Bush Vows He Will Upgrade Poland's Air Defenses

President Bush meets with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the White House.
President Bush meets with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the White House. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

President Bush promised yesterday to upgrade Poland's antiquated armed forces with a plan to be developed before he leaves office in January as he sought to secure an agreement that would allow the United States to establish an antimissile system in Eastern Europe despite vigorous Russian objections.

Meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the White House, Bush appeared to boost efforts to get his missile defense program on track in the face of deep skepticism in Warsaw. Tusk came to office in November far cooler to the idea of stationing U.S. interceptors on Polish soil than his predecessor, and until recently talks had bogged down.

Poland has maintained that its air defenses must be upgraded before it accepts any U.S. system, particularly given Russian threats to target the country if American interceptors are based there. Bush implicitly linked the two issues yesterday. "Mr. Prime Minister, before my watch is over, we will have assessed those needs and come up with a modernization plan that's concrete and tangible," he told Tusk in front of television cameras in the Oval Office.

Tusk interpreted that as a deal, saying that he and Bush "came to a conclusion . . . that the missile defense system and the modernization of the Polish forces . . . come in one package." He called it "a breakthrough" that the president and his administration "understand quite clearly our expectations." Although neither leader detailed what might be done to upgrade Poland's air defenses, Warsaw has sought Patriot missile systems, which are used to take down incoming missiles.

White House press secretary Dana Perino later rejected an explicit linkage because Washington would naturally help Poland as a fellow NATO member. "It's certainly not a quid pro quo because, as we would with any ally, we would help them modernize a different part of their defense system," she told reporters.

Either way, the emerging agreement appeared to clear a key hurdle, building on progress last month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. Bush also met last month with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek to discuss building a radar station in his country, but Poland has been seen as a more reluctant partner.

"We've gotten past the impasse and started the engines again," said Julianne Smith, head of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It doesn't mean we've got all the details settled, but both sides are moving again."

Bush repeated yesterday that the missile defense system is intended as a deterrent against Iran or other threats, not against Russia, whose nuclear arsenal could easily overwhelm the 10 planned interceptors. But his meetings with Polish and Czech leaders, coming just weeks before he will see Russian President Vladimir Putin at a NATO summit in Bucharest, are sure to further rile the Kremlin, which sees the prospect of an antimissile system in its former satellite countries as a direct threat.

Just last month, Putin said Russia would target missiles against Poland and the Czech Republic if they allow U.S. installations.


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