US VP Harris to attend Ukraine summit as Biden skips

US Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to the Swiss city of Lucerne on June 15 for the Ukraine peace summit (JEFF KOWALSKY)
US Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to the Swiss city of Lucerne on June 15 for the Ukraine peace summit (JEFF KOWALSKY)

US Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Switzerland for a Ukraine peace summit, officials said Monday, with President Joe Biden opting instead to attend an election fundraiser featuring George Clooney.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been pushing for Biden to attend the summit, with Kyiv looking for international support as it struggles to hold back a fresh Russian offensive in the Kharkiv region.

But after weeks of uncertainty the White House announced that the United States will be represented at the June 15 meeting in Lucerne by Harris and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

"The vice president will reaffirm support for the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against ongoing Russian aggression," Harris spokesperson Kirsten Allen said in a statement.

Harris will "underscore the Biden-Harris administration's commitment to supporting Ukraine's effort to secure a just and lasting peace" following Russia's February 2022 invasion.

Kyiv hopes to win broad international backing at the meeting for its vision of the terms needed to end Russia's war. Russia's terms so far include keeping the gains it has made since invading its pro-Western neighbor.

Zelensky had put pressure on Biden to come, saying that if the US leader failed to turn up it would be like "personally applauding" Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian leader has also accused Russia's ally China of trying to keep other countries from attending.

- 'High-level' -

But the Swiss summit clashes with a fundraiser in California that Biden is due to attend on June 15, along with Hollywood stars Clooney and Julia Roberts and former president Barack Obama.

The Democrat faces a tough reelection battle against Republican former president Donald Trump -- who has previously been lukewarm on support for Ukraine and said that he could quickly reach a deal to end the war.

Ukraine fears such a deal would largely involve accepting the status quo.

Biden's apparent no-show in Switzerland comes despite the fact that he will be a short plane-hop away in neighboring Italy for a G7 meeting the day before the Lucerne meeting.

The White House defended Biden's decision to skip the summit, pointing to the president's record of support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

"There hasn't been any single leader around the world who has supported Ukraine more and more stridently than Joe Biden," National Security Council John Kirby told reporters on Monday.

He described Harris and Sullivan as being "high-level, very serious representation by the United States."

In a sign of support for Ukraine, Biden last week lifted a ban on Kyiv using US-supplied weapons to hit targets in Russia so long as the strikes are linked to the defense of the Kharkiv region.

Russia launched the offensive partly due to a long break in the supply of US weapons as Congress blocked a $60 billion arms package that Biden had asked for.

Congress finally passed the package in April after overcoming resistance from pro-Trump Republicans for some six months.

dk/dw