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Vice President Kamala Harris sought to reinforce cooperative ties between the United States and Poland as she met with the country's President in the wake of an apparent disconnect between the two NATO members 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.
It was a diplomatic response to a situation that had angered some US officials and complicated Harris' visit. In Warsaw, Harris is acting as an emissary of US resolve to protecting its NATO allies on the eastern flank, and she underscored that commitment to the region's security by announcing the delivery of two new Patriot missile systems to Poland.
She also pledged more humanitarian support, announcing $53 million in new assistance and saying the United States would help countries like Poland where massive numbers of refugees have fled the fighting. She met later in the day with seven people the White House described as "displaced" and said the conversation would inform policy decisions back home.
"You've been through so much. And the people at this table represent well over a million people," she said.
But at least in terms of military assistance to Ukraine, Harris didn't offer any commitments beyond what the United States is already providing, including Javelin and Stinger missiles.
The dust-up over providing fighter jets to Ukraine ultimately became moot when the Pentagon flat-out rejected the idea of transferring them at all, citing logistical and strategic concerns. But that was only after the awkward episode of Poland's offer to deliver the jets to the US -- who could then provide them to Ukraine -- left White House officials surprised and, to some extent, annoyed.
Harris was tasked with smoothing over the matter. Poland's offer was designed to avoid the appearance of Poland directly arming Ukraine, and Duda said alongside Harris he wanted buy-in from other NATO members before taking the step.
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.
"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."
Her primary message, however, was not necessarily to Ukrainians but to people living in the countries just to its west, who are watching Russian President Vladimir Putin and wondering where he may set his intentions next. She said as long as countries were in NATO, the US would take action to defend them.
"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.
Before she announced that 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.
Those missiles are heading to Poland, however; for Ukraine, Harris instead emphasized the tough package of economic sanctions the West has imposed on Putin and sought to underscore the efforts to continue holding Russia responsible for its actions.
"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.
She added that "atrocities of unimaginable proportions" were underway in Ukraine. But, 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."
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, shaking hands under a sunny blue sky.
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.
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."
- by Kevin Liptak and Maegan Vazquez, CNN