August 21, 2008

Poland and US Risk Showdown With Moscow

By Anne Penketh

Poland and the United States risked igniting a new missile crisis with Russia as their foreign ministers signed a deal yesterday to station part of a US defence shield, manned by American soldiers, on Polish soil, 115 miles from the Russian border.

The signing of the agreement in Warsaw yesterday is the first concrete step by the West against Russia's perceived strategic interests in the aftermath of the Georgian war last week.

When the deal was announced last week, it drew the threat of possible nuclear strikes against Poland by the deputy military chief of staff in Moscow, who vowed that such an act would "not go unpunished".

Last night, the Russian foreign ministry warned that Russia's reaction would go beyond diplomatic protests. The proposals for the missile shield have long been the most contentious part of the Bush administration's relations with Moscow, in addition to the issue of Nato enlargement which is at the root of Russia's conflict with Georgia.

Russia has refused to believe American reassurances that the 10 interceptor rockets in Poland are part of a defensive shield and say they would threaten Russian territory.

The rockets, combined with a radar complex in the Czech Republic, are to form the European end of a global system that, according to Washington, would be aimed at ballistic missiles from Iran or North Korea.

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking before the signing ceremony with the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, repeated yesterday that the system was "defensive and aimed at no one". She added: "This is an agreement that will establish a missile defence site here in Poland that will help us to deal with ... long-range missiles ... from countries like Iran or North Korea."

In return for the agreement to host part of the shield, Poland managed to secure a US promise of a battery of Patriot missiles to be permanently based on Polish territory as a defence against possible Russian attack.

About 120 American soldiers would be deployed at the interceptor base in northern Poland, and US soldiers would also operate the Patriot missiles, according to the Polish foreign ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski.

The Polish government and Washington deny there is any connection to the Georgia crisis, although the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has said the events in Georgia show that Poland's security concerns need to be taken seriously by the United States.

"The presence of the Patriot battery ... is a practical dimension of this watershed agreement," Mr Tusk said yesterday.

The Russian deputy chief of staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, caused alarm in the West last Friday by warning that by deploying the system, Poland was "exposing itself to a strike - 100 per cent".

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, warned the West when he was still the country's President in June last year that if the missile shield was deployed on Russia's borders, the Kremlin would retaliate by returning to its Cold War stance of aiming its missiles at Europe.

However, on Tuesday, the secretary-general of Nato, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, dismissed the Russian threats as "pathetic rhetoric". Mr Paszkowski laughed off the threat from the Russian general, and noted that the foreign minister's usual response to Russian bluster was "don't threaten us more than once a quarter". Poland is a former Soviet bloc state which is now both a European Union and Nato member.

A Western analyst pointed out that the presence of American soldiers at the Polish installations might mean that Russia would think twice before striking Poland. Alastair Cameron, the head of the European security programme at the Royal United Services Institute, said that having seen the "slow pace" of Nato's political reaction to the Georgia crisis, the Poles wanted to protect their bilateral interests.

"The longer Russia maintains troops in Georgia, the more it risks stirring up support for a stronger stand on Russia within Europe," Mr Cameron added.

Originally published by By Anne Penketh Diplomatic Editor.

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