'Barbaric:' Missile strike in Poland dominates meeting between Biden and UK Prime Minister Sunak

BALI, Indonesia – President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sat down Wednesday for their first one-on-one meeting amid concerns among NATO allies that Russian missiles may have slammed into Poland and killed two people. 

The missiles reportedly struck a Polish grain facility near the border of Ukraine on Tuesday. It wasn't immediately clear whether they accidentally strayed into Poland or whether Poland was deliberated targeted. Regardless, the strikes threatened to escalate Russia's nine-month war in Ukraine as Poland is a member of NATO.

Biden told reporters prior to the meeting that it is "unlikely" that the missile in question was fired from Russia. But he warned that it is early in the investigation and much more needs to be determined.

“We’re going to continue to support Ukraine as long as Russia continues their aggression,' Biden said at the beginning of his meeting with Sunak.

He said Russia's latest attack on Ukraine was "barbaric" and told Sunak, "I'm glad we're on the same page in terms of supporting the Ukrainian people's right to be free."

The meeting between Biden and Sunak, who became prime minister in October, came on the final day of the G-20 summit of world leaders. Afterward, Biden will depart Indonesia and head back to Washington.

CORRECTS DAY OF WEEK - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, center, arrives ahead of an emergency meeting of leaders at the G20 summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, following a missile explosion in Poland.

The latest

  • Condolences and assistance: The Biden administration said it is investigating reports of the Russian missiles crossing into Poland. Biden spoke by phone late Tuesday with Polish President Andrzej Duda and with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The White House said Biden gave his condolences to Duda and offered U.S. assistance to Poland in its investigation.
  • Condemnation of Russia: Biden’s meeting with Sunak comes as most G-20 nations were preparing to release a statement condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine. Nations will accuse Russia of wreaking havoc on the global economy and causing immense suffering in Ukraine and developing nations that are facing food and fuel insecurity as a result of the war.
  • China and other global challenges: The White House said the meeting will give the two leaders a chance to discuss cooperation on shared challenges, including China.
  • Security and border issues: Other topicson the agenda included the AUKUS – Australia, U.K. and U.S. – trilateral security pact and issues surrounding U.K.’s border with Northern Ireland.
  • Tensions over Northern Ireland: The U.K.’s push to update the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs customs and immigration issues at the Irish border, has been a source of tension with the United States. Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others have raised concerns that tearing up the protocol could reignite border tension between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
  • Back to D.C.: After his sit-down with Sunak, Biden departed Indonesia for Washington

Top takeaways

Biden met his third British prime minister on Wednesday since he became president. Boris Johnson resigned last summer after a deluge of ethics scandals brought his three-year run as prime minister to an end. His successor, Liz Truss, lasted just six weeks before she, too, resigned after her economic policy rattled financial markets and split her Conservative Party.

US President Joe Biden (R) and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, November 16, 2022. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Sunak, who served as the U.K.’s chief financial officer under Johnson, took over as prime minister in October after conservatives chose him to lead their party.

Of the three, Sunak is likely to be the most compatible with Biden, said Dan Hamilton, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the U.S. and Europe.

“Even though U.S.-U.K. relations remained close under Sunak’s predecessors, personality differences hampered Biden’s relations with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson,” Hamilton said. “Biden and his aides were often exasperated by Johnson’s chaotic style. Biden once described Johnson as a ‘physical and emotional clone’ of (Donald) Trump. Truss’ in-your-face approach was a turn-off.”

Sunak, in contrast, is viewed as a steadier and more capable alternative, Hamilton said. He has spent considerable time in the United States and has worked closely with U.S. officials on a range of common challenges.

What they are saying

  • Biden and Sunak are likely to use their meeting less as a get-to-know you session and more as an opportunity to underscore that the “special relationship” between the two countries remains vibrant and effective, Hamilton said.
  • "Both sides here, in London and Washington, will want to advance a very strong special relationship between the two countries, but Biden does have a track record of sniping at the U.K.," said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.
  • Gardner added, "This is an ongoing cause of unhappiness within the Conservative Party. ... And so it remains to be seen exactly how Biden navigates the new partnership with with Sunak."
  • The two leaders projected a united front in support of Ukraine and NATO and in opposition to Russia.
  • Hamilton said they are likely to affirm the value of the AUKUS agreement with Australia, their close intelligence cooperation and the jobs generated by the deep integration of the U.S. and U.K. economies.
  • "I don't think there is a significant difference in British and U.S. policy over China," Gardiner said. "But it should be noted that Sunak has been less hawkish in the past than Liz Truss on China. There will be, I think, growing calls within the U.K. for Sunak to adopt a strong stance against the Chinese Communist Party."
  • Prior to the meeting, Sunak called Russia a “rogue state” in a column in the newspaper The Telegraph and slammed its president, Vladimir Putin, for staying away from the summit.
  • “Leaders take responsibility. They show up,” Sunak wrote. “Yet, at the G-20 summit in Indonesia this week, one seat will remain vacant. The man who is responsible for so much bloodshed in Ukraine and economic strife around the world will not be there to face his peers. He won’t even attempt to explain his actions."
  • Behind closed doors, Biden will want Sunak to affirm that his government will do nothing to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol.
  • Sunak will be interested in Biden’s view on whether Republican control of the House may affect U.S. ability to sustain assistance for Ukraine and how Putin’s war in Ukraine may evolve, Hamilton said.
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attend an emergency meeting of leaders at the G20 summit following the overnight missile strike by a Russian-made rocket on Poland, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.

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Contributing: The Associated Press