Poland, US seal missile-defence deal

August 15th, 2008 - 7:27 am ICT by IANS  

Warsaw, Aug 15 (DPA) Poland agreed Thursday to host part of a US anti-missile shield in return for military aid, capping more than a year of tough bargaining over a project that has infuriated Russia. US and Polish diplomats initialled the deal less than a week after Russia’s military assault on Georgia, which Poland’s president called a “very strong argument” for wrapping up the missile defence talks.

To break the deadlock, the United States agreed to permanently base Patriot air defence missiles in Poland and offered a pledge of close cooperation in case of military threats against Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.

“I’m satisfied that what we initialed here is … good for Poland and good for the United States,” Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said. “Only bad guys need to fear the decision we made today.”

US plans call for 10 missile interceptors to be based in Poland. In July, the Czech government agreed to host a tracking radar as the other part of the project, which would establish the first US military bases in the two former Soviet-bloc nations.

Russia strongly opposes the project, despite assurances from Washington that the system would target ballistic missile threats from countries like Iran and was not meant to undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Missile defense is deeply unpopular among Czechs and Poles, with polls showing most opposed to the US bases. Parliamentary approval is required in both countries for the project to go ahead.

In Russia, the head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Konstantin Kosachev, said the US-Polish deal would not boost security in Europe and could lead to “to a real increase in tension in Russian-American relations,” the Interfax news agency reported.

Thursday’s Warsaw agreement capped two days of talks between Sikorski and US Under Secretary of State John Rood.

The Bush administration began sounding out Poland and the Czech Republic about four years ago. Formal talks with Poland began in May 2007, but they hit a snag after Tusk came to power in November and sought an improved deal for Poland.

Poland has bargained hard for US military aid, particularly for a boost in its air defences after Moscow threatened to target the planned missile-shield bases in its former satellites.

The interceptors are designed to destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles in space. In contrast, the Patriots sought by Poland are theatre defence weapons with a range of about 70 km.

The Pentagon says placing the system in the two Central European nations gives it the broadest protective coverage for the United States and Europe.

Beyond that, Polish and Czech leaders have portrayed missile defence as a way to bolster ties with the US and strengthen NATO, the US-led military alliance they joined after the Cold War ended.

Before the latest talks in Warsaw, Polish government leaders said a new US proposal was on the table and that Russia’s military assault on Georgia had given the missile shield new urgency.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who strongly sided with Georgia in its conflict with Russia, said Moscow’s muscle-flexing highlighted the need for the system. Other Polish leaders made similar comments.

With a US presidential election due in November, George W Bush’s imminent departure from the White House was also a factor. Some Polish officials have hinted that the next president might be less inclined to strike a bargain with Poland.

Days before the latest talks, Tusk fired top Polish negotiator Witold Waszczykowski after he criticized the government’s reluctance to make a deal with Washington.

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