Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on Thursday, where she’s tasked with smoothing over a relationship with a key ally after the US rejected Poland’s surprise proposal to facilitate the transfer of its Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine.
Harris’ meeting with the hard-right nationalist may make for an awkward diplomatic moment, given that the US has rejected Poland’s offer to supply the jets – which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been asking for.
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 an attempt on avoiding direct conflict with Russia. The offer had also not been discussed with the US before Poland announced it publicly.
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 plans into Ukraine in a way that is not escalatory, potentially having to disassemble and reassemble plans, 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 plans 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.
The Biden administration has kept the controversial Polish President close during the Ukraine conflict, deploying thousands of additional troops to bases in Poland.
Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor to the west, has also received more than 1.2 million refugees since February 24, according to the United Nations.
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.
Along with the Duda meeting, Harris 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.