Vice President Kamala Harris ventured farther toward NATO’s eastern edge Friday with a stop in Romania, a country suddenly thrust into priority position for the United States as fighting rages over its border in Ukraine.
Harris will meet Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Friday afternoon before convening a news conference and returning late to Washington. In short, remarks ahead of their sit-down talks, Harris and Iohannis said they wished they could be meeting under different circumstances.
“Difficult times,” Iohannis observed. “Your visit here gives us strength and is living proof of our strong partnership.”
Harris said reaffirming US commitment to Romania and NATO was the reason for her trip, which is the highest-ranking visit to the region since the war in Ukraine began.
“That is why I am here,” she said. “To reaffirm our commitment to this partnership, to the friendship and also to the NATO alliance as a whole and everything that the United States has been and is prepared to do going forward, it terms of the strength of that relationship and its endurance.”
Her trip has been a test both of her diplomatic abilities and the resolve of the broader Western allies to forcefully confront Russian President Vladimir Putin for launching the largest ground invasion in Europe since World War II.
President Joe Biden has already dispatched 1,000 troops to Romania and pledged support for the country as it accommodates a major influx of migrants fleeing the war next door. But a visit by his number two is meant to demonstrate American commitment at a deeply uncertain moment for the region.
Unlike Ukraine, Romania is a member of NATO, and an attack on the country by Russia would trigger the alliance’s collective defense treaty, which says an attack on one is an attack on all.
But even the protection of NATO, a system of alliance bases and a missile defense system can’t entirely calm nerves in this former Soviet satellite state that’s been invaded by Russia repeatedly over the course of its history.
Harris arrived in Bucharest from Poland, where she reinforced American commitment to another NATO ally that is watching warily for Putin’s next move. She met with American and Polish troops Friday morning and said the US was committed to protecting “every inch” of NATO territory.
“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 after meeting President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw.
She announced the US had fulfilled a delivery of Patriot missiles to Poland and promised to support the country as it grapples with its own surge of migrants, which has strained public resources, despite an overwhelming welcome from the Polish people.
Still, her visit also underscored the limits to American or NATO willingness to protect civilians in Ukraine. A plan that had been considered to supply Ukraine with Polish fighter jets was deemed impossible by the Pentagon before she arrived, and she offered little indication it may be revived in the future.
Instead, Harris underscored the military support the United States is already providing Ukraine short of airpower, including anti-tank missiles, which the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has deemed insufficient.
“We’re making deliveries every day in terms of what we can do,” Harris said. Asked what more Ukraine could expect, she said, “That is an ongoing process and that is not going to stop to the extent there is a need.”
Harris also amplified atrocities that she said are underway in Ukraine, though she stopped short of calling them war crimes. She called on the United Nations to investigate.
But she adhered to the red line Biden has set, which is that the American military won’t get directly involved in the war.
An official traveling with the vice president said her visit was intended as more than mere symbolism, designed to show the US was putting its “money where its mouth is” by sending additional troops to NATO’s eastern reaches.
But the official also acknowledged that Harris’ brand of reassurance diplomacy gained more significance because Biden is intent on avoiding direct conflict with Russia.
“The President’s been pretty clear about not engaging in direct military conflict with Russia, not putting troops into Ukraine, but he’s also been pretty clear … about our determination to make Russia pay a price for that and to continue to provide assistance to Ukraine,” the official said. “And that’s why the vice president is here to make sure that we can do that in an effective way. And I think she has been very effective in doing it.”