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U.S. Presses Poland on Anti-Missile Site

Wade Boese

Frustrated by Polish negotiating demands on a plan to install U.S. anti-missile interceptors in Poland, the United States recently said it had other basing options. Despite vigorous Russian opposition to the potential interceptor deployment in a former Soviet ally, the Bush administration is considering a former Soviet republic, Lithuania, as an alternative.

U.S. government spokespersons June 17 denied that the United States had initiated any formal talks with states other than Poland to see if they would host the interceptors, which are supposedly to defend against Iran’s possible acquisition of intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the spokespersons acknowledged that the United States had identified substitute basing locations to Poland and that there had been general conversations with Lithuania about U.S. missile defense efforts. Lithuanian officials have been quoted denying that there are any negotiations, while saying they would hear the United States out if it came to Lithuania with a specific request.

Tom Casey, a Department of State spokesperson, said that Lithuania had been a recent stop for Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Rood, a top advocate of the proposed U.S. plan. He also is a key interlocutor trying to blunt Russia’s hostility to the system, which the Kremlin sees as a threat to its nuclear missiles and security.

Casey said Rood’s visit to Lithuania was not to establish a separate “negotiating track,” asserting that the United States thinks it is “very close to an agreement” with Poland. Many analysts see the recently leaked news about Lithuania as a U.S. gambit to gain greater leverage in the negotiations with Poland. A Polish diplomatic source June 19 declined to comment to Arms Control Today, claiming that the Polish-U.S. negotiations were at a crucial stage.

The U.S. negotiations with Poland started in early 2007 at approximately the same time the United States initiated talks with the Czech Republic on hosting a U.S. missile-tracking radar. The U.S. and Czech governments April 3 announced the conclusion of negotiations but have yet to sign an agreement despite reports that the step would occur in May and then June. It is now suggested that a signing ceremony might happen in July, after which the agreement would need to be approved by the Czech parliament to take effect.

Despite the recent delays in the U.S.-Czech process, it has been smoother than the U.S.-Polish talks, which were interrupted by the election of a new Polish government last October. Led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, that government has indicated it is predisposed to hosting the interceptors to bolster relations with the United States. On the other hand, the Tusk government also has demanded that the United States help improve Polish air defense capabilities to offset what it projects will be a greater threat from an angry Russia. Some Polish analysts note that the more bellicose Russian threats grow, the more likely Russia is to drive Poland into an agreement with the United States.

So far, however, the United States has found the Polish price too high, reportedly amounting to billions in military assistance and weaponry, including shorter-range missile defense systems. Polish officials also reportedly are seeking some say in the system’s operation, such as when it will be fired.

Although stating that the United States was not setting a deadline for a deal with Poland, Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesperson, warned that “time is of the essence.” He attributed the rush to growing Iranian missile capabilities, but most observers see the impetus as the Bush administration’s desire to get an agreement in place before it exits office.

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has indicated that the earliest construction could start would be next year. Actual work would depend on final agreements with the host countries, parliamentary approval of those agreements, and U.S. congressional funding.

Lawmakers in the Czech Republic, Poland, and the United States have expressed various reservations with the proposed plan. Czech and Polish legislators’ concerns reflect generally negative public opinion about the U.S.-proposed project, which has sparked some hunger strikes in the Czech Republic. U.S. lawmakers have cited concerns about whether the proposed ground-based interceptors are technically the best choice, whether the system can actually work, and its projected costs, which are estimated at approximately $3.5 billion.

Neither presumptive presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), has said he would, if elected, discontinue the proposed European deployment. Indeed, McCain has fully endorsed it, and his campaign has more generally stated that he sees “effective missile defenses” as critical not only to deal with states such as Iran but also to “hedge against potential threats from possible strategic competitors like Russia and China.”