Poles, Czechs Balk at Missile Shield

  • Share
  • Read Later
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (R) escorts Poland's Defense Minister Bogdan Klich through a Military Honor Cordon at the Pentagon in Washington, DC

The U.S. has few friends in Europe more loyal than Poland and the Czech Republic, which may be one reason why Washington chose the former Soviet-captive countries as prospective sites for its new missile-defense shield. Initially, the governments in Warsaw and Prague seemed ready enough to host the U.S. facilities — 10 interceptor missiles in northern Poland and associated radar stations in the Czech Republic — despite strenuous objections from Moscow. (While Washington insists the system's purpose is to guard against potential missile threats from North Korea and Iran, the Russians suspect it is the thin end of a wedge designed to neutralize their own nuclear missile deterrent.) But lately, even the Poles and Czechs have begun to ask more of Washington in return for their cooperation.

Following the election of a pragmatic centrist government last year, Poland wants U.S. help in upgrading its own air defense capabilities in return for its cooperation on a project that several officials have said may not directly aid Poland's own interests. Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich met this week in Washington with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, to lay out Poland's price tag for hosting the missile shield. Warsaw wants new tactical anti-missile batteries to protect its own airspace, as well as security guarantees and agreements similar to those enjoyed by Italy and Turkey that would avail Poland of improved military technologies. And several leading ministers have made clear that they are now in no rush to complete negotiations. "It is not a race against time. The essential thing is to get what we want from the negotiation, for the Polish as well as the Czech sides," explained Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk, speaking alongside his Czech counterpart, Mirek Topolanek, on the eve of Klich's trip to Washington. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski has said he does not expect talks to conclude until after November's U.S. elections.

Washington has not welcomed the new Polish attitude. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said this week that comments from Warsaw about a lack of urgency on the matter were "not helpful." He added: "Proceeding with this process in as expeditious a manner as possible is to the benefit of everyone, including the Poles." Still, Klich welcomed what he called the beginning of discussions on security guarantees. "This is an important declaration because we still in Poland do not see the right balance between the costs and the benefits of this installation," he said. The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported Wednesday that Washington may be willing to entertain security guarantees, but remains "cool" to the idea of providing Poland with Patriot or similar air defense batteries because this might interfere with plans for a NATO-wide system.

And Washington is clearly moving to expedite the discussion. Even as Klich was returning from Washington on Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried was in Warsaw to discuss the missile shield with government officials. And in the Czech Republic, Pentagon missile-defense chief Lt. Gen. Henry Obering was hosting a conference at the Foreign Ministry in which he reiterated Washington's case for urgency in deploying the system. The recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that concluded with "high confidence" that Iran had shut down its nuclear weapons program back in 2003 made no difference to Washington's long-term assessment of the risk, Obering said Wednesday. Whether Iran has a nuclear weapons program or not, Obering said that Tehran is still rushing to extend the reach of its missiles. "They are developing ranges of missiles that go far beyond anything they would need in a regional fight, for example with Israel," he said. "Why are they developing missiles today that [could] reach Europe — the capitals of Europe — in a few years? Why? Are we going to sit back and allow ourselves not be able to defend against a coercive threat or an active threat should that evolve?" Following the meeting the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg announced that the Czechs hoped to draft a "framework" agreement on technical cooperation with Czech companies as early as this spring but that conditions for a broader political agreement to host the project are still being discussed.

While not opposed to the U.S. missile-defense project, Poland and the Czech Republic are increasingly concerned about the potential consequences of provoking Russia. Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski has said that the "worst case scenario" would be for Poland to incur Moscow's wrath by accepting the project, only to see it canned by a subsequent Administration in Washington. Poland, he argued, should be in no rush to sign on to the deal before carefully examining the consequences for Polish national interests. "This is an American, not a Polish project," he said. "We feel no threat from Iran." Defense Minister Klich added on the eve of his departure for Washington: "There is lots of frustration in Poland about the discongruity between the American declarations and the real state of our cooperation. The U.S. reaction to our expectations will be a test whether Washington really treats Poland as its partner in Central Europe."

Public opinion in both countries is mildly opposed to the project, mainly because of fears that it could drag them into some ill-defined conflict with Russia or even subject them to terror attacks. In a recent poll, some 70% of Czechs said they did not want the facility on their territory. While neither the Czechs nor the Poles have any sympathy for Moscow, they are concerned about provoking an unpredictable neighbor in order to facilitate a project about whose rationale, effectiveness and even longevity they have yet to be convinced.