By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008
The United States and Poland broke a logjam yesterday in negotiations over U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, with the Bush administration committing "in principle" to help Poland modernize its armed forces.
Poland is "satisfied that our arguments have got through," Foreign Affairs Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said. At a news conference yesterday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sikorski said that "separate" dialogues would now continue "both on the missile defense base and on the modernization."
Talks on the Pentagon's plan to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland stalled after the new Polish government, which took office in November, proved less receptive to the shield than its predecessor. With the public increasingly opposed to Warsaw's participation and neighboring Russia threatening to counter with missiles aimed at Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk had said he was in "no hurry" for an agreement.
The Pentagon reacted coolly last month when Poland suggested Washington should help rebuild its air defense systems to counter Moscow and should consider signing a bilateral security agreement before negotiations on missile defense continued. Poland is the top European recipient of U.S. military assistance, totaling $750 million since 2001.
Yesterday, however, Rice said that "the United States is very committed to the modernization of Polish forces." She said that progress had also been made on missile defense during her talks with Sikorski, and that discussions would continue when Tusk visits President Bush in early March and at NATO's summit in Bucharest in April.
The administration's eagerness for missile defense talks with Poland reflects its hopes of an accord with the Czech Republic, where the Pentagon plans to base a radar component of the system. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek will visit Bush a week before Tusk.
Sikorski spokesman Piotr Paszkowski said yesterday's talks established a framework for negotiations but that there was "definitely no agreement" on missile defense. "Ultimately, we will have to sell it to the public" and to the Polish parliament, he said, and the government could "make a more convincing case for going ahead if the bottom line would also be that Polish defense capacity has also been strengthened."
Poland wants to upgrade its aging air defense capabilities with Patriot missile batteries facing Russia and Belarus. It saw its case strengthened not only by Russian threats, but also by the Bush administration's desire to solidify a missile defense deal before the end of the Bush presidency.
In a meeting yesterday with Washington Post editors and reporters, Sikorski said there is "no reason for [U.S.-Polish] relations to be less excellent" than under the previous government. While Poland is withdrawing its remaining troops from Iraq, he noted, it is adding 400 troops to its 1,200 combat forces deployed in Afghanistan.
Sikorski said Poland did not share the administration's view of the Iranian threat as sufficient reason for the missile shield, adding that "Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, even though they are geographically closer, are mentally distant" from Poland.
Warsaw's efforts, he said, were "an investment in our friendship and the unspoken transatlantic bargain. We will help you with your security concerns, provided you continue to reassure us" of the U.S. commitment to NATO and Poland's security.