Vice President Kamala Harris was wheels up to Warsaw Wednesday to thank Poland for taking in more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees — but the veep will land in the middle of a controversy over the US rejecting an offer from Poland to transfer Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine via an American air base in Germany.
The Polish government announced Tuesday it had offered to deploy 28 MiG-29 jets to Ramstein Air Base for the US to take possession of and offer to the Kyiv government. However, the Pentagon said the offer “raises serious concerns” and rejected it as not “tenable.”
“The prospect of fighter jets ‘at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America’ departing from a US/NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24, has warned that Moscow would retaliate against nations that aided Ukraine militarily or participated in a no-fly zone over the country.
In a call on Saturday with members of Congress, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had pleaded with lawmakers to establish a no-fly zone and send fighter jets to assist Ukrainian forces trying to repel Russian troops.
The White House appeared to be caught off guard by the Polish proposal even after Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said over the weekend that NATO had given Poland a “green light” to send the jets.
The confusion over the overture marks a rare moment of discord among the US and its allies after they agreed to impose a series of crippling sanctions against Russian banks, Putin, and his inner circle of oligarchs that has caused the ruble to plummet to record lows.
Harris’ already high-stakes visit to Poland and Romania will now also involve sorting out this disagreement.
“This fighter jet situation is a messy deal, and Harris will have to go there and smooth things out,” Daniel Fried, who served as US ambassador to Poland for President Bill Clinton and was a senior adviser in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, told the Associated Press.
“There’s plenty of discussion on the way ahead that needs to be had with the Poles that is better to have in an in-person conversation,” Fried added.
In return for giving up the MiGs, Poland had asked the US to resupply it with F-16s. On Wednesday, the head of US European Command ordered two Patriot missile batteries to be moved from Germany to Poland in a preemptive move to “counter any potential threat to US and Allied forces and NATO territory,” a EUCOM spokeswoman said.
This week’s sojourn is the latest high-level foreign trip by Harris, who was dispatched to the Munich Security Conference in Germany days before the Russian invasion commenced. Republican members of Congress had ridiculed that visit, pointing to Harris failing to halt the ongoing US-Mexico border crisis as Biden’s migration czar.
Last year, Harris was sent to France to smooth things over with French President Emmanuel Macron following the announcement of a US-UK submarine deal with Australia that superseded an earlier agreement between the Paris and Canberra governments.
Harris was also mocked earlier this year for providing a too-basic breakdown of the European crisis in a radio interview, beginning her explanation of the tense geopolitical situation by saying, “Ukraine is a country in Europe.”
In Poland, which has taken in more than 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees, the vice president will discuss implementing economic sanctions on Russia, unity among the Western allies, and humanitarian and security assistance to Ukraine, senior administration officials said.
Along with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday, Harris is scheduled to meet with Ukrainians who have fled to Poland.
She’ll also discuss Ukraine with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is also visiting Warsaw this week.
On Friday, Harris is due to meet with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest before returning to Washington.