US and Poland sign defence deal

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The Independent Online

US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, today stressed the importance of a deal with Poland to build an American missile defense base in the former Soviet satellite nation — a plan that has infuriated Moscow.

Rice signed the deal to place 10 US interceptor missiles at a base just 115 miles from Russia's westernmost frontier today, putting further strains upon Russian ties with the West following Moscow's conflict with Georgia.

However, Rice emphasized that the site is not intended as a threat.

"This is a system that is defensive and is not aimed at anyone," she said. "This is an agreement that will establish a missile defense site ... that will help us to deal with the new threats of the 21st century of a long-range missile threats from countries like Iran or from North Korea."

The deal has sparked threats from Russia that Poland is making itself vulnerable to attack — even a nuclear one.

A day after Warsaw and Washington reached agreement on the deal last week, a leading Russian general made his country's strongest warning to date against the system. "Poland, by deploying (the system) is exposing itself to a strike — 100 per cent," General Anatoly Nogovitsyn was reported as saying by the Interfax news agency.

In the interview, Nogovitsyn pointed out that Russian military doctrine permitted the use of nuclear weapons in such a situation.

Ahead of the signing, Rice had breakfast with Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Afterward, the two leaders stressed the importance of the deal for strengthening their alliance.

Kaczynski expressed "great satisfaction" at the outcome of the long months of negotiations. "Both sides have achieved their goals. This is a great success for Poland," Kaczynski said standing alongside Rice in the Presidential Palace gardens.

As well as clearing the way for the US missile defense shield to take shape, the deal is expected to further deepen Washington's military partnership with Poland, an ally in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US firmly rejects Moscow's insistence the system is a threat to Russia. Yet Poles — the majority of who initially rejected the idea of hosting the site — have come to see it as offering a form of protection beyond NATO in light of a resurgent Russia's actions in Georgia.

Warsaw and Washington spent a year and a half negotiating, and talks recently had snagged on Poland's demands that the US bolster Polish security with Patriot missiles in exchange for hosting the missile defense base. Washington agreed to do so last week, as Poland invoked the Georgia conflict to strengthen its case. The Patriots are meant to protect Poland from short-range missiles from neighbors — such as Russia.

Kaczynski has also stressed that the missile defense shield was purely a defensive system. "For that reason, no one who has good intentions toward us and toward the Western world should be afraid of it," he said in a televised nationwide address on Tuesday.

Poles have been shaken by Russian threats against their nation in punishment for accepting the US site.

The Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad is wedged between Poland and fellow European Union and NATO member Lithuania. Russia keeps weapons and troops stationed in Kaliningrad.

Poland got support from NATO yesterday at an emergency meeting in Brussels, with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer using unusually strong language to denounce the Russian threats.

"It is pathetic rhetoric," he told reporters. "It is unhelpful and it leads nowhere."

The US already has reached an agreement with the government in Prague to place the second component of the missile defense shield — a radar tracking system — in the Czech Republic, Poland's southwestern neighbor and another formerly communist country.

That deal still needs approval from the parliaments of both the Czech Republic and Poland.

No date has been set for the Polish parliament to consider the agreement, but it should face no difficulties in Warsaw, where it enjoys the support of the largest opposition party as well as the government.