New Team in Poland Cool to U.S. Shield

Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said Poland is in "no hurry" to sign a pact putting a key part of the planned U.S. missile defense shield on its soil.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said Poland is in "no hurry" to sign a pact putting a key part of the planned U.S. missile defense shield on its soil. (By Adam Berry -- Bloomberg News)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 19, 2008

WARSAW -- Poland's new government is threatening to put the brakes on the Pentagon's drive to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, insisting that the project cannot go forward unless the country receives a big increase in U.S. military aid and other commitments.

Responding to surveys showing a large majority of Poles opposed to the defense plan, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said this month that his country is now in "no hurry" to sign a pact that would anchor a critical part of the U.S. missile shield on Polish soil. Poland's previous government had stood firmly behind the project but was ousted by voters in October.

Poland's reluctance is the latest headache for the Pentagon in its effort to construct a global defense shield, which it says is needed to protect against a missile attack from Iran or other "rogue states."

Russia has blasted the proposal, arguing that it could threaten that country in the long run by giving the U.S. military a beachhead in Eastern Europe. Public misgivings also remain strong in the Czech Republic, where the United States wants to base a key radar installation, although officials in Prague have shown a greater willingness to come to terms.

This week, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich met with top officials at the Pentagon and the State Department to inform them that Poland expects a commitment from Washington to help rebuild its air defense systems and provide other military assistance before it will agree to join the shield project. The Pentagon wants to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland that could shoot down a missile launched by Iran before it reaches Europe or the United States.

In an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Post on Wednesday, Klich said that he had had "promising talks" with U.S. officials but that overall the negotiations remained "tough."

He said that Poland would be exposing itself to risks if it agreed to host part of the shield -- Russia has threatened to aim missiles at Poland in retaliation -- and that it wants more American help in exchange. In particular, Poland wants Patriot missiles to bolster its aging air defenses as well as help modernizing its 140,000-member military.

"We would be glad to see another American proposal on how to balance these benefits and costs," Klich said. "The Polish government at this time hasn't seen the right, correct balance."

Poland's objections have prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity on both sides of the Atlantic. On Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried met in Warsaw with Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, and offered some soothing words. The two men also announced that Sikorski will visit Washington on Feb. 1 for further talks. Tusk, the prime minister, is expected to follow shortly afterward.

"We take Poland's considerations very much into account," Fried said. "Poland has made a sound case that the risk will increase, and we have to address this."

In a brief interview after his meeting with Fried, Sikorski reiterated Poland's stance that it was not in a rush to reach an agreement. "I'm glad there seems to be a greater sensitivity to our security needs," he said. "But it's a long-term project."

Poland also appears less willing to accept the Pentagon's primary rationale for the shield: that it will protect Europe, as well as the United States, from a potential Iranian attack.

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