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Kamala Harris finds herself center stage of the Ukraine crisis

Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Poland on Wednesday comes amid tense times in the region and difficult negotiations between Warsaw and Washington.

But administration officials say she’s not there to make any deals, whether it be on humanitarian aid or the transfer of military equipment. Instead, her role is to serve as an emissary and an emblem of the administration’s commitment to the country and the trans-Atlantic alliance more broadly.

The vice president has been trying to build her chops as a serious foreign policy player, an image that’s eluded her throughout her career. But the backdrop for her trip has changed dramatically since it was first announced on March 4. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rages on Poland’s doorstep, forcing more than 2 million people to flee their homes. And, in the last 24 hours, Warsaw and Washington openly sparred over a plan to send Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, before the Biden administration put the deal on ice for fear of escalating tensions further with Moscow.

There’s no indication that Harris’ trip was aimed at dealing with that impasse. Rather, administration officials and allies say her goal is to bring sensitive requests back to the president and to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to help Ukraine and others affected by the Russian invasion.

Administration officials and allies say Harris’ sojourn to Europe is an illustration of President Joe Biden’s trust in her in these moments, even in fields like national security, where she has not been given much of a portfolio during her vice presidency. They note the good reviews she received just a few weeks ago for her appearance at the Munich Security Conference as evidence that she’s more deft in international diplomacy than her critics concede.

“The vice president’s visit is meant to send a signal of reassurance and unity on the part of the United States to these Eastern NATO allies,” said Olga Oliker, the Brussels-based Europe and Central Asia program director for the International Crisis Group.

But this trip is not a confab of the global elite in a posh conference setting. Instead, Harris will be meeting with the leaders of both Poland and Romania, as well as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also in Poland on a diplomatic trip. She will also hear from American troops and Ukrainian refugees — more than a 1 million of whom fled to Poland.

Harris’ trip will be conducted largely out of public view as White House staff remain loath to offer reporters a peek behind high-stakes curtains. Senior officials wouldn’t discuss her preparation for the Eastern European visit — instead pointing to “a number of specific sessions focused on these countries, briefings and discussions with experts.” They said that Harris had done her homework once it became clear to American officials that Russia was preparing for a full-scale incursion of Ukraine.

“The past couple of months have all been very much focused on what has tragically become a defining issue for the entire administration,” one official said.

The trip marks an elevation for Harris whose main portfolios have been root causes of migration to the U.S. southern border and voting rights. Her opponents have chastised her as being ill-prepared for the world stage, let alone the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. But her defenders say she’s up to the task, noting that her time on the Senate Intelligence Committee came right at the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increased meddling in U.S. politics.

“She really had in the Senate a crash course on Vladimir Putin’s intentions when it comes to attacking our democracy,” said Halie Soifer, who served as Harris’ national security adviser while she was a senator. “And much of that experience is now applicable to what she is doing now.”

A person familiar with how the vice president’s office preps for meetings with allies said that Harris wants to be briefed on specific asks that her counterparts may have and what deliverables the U.S. can provide. Her philosophy is that “we should be delivering for our allies and partners because, you know, we need to stand in the gap for them because one day, hopefully not any day soon, but we [might] need their help.” The only time the NATO alliance invoked Article 5 — the provision that says an attack on one is an attack on all members — was after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

It’s normal for vice presidents to go on high-stakes diplomatic missions during times of war. When Biden was the White House’s No. 2, then-President Barack Obama named him the administration’s point man on Iraq and later as the Ukraine lead following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But Biden had spent decades, by that point, entrenched in foreign policy debates, participating in Codels, and shaping U.S. policy abroad as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Harris has had a far more limited international footprint. She’s a career prosecutor whose most notable national experience came from serving four years on the Senate Intelligence Committee. And her earlier trips as vice president have been to the northern triangle countries in South America that were at the heart of the migrant overflow on the U.S. southern border. The first one, to Guatemala and Mexico, was memorable for its missteps.

“There’s a lot in this portfolio that she’s had to learn. She had some exposure to foreign policy and national security issues in her work in the Senate, but her areas of deepest expertise have been in domestic policy. So I think this has been a learning curve for her, but I also think she’s done very well,” one former adviser said.

Heading to Eastern Europe in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is of an order of significance Harris has yet to tackle, one where missteps could harm alliances at a crucial and tense moment.

Some of the groundwork for her was already laid by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spent parts of last week in Poland to talk with his counterpart. “The very ideals that bind us — freedom, democracy, peace, security — are under threat in this region as never before, certainly not since the Second World War,” Blinken said alongside Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. “We will stand together, as we’ve been standing together, in support of Ukraine and against Russia’s unprovoked, unwarranted, premeditated invasion.”

“In addition to the secretary of state who you would expect to be out there doing retail diplomacy, when the president is not able to come, sending the vice president is sending his stand-in, his partner. It’s important symbolically,” said Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense and adviser to Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign. “Every time you sort of ratchet up the pressure or have to modify your response to the evolving situation, you’ve got to engage your allies and get their thoughts on how they’re seeing things.”

Flournoy says the administration has had to spend months repairing relationships with NATO allies after former President Donald Trump diminished and undercut the alliance. While allies are far happier with Biden than his predecessor, they have quietly chastised the administration for withdrawing from Afghanistan without close consultation and boxing out France from a nuclear-submarine deal. Flournoy, however, thinks Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis early on has been huge in improving some of the frayed relationships.

That’s evident in how the U.S. coordinated a transatlantic response to Russia’s invasion, moving in lockstep on imposing crushing sanctions and sending weapons to Ukrainian forces. Many European countries, most notably Germany, have now committed to spend considerably more funds to bolster their own defenses — a decision the U.S. has long encouraged allies to take.

Harris in recent months has played a more central role in a Biden foreign policy team defined, in part, by its insularity. Beyond her recent Europe trip, she also went to Honduras for the country’s inauguration of its newly elected president. The decision to dispatch her to Poland, observers say, is no mere coincidence.

“The trip underscores her central role in implementing U.S. policy in the region,” said Ivo Daalder, America’s ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013 who’s now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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