U.S. plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe have hit a new snag.
The Internation Herald-Tribune reports that the new Polish government is signaling a tougher position in negotiations to allow basing of a dozen interceptor missiles on its soil. According to foreign minister Radek Sikorski, Warsaw is not prepared to accept U.S. deployment plans for the missiles until "all costs and risks are considered."
Poland's previous government had consented in principle to the plan--despite intense pressure from neighboring Russia--but no formal agreement was ever signed. Now, Mr. Sikorski says that the terms under which missile defenses would be deployed are "unclear," and his government wants the risks to be explained, the financial costs to be set out and clarification on how Poland's interests would be defended if the shield were based on its territory."
Sikorski also made it clear that a primary justification for the defenses--the missile threat from Iran--may no longer be sufficient:
"We feel no threat from Iran," Sikorski said, challenging the U.S view that some of the biggest threats facing the security of Europe and the United States are from "rogue states" in the Middle East, including Iran.
The foreign minister also described the proposed deployment as "a U.S. project, not a Polish one." Under the basing plan, a massive tracking radar would be deployed in the Czech Republic, in addition to the interceptor missiles in Poland.
Moscow has lobbied aggressively against the project, claiming it threatens Russian national security, and could trigger a new arms race. It's also clear that the Russians fear the missile shield will be expanded and improved over time, reducing the strategic leverage that Moscow enjoys through its missile and nuclear forces.
Poland's positional shift is the result of several factors. First, the recently-elected center-right government wants better relations with Moscow, and believes a more "nuanced" approach on BMD could help achieve that goal. Warsaw's revised stance is also an example of political muscle-flexing by Mr. Sikorski. He served as defense minister under the previous conservative government, but was forced out for his criticism of various policies, including the missile defense deployment. Back in power, he is clearly asserting his authority--and preference--on the missile shield issue.
But U.S. waffling--and our own political process--contributed to the "new" Polish position. With publication of the recent NIE on Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. government downplayed the threat posed by Tehran's nuclear program, undercutting a key justification for BMD in eastern Europe. Against that backdrop (and with a resurgent Russian military on its eastern border), the Poles see less reason to support missile defenses on their soil.
Warsaw is equally concerned about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Sikorski said he is concerned that Washington may abandon the project, depending on the outcome of the November vote. In that case, he told a Polish interviewer, Warsaw would still have to bear the political costs (i.e., a deterioration in relations with Russia), if it signed onto the deployment prematurely.
While the missile defense plan is far from finished, it has become a much tougher sell in Eastern Europe. And, the Bush Administration is hardly helping its cause; in recent months, it has sent mixed signals on a variety of issues, ranging from its assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat; an endorsement of Russian plans to fuel Iran's reactor at Bushehr, and on-going diplomatic efforts to salvage the North Korean nuclear deal--despite stalling and evidence of cheating by Pyongyang.
If the U.S. is taking a softer approach on those thorny (yet critical) issues, you can hardly blame the Poles for modifying their position on missile defense. Given Washington's new, "conciliatory" approach on key WMD issues, why should Warsaw stick its neck out on missile defense--particularly when the next president may abandon the project altogether.