Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Germany on Thursday to meet this weekend with Ukraine’s president and anxious European allies, who remain uncertain whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will pull back from the brink of a destabilizing war with Ukraine, Biden administration officials said.
Harris’ visit to the Munich Security Conference, where she will lead a delegation that includes Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, represents the latest high-level attempt by the White House to demonstrate unity with the leaders of Western nations and Ukraine seeking to avert what could spark the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II.
Harris plans to meet Saturday with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said a senior administration official previewing the trip on background for journalists. The official acknowledged, however, that the situation remained fluid given the possibility that Zelensky may opt not to leave Ukraine with Russia in position to attack.
Russian officials are not expected to attend the conference, an annual gathering of the world’s top national security officials, and participation by Ukrainian officials is uncertain.
The show of unity by the United States and its European partners is part of a strategy aimed at reminding Putin of the potential for economic and diplomatic isolation should he order an invasion.
“The unity issue — that is the core diplomatic objective, or one of the core diplomatic objectives, at this point,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think tank. “If Putin is dissuaded from invading, it will almost certainly be because of this unified approach.”
The need for a cohesive response by U.S. allies is a point that Harris plans to underscore in a speech she plans to deliver at the conference on Saturday, the administration official said. She’ll also look to affirm the U.S. commitment to Ukraine, NATO and the broader democratic world order in meetings on the sidelines of the conference.
On Friday, the vice president is scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, a trio of Baltic state leaders and a congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). She’ll also meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday.
All of Harris’ meetings, the senior administration official said, will aim to “ensure that the transatlantic community, the NATO alliance … speak with one voice that is strong and resolute.”
The last time the world leaders, diplomats and defense officials met at the Munich Security Conference, two years ago, conversations focused on the theme of “Westlessness” — a lack of cohesion and shared focus among the world’s democratic powers.
After last year’s conference was canceled due to the pandemic, attendees will return to Bavaria’s storied capital this weekend with the West as aligned as it has been in some time. That’s largely in response to Moscow’s threatening behavior regarding Ukraine.
“It’s very clear this has unified the West; it’s just not clear it’s going to last,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk assessment firm based in New York.
By drawing things out and potentially making concessions, he said, Putin could be looking to create daylight between allies about its endgame with Ukraine.
“The West hasn’t made very many mistakes,” said Bremmer, who will attend the conference. “He wants to give them more chances to make mistakes.”
Putin’s buildup of troops along Ukraine’s border was in part an effort to test the West’s seemingly fraying alliance, seeking to extort a guarantee from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that it would never admit Ukraine to the alliance, and the timing was no accident, experts say.
Putin took action during a turbulent time for NATO members — the U.S. executed a chaotic and controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, French President Emmanuel Macron has been openly discussing “strategic independence” for his country, and longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down from office in December.
“That’s why he escalated this now,” Bremmer said. “But he’s misjudged all that.”
Putin signaled earlier this week that he could be recalibrating in the face of a remarkably unified West. NATO countries have aligned behind efforts to boost Ukraine’s defenses and deter Russia with the threat of severe economic sanctions and the dismantling of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. The pipeline, once operational, will increase Putin’s control of Europe’s energy resources.
In recent days, Putin has signaled that he is ready to resume negotiations and that he will be pulling back some of the more than 130,000 troops outside Ukraine.
In a speech Tuesday, Biden encouraged more talks and troop withdrawals, but cautioned that it was too soon to take Putin at his word, noting that an invasion remained “a very real possibility.”
On Wednesday, Blinken said in a television interview that “unfortunately there’s a difference between what Russia says and what it does, and what we’re seeing is no meaningful pullback.”
“On the contrary,” the secretary of State said, “we continue to see forces, especially forces that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine, continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border.”
Another senior administration official, briefing reporters Wednesday evening, said Russia had actually increased its troop presence by roughly 7,000 this week.
If troops do eventually move off the border, it “doesn’t mean Putin has given up on trying to pull Ukraine back into its orbit,” said Steven Pifer, a retired diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton administration. “There’s always going to be this possibility that the Russians can do this a year from now or longer [than that]. But it takes them a couple of months to ramp up forces, and they have learned now that they can’t do it in secret.”
If Putin opts against an invasion, he could still engage in cyberattacks against Ukraine and subtler actions that could be more difficult for the West to assess and respond to.
“A full-on invasion makes it simple for the allies,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. “But gray-zone warfare, which Putin is good at, leaves room for the kinds of fissures and cracks he wants to see in the NATO alliance.”
The Biden administration, badly bruised by its missteps in Afghanistan last summer, has taken a different approach to the situation in Eastern Europe. In Afghanistan, President Biden‘s unilateral decision to draw down troops confounded allies in the 20-year war who were not fully consulted; then he scoffed at security concerns about the government’s weakness as it was swiftly overtaken by the Taliban.
In tackling the crisis in Ukraine, Biden has worked to communicate clearly and often with other NATO allies. And as Putin has mobilized resources in preparation for a possible invasion, Biden and his aides have repeatedly sounded the alarm, focusing attention on Russian movements, seeking to deny Putin the element of surprise, and reiterating warnings about the consequences for Putin should he invade.
“They have done an excellent job of working with the allies, and it’s paid off in that you have a pretty unified NATO position,” Pifer said. But, he continued, Putin’s characteristic unpredictability — and avowed desire to make Ukraine part of Russia — means “you can never really turn your back.”
The conference offers Harris, who has met over the last year with numerous heads of state, a highly prestigious forum to build relationships and boost her foreign policy bona fides. But the backdrop of potentially imminent conflict in Europe and her general lack of involvement in the administration’s strategy and messaging on Russia and Ukraine is less than ideal. The audience in Munich may be more interested in what Blinken has to say on the subject.
“Nobody’s pretending she’s calling any shots on this,” Bremmer said. “We’re in the middle of a real crisis. She’s not a principal.”
Asked earlier this week about Blinken’s attendance, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said only that Harris “is a vital and important representative for the United States and our values and our intentions at this point in the world.”