WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush pledged on Monday to help modernize Poland's military as part a U.S. effort to secure agreement for basing components of a global missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
White House talks between Bush and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk made progress toward removing a key stumbling block in negotiations on stationing 10 missile interceptors on Polish soil.
Poland, the biggest NATO member from the former Warsaw Pact, has demanded that Washington help upgrade its military in exchange for hosting part of the anti-missile system, which has added to strains between Washington and Moscow.
"The United States recognizes the need for Polish forces to be modernized," Bush told reporters. "And we're responding."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said negotiations were focused on improving Poland's air defenses.
Bush promised that U.S. experts would come up with a military modernization plan "before my watch is over." He leaves office in January 2009.
But he acknowledged there is a lot of work still to be done on Poland's role in the missile defense system, and U.S. and Polish officials have said it could take months more to finalize a deal.
Bush again downplayed Moscow's concerns about the missile shield, saying, "This system is not aimed at Russia. I will continue to work with President (Vladimir) Putin and give him those assurances as well."
The Bush administration wants to put the interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic as part of a system it says is meant to protect against long-range ballistic missiles from "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea.
Russia has insisted, however, that the shield could pose a threat to its security, and Putin has warned that Moscow will target its missiles at the system if it is deployed in Eastern Europe, Russia's former sphere of influence.
The United States and Czech Republic are close to finalizing an agreement, but the Polish government has taken a tougher stance in negotiations and many details remain to hammered out.
Sitting beside Bush in the Oval Office, Tusk said Poland was ready to cooperate on missile defense as part of an overall security effort that would include upgrading Polish forces.
"All these issues come in the same package," he told reporters. He deemed it a "breakthrough" that Bush and the U.S. government "understand quite clearly our expectations."
"There's a commitment to a system that respects Polish sovereignty, that will ensure that the people of Poland will not be subjected to any undue security risks," Bush said. "And at the same time there will be this modernization effort."
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray