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Missile shield plans fuel a new Cold War

The United States and Poland have been engaged in fierce negotiations about a planned missile base on Polish soil for more than 15 months – and there is still no end in sight. Special correspondent Tomasz Konicz reports from Warsaw.

An old military compound near the northern Polish town of Redzikowo is projected as the location for 10 American interceptor missiles, that would become part of an East European global missile defence system dreamt up by the Bush administration.

During the protracted negotiations, some substantial geopolitical shifts have taken place. The new liberal Polish government led by Donald Tusk has abandoned what was a nearly unconditional and extremely close alliance with the United States formed by the previous right-wing government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Now, Warsaw has started to make substantial demands in exchange for hosting the US missile base. In particular, they want Washington to spend billions of dollars on a modernisation programme for the Polish armed forces. The Polish side is especially interested in the latest American air defence weaponry, like Patriot 3 or the THAAD system. Furthermore, Poland is demanding clear and binding security guarantees from Washington.

The Bush administration is not willing to deliver on any of these demands, and hence we are witnessing a rapid deterioration of the relations between Poland and the US that would have been unthinkable until recently.

Just a few weeks ago, after being confronted with a “final” American proposal regarding the missile base, the Polish prime minister rejected it, citing security concerns that would follow from the installation of the interceptors. According to Tusk, the US base would increase American and not Polish security.

The remarks, made in public on America’s Independence Day, led to a sharp reaction from senior members of the Bush administration, which expressed its “disappointment”. So even while the negotiations continue, Polish-American relations are deeply strained.

According to Andrzej Sakson, the director of the Western Institute in Poznan, which is closely connected to the Polish foreign ministry, this shift in Polish politics is a reaction to the disappointing results of the formerly close alliance between Warsaw and Washington.

At the start of the Iraq war, when Poland was hailed by Donald Rumsfeld as part of “new Europe” and members of the “coalition of the willing”, Washington promised enormous military and economic aid to Warsaw. “But nearly none of it materialised,” Sakson explained. Now, the Polish administration is trying to send “signals to their European allies”, that it is “correcting its previous stance” and its reliance on relations with the United States, explains Sakson. Poland clearly does not want any longer to be seen as America’s 51st state or the “American Trojan Horse within the European Union”, which is the way German politicians often depict it.

But there are still forces in Eastern Europe that cling to Washington. Now, the closest allay of the United States in Europe is the Czech Republic, where both president Vaclav Klaus and the coalition of conservative and “Green” parties under premier Mirek Topolanek fully support the build-up of the radar base and have concluded an agreement with the US.

The Polish president Lech Kaczynski, the twin brother of the former Polish premier, is also strongly in favour of a close Polish-American alliance and the missile base. The conservatives around Kaczynski are desperate to avoid a major rift in relations between Poland and the USA, and this is leading to political tension inside the country. Both sides have accused the other of a “betrayal of the Polish national interest”.

Meanwhile, the Lithuanian government has announced that it is willing to host the American missile base, if the talks between Washington and Warsaw collapse altogether. This announcement was initially designed by the Americans to put additional pressure on the Polish government – but it apparently backfired. For the present Polish government, Lithuania taking the missiles would be “good news”, as Sakson explained.

Yet an American missile base in Lithuania, close to the border with Russian, would be a further escalation of the geopolitical tensions between the former foes of the Cold War and further raise the stakes in this gamble with Europe’s security.

Russia sees the installation of the American missile shield in Eastern Europe as a major threat. When looked at superficially, it seems an exaggeration to claim that just 10 interceptor missiles can present a danger to the mighty Russian arsenal of hundreds of ICBM’s with nuclear warheads.

But we need to understand the absurd world of nuclear warfare strategies, if we want to fully comprehend the potential threat to European security posed by the missile shield. Every major nuclear power adopts the strategy of “flexible response” in warfare scenarios.  In a nutshell, it means reacting proportionately to the actions of the enemy.

This would leave room for de-escalation in a nuclear exchange: a single strike could be answered with another single strike. Faced with mass destruction, both sides might be able to stop further escalation. But placing 10 interceptor missiles on Russia’s border would make this  scenario impossible because Moscow could never be sure if a single strike would be intercepted or not.

So Russia could conclude that its own security required a return to the strategy of “massive retaliation” of the 1950s, where a nuclear attack would lead to the launch of the country’s entire arsenal and guarantee mutual destruction. In effect, America’s missile shield is about to catapult us back 50 years. Moreover, the Kremlin fears, that these 10 interceptor missiles are jut the beginning of a long process, in which hundreds of interceptors will be deployed along Russia’s borders.

As an immediate response, Moscow has announced that it will target the planned missile base on Polish soil with nuclear missiles. The Russian military is being ordered to transform the Kaliningrad region, which borders directly with northern Poland, into a launch pad for cruise missiles. These missiles cannot be intercepted as easily as ballistic missiles and could reach their target in Poland within minutes.

The Kremlin could also apply tactics of energy warfare, as already used against Ukraine and Belarus.  In fact, the supply of Russian natural gas to the Czech Republic was interrupted for a short time after Prague signed the agreement to allow the American radar base. Additionally, Russia is mulling the deployment of strategic bombers on Cuba – a move, that would further accelerate the spiral of confrontation between Moscow and Washington. 

Given this dangerous wider geopolitical context, it is no wonder that the vast majority of both the Poles and Czechs oppose the participation of their countries in the missile shield system. In the Czech Republic, there is a strong organised opposition against the US- radar side,  the “ne zakladnam” (no to bases) movement. This broad coalition of left-wing and democratic forces has mobilised tens of thousands in demonstrations.

The big question remains: Why does the Czech government and the Polish president push so hard for the missile shield, risking alienating Russia and the majority of their population?

The deputy foreign minister of the Czech Republic,  Alexander Vondra, explained his country’s position last November, when said: “For us in the Czech Republic, with our position between Germany and Russia, it is a good thing to have an installation with some American soldiers on our soil.”

It is the old fear of German and Russian expansion that is driving Polish conservatives, Prague and the Baltic States into the arms of Washington. Poland and the Czech Republic are, for example, confronted with increased German historic and political revisionism on the question of the results of the Second World War.

The German state still – after more than 60 Years - maintains  highly-organised associations of the so called “expelled” Germans. These well-funded groups still raise demands for compensation, or return of property which their ancestors had to leave during the resettlements after 1945. 

Above all, the planned Baltic gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, that bypasses Polish territory, has stirred fears in Poland about an energy Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. This is a reference to the Nazi-Soviet treaty of 1939 that carved up Poland (and which, apparently, Russia’s prime minister Putin refuses to renounce).

So the Polish liberals hope to block this expansion through closer relations with the European Union, dominated by Berlin and Paris, while the conservatives hope that an alliance with Washington is the answer.

5 August 2008

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