Harris faces the most critical foreign trip of his vice presidency

Still, she won’t be entirely alone — Blinken, who has been one of Biden’s closest aides for more than a decade, will also attend the conference. His presence there will be a useful safety net in case something goes wrong, a US official noted, because – unlike Harris – he is an entity known to the dozens of world leaders and diplomats who will be in Munich throughout the year. long weekend.

“The goal of the Munich Security Conference will be for our NATO allies to speak with one voice in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. And that lead voice will be the Deputy President Harris,” said Halie Soifer, a former national security adviser at the time. Senator Harris told CNN in an interview Thursday. “She has a crucial role to play, especially in this time of crisis for the world.”

But any missteps could have outsized implications, not just for Harris’ political future, but for the international community as a whole.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few days. It’s entirely conceivable that we could see Russia start an invasion at any time.” said Charles Kupchan, senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama. “Part of the vice president’s job is to show up.”

For Harris, a senior administration official described his key goal in Munich as being three-pronged: to focus on the “rapidly evolving” situation on the ground, to maintain full alignment with partners, and to send a clear message to Russia that the United States prefers diplomacy but is ready in case of Russian aggression.

In her first bilateral meeting of the trip with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Harris made sure to send that message.

“We remain, of course, open and desirous of diplomacy with regard to the dialogue and the discussions that we have had with Russia. But we are also determined – if Russia takes aggressive measures – to ensure that there be serious consequences in terms of the economic sanctions that we have been discussing,” Harris said.

She added: “I am here to ensure that through our discussions and the discussions I will have with other of our allies, we will continue over these hours and days to stay in close contact. We understand that this is a dynamic moment in time.. So the work that we do daily and sometimes hourly to strengthen the relationship, to verify, in terms of our strategic imperative, is of a critically important and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Harris will meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the conference, his first meeting with the Ukrainian leader, and deliver a keynote address on Saturday. The vice president will maintain a “very intense” schedule while in Munich, senior administration officials have said. The meeting with Zelensky will be one of many high-level meetings she will organize.

“I think this is an important opportunity for her, where she can play a role that a vice president is only able to play and which is to make a visible presentation of the administration’s ideals,” Joel Goldstein, historian vice-presidential, CNN told CNN in an interview Thursday.

“A beautiful platform”

Kupchan called the Munich conference the “Davos” of international security, a nod to the notorious World Economic Forum in Switzerland that draws the top echelon to foreign leaders.

“The benefits aren’t just symbolic (for Harris). It’s also a great platform. His speech will be covered around the world,” Kupchan told CNN in an interview Thursday. “The Munich Security Conference offers what could be called a ‘one-stop-shop’ in the sense that the main players will be there.”

On Friday, Harris met with Stoltenberg and held a multilateral meeting with the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. She also held a separate meeting with US congressional leaders attending the conference. Biden called that meeting, according to one person in the room, and reiterated the work the United States and its allies have done to try to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine. He also informed members of the situation at the borders of Ukraine.

And on Saturday, Harris will deliver his keynote address. It should focus on the situation on the Ukrainian border, the threat of Russian aggression and the latest state of play, according to senior administration officials. She will likely tout the unity among U.S. allies the administration says it has maintained, and argue that any invasion will weaken Russia while reassuring allies of America’s commitment to NATO and its partners generally.

After her speech, she is expected to meet with Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the sidelines of the conference, the senior administration official added, along with other foreign leaders who were not immediately named.

While Harris’ attendance can be seen, allies say, as a clear sign of the trust Biden has placed in his vice president, Kupchan said it also signifies the importance Biden places on the conference.

“Biden is an Atlanticist. His concern for the transatlantic relationship and European security is in his DNA. And he’s been working on these issues for decades,” Kupchan told CNN. “Transatlantic solidarity has continued with Russia throughout the Trump era, which speaks to the rigidity of the relationship, because Trump tested it. President Harris in Munich is an investment in ensuring that this solidarity continues.”

Still, with grave and increasingly dire warnings from US officials, there is a real possibility that Russia could invade Ukraine while Harris remains on foreign soil. New estimates from US officials provided Thursday would put the number of Russian forces north of the 150,000 figure Biden cited in a televised address earlier this week, despite Russian claims of withdrawal.

If Russia attacks while the conference is underway, Kupchan said, “then the conversation becomes much more urgent.”

“Obviously, the vice president and her delegation would need to maintain closer contact with Washington because, you know, developments would emerge minute by minute. But her message and her task don’t really change, in the sense that a lot of the homework has already been done,” Kupchan added.

“Part of a progression of her from her vice-presidency”

The Vice President’s foray into Western Europe will be her fifth trip abroad during her tenure. His performance on the international stage has not been flawless, with moments amplified by the right and criticized by the left over his ‘don’t come’ message to migrants seeking to come north to the states’ southern border. United on his first trip to Guatemala and Mexico. .

A subsequent trip to Southeast Asia, although Harris’ individual performance raised no issues, was overshadowed by the tumultuous fallout from the failed US withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving Harris projecting his skill in a moment. of doubt on the part of his allies. Subsequent trips to Paris and Honduras, though months apart, earned the vice president praise for making both trips flawless.

Goldstein sees Harris’ current high-stakes trip as the next step.

“It’s part of a progression from his vice presidency,” Goldstein told CNN in an interview. “Vice presidents have taken on important assignments in the past, and I think this is certainly the most important assignment to date of his vice presidency.”

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Early in her tenure, people close to Harris told CNN that foreign policy and national security were key areas she wanted to develop in her portfolio. Harris’ foreign policy experience is less than that of her recent predecessors, as she had worked in Washington for only four years before accepting the new position. Harris began private lunches with Blinken — ones White House officials say are still ongoing — and the pair share a good relationship, speaking frequently. Harris has also spent much of the Biden administration‘s first year in office meeting with dozens of foreign leaders who come to the White House.

Allies say Harris’ trip to Munich fits well into his wheelhouse because of his work as a rookie on the high-profile Senate Intelligence Committee.

Soifer, an adviser to Harris at the time, said she played a leading role in the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“She took a crash course in the intentions and strategy of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin. While much of that experience was gained behind the scenes, she provided deep experience in terms of the threats that states States and the global world order face Russia right now,” Soifer said.

Biden has drawn on his decades of experience handling international affairs during the latest spike in Russian-Ukrainian tensions, particularly the years he spent as a US leader on the issue during his last stint in the presidential office. White House.

Despite being aware he can’t read Putin’s mind, Biden has spent long periods trying to explain the enigmatic Russian leader to his aides, according to people present for the conversations.

These conversations likely served as a valuable resource for Harris as he prepared for this critical trip.

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“I think the best preparation she can do, which I know she does, is her frequent conversations and meetings with President Biden,” Soifer told CNN.

Soifer added that Harris is a thorough and meticulous prep for times like this.

“Their conversations about this crisis will inform her approach in Munich. She is here to speak on behalf of the President and having spoken with him so many times before this conference, it is clear that she represents his views and those of the administration, ” she says.

The senior administration official told reporters that Harris and Biden have spoken on the matter several times. Biden has attended this conference several times, both when he was vice president and as a senator.

“The vice president and the president see each other often, several times a day. They are closely engaged on all aspects of the government’s agenda,” the senior official said, noting Harris’ attendance at the president’s daily briefings on intelligence in the Oval Office “several times a week,” and in a series of other meetings on Russia and Ukraine, alongside the president.

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