Poland and US risk crisis to sign missile deal

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The Independent Online

Poland and the United States risked igniting a new missile crisis with Russia as their foreign ministers today signed a deal to station part of an American defence shield on Polish soil, manned by US soldiers, 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 plans 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 that 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 which according to the US would be aimed at ballistic missiles from Iran or North Korea.

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 noone.”

"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 110-120 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 that there is any connection to the Georgia crisis, although Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said that 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, which will defend our territory and the U.S. installation, is a practical dimension of this watershed agreement," Mr Tusk said yesterday.

The Russian deputy chief of staff, Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, caused alarm in the West last Friday by warning that by deploying the system, Poland “is exposing itself to a strike — 100 percent.” Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, warned the West when he was still Russian 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” which “leads nowhere."

Polish officials yesterday sought to play down the possible fallout from the missile deal. 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 US soldiers at the Polish installations may 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 make sure that its bilateral interests were covered.

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

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