Behind Poland's Defying Russia

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Alik Keplicz / AP

Chief U.S. negotiator John Rood, left, and Polish negotiator Andrzej Kremer sign an initial agreement to host part of a U.S. missile shield in Poland

If Moscow thought the threat of nuclear retaliation would cow Poland into rejecting a controversial U.S. missile shield, it learned otherwise over the weekend, as the Polish press and public rallied around a government decision to endorse the deployment.

"I'm very happy," said President Lech Kaczynski after the government signed the deal on Thursday, which allows 10 interceptor missiles to be installed in Poland by 2011-2013. Together with a radar facility in the neighboring Czech Republic, the missiles are intended to complete a defense system already in place in the U.S., Greenland and Britain.

Kaczynski, a longtime supporter of the shield, said the crisis in Georgia — which, like Poland, is an ex-communist country turned U.S. ally — prompted the government to cut protracted negotiations short and ink the deal. "I believe that the events in Georgia caused the government finally to understand that black is black and white is white," Kaczynski told Polish television.

Moscow has long opposed the deployment, charging that the U.S. missiles are directed against Russia rather than "rogue states" (notably Iran), as Washington has insisted. Yet Russia's opposition awakened sensitive concerns about preserving national sovereignty: Soviet satellites until 1989, the Czech Republic and Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

Sovereignty concerns only heightened after Russia's deputy chief of general staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said that by deploying the system, Poland "is exposing itself to a strike ... 100%." Nogovitsyn said that Russian military doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons "against the allies of countries that have nuclear weapons if they in some way help them," as he said Poland had done in signing the deal.

Yet Russian protests appear to have reinforced the Polish media's support for the agreement. "We have made another important step to increase Poland's security," the daily Rzeczpospolita said in an editorial. "And it is the Russians who convince us how important it is. As our sad experience teaches us, the louder they protest against something we want to do, the more certain it is that it lies in our best interest."

In an editorial titled "Good Shield for Bad Times" another Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, said the deal told the Russians that "you may fulfill your dream about hegemony in Caucasus, but you'd better bid farewell to another dream about having Central Europe hanging in a strategic vacuum. We cannot effectively stop you in Georgia, but Central Europe has been and will be a part of the West."

The Czechs had already signed up for the radar, but the negotiations with Poland had been dragging on since last November, when Donald Tusk took over as Prime Minister from his pro-U.S. conservative predecessor.

Amid fears about the potential risks of hosting the silos, Poland persistently pressed the U.S. to boost Polish air defenses with cash and equipment supplies, such as long-range Patriot batteries. In announcing the deal, Prime Minister Tusk explained that Washington had accepted Warsaw's "key demand, the presence of Patriots."

"We would start with a battery under U.S. command, but made available to the Polish army. Then there would be a second phase, involving equipping the Polish army with missiles," he said. The U.S. has also agreed to help modernize the Polish army.

During months of discussion, a majority of the Polish public consistently opposed basing the shield in the country. But a GFK Polonia survey taken right after the the agreement was signed indicated a change of mood. As much as 58% of those polled supported the deal, while 38% opposed it. The telephone poll was taken from a sample of 500 people on Aug. 16.

Another poll taken during the crisis in Georgia showed that 39% of Poles consider Russia their country's biggest enemy; as much as half the population fears that Russia may attack Poland within a few years.

Still, Poland is trying to take Russia's sensitivities into account. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski confirmed that Poland would honor an earlier proposal allowing the Russians to inspect the future base. "We want to continue the dialog with the Russian side, we want them to convince themselves that the installation is not directed against them," Sikorski wrote in the Polish daily Fakt. "Because of the brutal Russian action in Georgia, emotions rule now. But when the battle axes fall, we will still be neighbors." Yet clearly uneasy ones.