/ 20 August 2008

Poland and US sign shield deal, anger Moscow

The United States and Poland signed a deal on Wednesday to station parts of a US missile defence shield on Polish soil, a move certain to aggravate Russia-Western tensions over Moscow’s intervention in Georgia.

The 10 interceptor rockets in Poland, along with a radar complex in the Czech Republic, will form the European part of a global system Washington says it is assembling to shoot down ballistic missiles from ”rogue” states or militant groups such as al-Qaeda.

”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,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who signed the agreement with Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski, told reporters.

Despite US assurances to the contrary, Russia sees the planned missile shield as a threat to its own security and some Russian politicians and generals have said Poland must be prepared for a preventive attack on the site in the future.

Washington has dismissed this threat as empty rhetoric. Nato said it was unacceptable.

The interceptors will be placed at the ex-Warsaw Pact base of Redzikowo in northern Poland, about 1 360km from Moscow and 300km from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea coast.

Russia says Washington and Warsaw rushed through the deal as a response to its military action in Georgia. Warsaw and Washington deny this, although Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said events in Georgia show Poland’s security concerns need to be taken seriously by the US.

Apprehension of Russia
Poland, the biggest ex-Soviet satellite in central Europe, and the Baltic states have condemned Russia’s assault on Tbilisi, with political commentators drawing parallels with the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968.

Surveys have shown a turnaround in Polish public opinion in favour of the shield since the Russian intervention in Georgia, accompanied by a sharp rise in apprehension of Russia.

Nato endorsed the US missile defence plan for Europe at its summit in Bucharest in April even though some European allies are sceptical about its effectiveness and concerned it could lead to a new arms race.

The missile-shield deal will now need to be approved by the Polish Parliament, which is seen as a formality because the government as well as the main opposition party support it.

The Czech government has already agreed to host the radar site but it faces a tougher task of pushing it through Parliament, where it holds only half of the chamber’s 200 seats.

Analysts said Poland’s agreement to join the plan was a positive but not decisive signal for the Czech ratification.

”While before it was unclear whether Poland would go for it or not, the Czech opposition could object to the concept as a whole,” said Petr Just, from Charles University in Prague.

Tusk’s government bargained hard over terms since coming to power last November, demanding greater military cooperation with the US for hosting the site. The negotiations seemed stuck in July but a compromise was reached just as Russia intervened in South Ossetia.

Under the deal, Washington finally agreed to meet a Polish demand to base a battery of Patriot missiles in Poland as defence against a short-range attack Warsaw fears.

”The presence of the Patriot battery which will defend our territory and the US installation is a practical dimension of this watershed agreement,” Tusk said. — Reuters