid heightened tensions with Russia.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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CNN’s Ellie Kaufman, Michael Conte, Veronica Stracqualursi and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.