WARSAW President Barack Obama will reaffirm on Saturday a U.S. commitment to Poland's security with a deal to set up an air detachment, the White House said, meeting a key Polish request for "American boots on the ground."
Obama began his two-day trip to Warsaw on Friday evening by reassuring the presidents of 20 mostly ex-communist central and eastern European states, including Poland's Bronislaw Komorowski, of Washington's continued engagement in the region.
"We have taken great inspiration from the blossoming of freedom and economic growth in this region and we're confident that will continue and we want to be a part of that process of strengthening your democracies, strengthening your economies and to be a full partner," Obama told the east European leaders.
"I hope that... this (meeting) signifies how important we consider our relationship with Central and Eastern Europe."
Komorowski told his guests the room in which they sat in the presidential palace was where the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance had been born and where some four decades later Poland's communist regime had been dismantled.
Now, some central Europeans fret that Washington, distracted by China's rise and by the "war on terror," is neglecting their security, not least because of its drive to "reset" relations with Russia, whose cooperation it needs on Iran and Afghanistan.
Obama has sought to soothe such worries by unveiling a new missile defense strategy after scrapping George W. Bush's plans for a shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and by reaffirming the principle of mutual defense as the cornerstone of NATO.
White House officials said Obama and his hosts would finalize a deal on Saturday to establish a permanent aerial detachment in Poland that will help to train Polish pilots in the use of F-16 warplanes and C-130 transport planes.
"What we will be doing is rotating trainers and aircraft to Poland so they can become more inter-operable with NATO," said Liz Sherwood-Randall, a White House national security official.
"It will be a small permanent presence on the ground and then a rotational presence that will be more substantial."
The accord is of considerable symbolic importance for Poland, nervous about Russia to the east.
"To the east of the Oder river (dividing Germany and Poland) American forces will appear, and this at a time when America is reducing its overall military presence in Europe," Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told the Polska newspaper on Friday.
Poland has tried to mend long-chilly ties with Russia, its Cold War overlord, mirroring Obama's own "reset," but the two are still split on NATO enlargement and other issues.
Missile defense and energy cooperation will top Obama's agenda in his bilateral talks with Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Saturday.
Obama's missile defense plans envisage the deployment of SM-3 interceptors in Poland from 2018.
The plan is aimed at protecting NATO allies from short- and medium-range ballistic missile attack by such countries as Iran. Russia has been invited to take part but is seeking a bigger say in the development plans, stirring unease in central Europe.
Promoting democracy in the Arab world and countries such as Belarus was the main topic at Friday's working dinner.
"One of the themes of our administration is that these countries that moved along toward democracy at the end of the Cold War have great experience to share with those countries that have not yet made that transition," said Sherwood-Randall.
Obama flew to Warsaw after attending a summit of the Group of Eight nations in France.
On his arrival, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in central Warsaw and also paid a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, where many of the city's Jews perished in World War Two.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Maria Golovnina)