Ukraine

Harris stepping in for Biden at Ukraine summit as she takes growing role in heat of 2024 campaign

Harris announced $1.5 billion more in U.S. assistance for Ukrainians through the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development

US Vice President Kamala Harris (R) arrives at the luxury Burgenstock resort for the Summit on peace in Ukraine
MICHAEL BUHOLZER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

It's Vice President Kamala Harris, not President Joe Biden, who joined world leaders Saturday in Switzerland for a summit on Ukraine and planned to meet with Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss his country’s vision for ending the war launched by Russia.

As she arrived at a resort overlooking Lake Lucerne, Harris announced $1.5 billion more in U.S. assistance for Ukrainians through the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. That includes money for energy assistance, repairing damaged energy infrastructure, helping refugees and strengthening civilian security.

Biden on Friday wrapped up three days at the Group of Seven summit in Italy, where he held talks with Zelenskyy, and then flew straight to Los Angeles for a Saturday night fundraiser with Hollywood A-listers George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

His decision to skip the summit on Ukraine spotlights the competing election-year demands facing Biden as he tries to balance a complicated domestic and foreign policy agenda while running against former President Donald Trump. It also reflects the growing profile Harris has found making the case for a second Biden term as the 2024 campaign heats up.

“Being vice president means you take a lot of hits for the team,” Matt Bennett, who served as an aide to former Vice President Al Gore, said ahead of Harris' scheduled 28-hour dash from Washington to Switzerland and back. “In the past, these moments on the global stage have been good for her. She looks presidential and very capable among world leaders.”

Zelenskyy for months publicly lobbied Biden and other world leaders to take part in the summit, even warning that their absence could further embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 28-month war against Ukraine.

But Biden ultimately decided to dispatch Harris and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan to represent the administration in Switzerland.

“Skipping the summit is a missed opportunity for the president and for the United States,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “That said, sending the vice president with the national security adviser is not exactly sending the junior varsity team.”

Biden has increasingly turned to Harris as he tries to reassemble the coalition of voters that helped them beat Trump in 2020, and that they will likely need again to win a second term. For her part, Harris has taken a more visible role in making the pitch for Biden to a diverse cross-section of the Democratic base.

She visited an abortion clinic in Minneapolis to spotlight the administration's record on the issue. She's launched an effort to highlight economic development on Biden's watch, with a particular focus on minority communities.

And she's crisscrossed the country to talk about issues like marijuana legislation and gun violence as Biden's standing with the coalition that catapulted him to the White House has shown signs of eroding. She even squeezed in a visit to Atlanta on Friday to promote the administration's economic agenda before boarding Air Force Two for her red-eye flight to Switzerland.

“She brings three things to the ticket that Biden doesn't have: relative youth, she's a woman and she's a person of color,” said Bennett, now executive vice president at the left-leaning Washington think tank Third Way. “But what's even more important, she's getting back to the thing that vaulted her into national prominence: her really substantial ability to prosecute the case against Trump.”

But like Biden, Harris has also seen her standing among Americans diminish. About 4 in 10 registered voters have a somewhat or very favorable view of Harris, according to a recent AP-NORC survey. About half have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of her, and about 1 in 10 don’t know enough to say. Her favorability ratings are similar to Biden.

The Trump campaign needled Harris for her fill-in role in Switzerland, with spokesperson Karoline Leavitt saying the vice president has “failed thus far at every task she has been given” and “will continue to embarrass our country at the Ukraine summit.”

Trump and his allies have occasionally taken shots at Harris, suggesting that a vote for Biden is effectively a vote for Harris eventually becoming president.

The White House, in explaining Biden’s decision to skip the summit, noted that the president met twice with Zelenskyy in a week — on the sidelines of the G7 summit and the previous week while both were in France to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

At the Swiss summit, Harris intends to put a focus on the importance of the U.S. and allies defending and strengthening the post-World War II norm of rejecting the use of force to change territorial borders.

“It's a profile-raising moment,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who leads the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Voters in the U.S. watch to see how a person manage on a world stage."

The talks are expected to largely focus on three issues where there’s broad consensus: food security, nuclear security and the return of prisoners and children captured during the war and taken to Russia.

Russia was not invited to attend the gathering that Ukraine has billed as a "peace summit." Putin himself on Friday promised to "immediately” order a cease-fire in Ukraine and begin negotiations if Kyiv started withdrawing troops from the four regions annexed by Moscow in 2022 and renounced plans to join NATO. Ukraine called Putin’s proposal “manipulative” and “absurd.”

Biden may have softened the disappointment over his absence from the Swiss gathering with a series of announcements in recent weeks aimed at further bolstering Ukraine.

G7 leaders this week announced a $50 billion loan package for Kyiv that will leverage interest and income from the more than $260 billion in frozen Russian assets.

And Biden and Zelenskyy on Thursday signed a security agreement that commits the U.S. over 10 years to continued training of Ukraine’s armed forces, more cooperation in the production of weapons and military equipment, and greater intelligence sharing.

Biden also has approved sending Ukraine another Patriot missile system. Zelenskyy had been pleading with U.S. and Western allies for even more Patriots as Kyiv struggles to defend against Russian strikes on Ukraine's power grid and civilian areas, as well as military targets.

And late last month, Biden eased restrictions that kept Ukraine from using American weaponry to strike inside Russia. This allows strikes into Russia for the limited purpose of defending the second-largest city of Kharkiv, which sits 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the border and has been bombarded with attacks launched from inside Russia.

As the 2024 campaign in the U.S. heats up, Ukrainian officials are watching with a measure of uncertainty about the future of U.S. support in their war against Russia.

Trump has been skeptical of providing additional military aid to Ukraine, at one point criticizing the “endless flow of American treasure.” He more recently expressed openness to lending money instead, and has said Ukraine’s independence is important to the United States.

Zelenskyy in Italy on Thursday made clear the durability of Washington's support remains top of mind.

“I think the question has to be, ‘For how long the unity will last -- the unity in the United States, together with the European leaders,’” Zelenskyy said. “Because if Ukraine does not withstand, then democracy of many countries will not be able to withstand. I’m sure of that.”

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Associated Press writer Amelia Thomson DeVeaux in Washington contributed to this report.

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