WARSAW (Reuters) - Russia’s reported decision to halt the deployment of missiles on the Baltic Sea has exposed Polish and Czech security concerns as Washington starts to review U.S. plans for a missile shield in central Europe. The Interfax news agency quoted the Russian military on Wednesday as saying Moscow had halted plans to deploy Iskander missile systems to its Baltic outpost of Kaliningrad on the Polish border.
Analysts interpreted the move as a good will gesture toward new U.S. President Barack Obama.
There has been no official Russian confirmation of the decision. But the Kremlin said its position was always that it would only deploy missiles in Kaliningrad if Washington implemented its plan for a European missile shield.
Russia opposes U.S. plans to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic as part of a global missile defense system. Washington says the system is aimed against so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iran, not Moscow.
The Interfax report has stirred fears that Moscow may now be trying to drive a wedge between the United States and its ex-communist NATO allies in central Europe.
“If the United States gives up now, it would mean the whole security situation in this part of Europe was subject to Moscow’s diktats,” said Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s former missile shield negotiator and now deputy head of the National Security Bureau.
Other analysts also urged caution over Moscow’s move.
“Russia has not changed its tactics since Soviet times. Its primary aim is to weaken the U.S. military presence in Europe, especially central Europe,” said Eugeniusz Smolar of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw.
On the Interfax report, he said: “Russia is playing the very well-known game of Soviet diplomacy, putting a cow into the house, then removing it and calling this a good will gesture.”
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, asked to comment after talks with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said: “I feel the Iskander missiles is not the preferred option for Russia.”
“I am more optimistic than before (my talks with Putin),” Tusk added, without elaborating.
Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg also welcomed the Russian move, saying he hoped Moscow had realized it was harming itself by threatening to station missiles in Kaliningrad.
Both countries have said they are confident Obama will eventually decide to press ahead with missile defense after a planned review of the program. Like Washington, they insist Moscow has nothing to fear from such a defensive system.
Obama has said he supports missile defense in general but that it should be developed pragmatically and cost-effectively and with assurances the technology works.
Tomas Weiss of the Prague-based Institute for European Policy said that if Obama abandoned missile defense it would be on cost or feasibility grounds, not because of Russian pressure.
“Due to the financial crisis, we can expect the process to drag but I don’t expect it to be abandoned completely,” he said.
“When it becomes clear that Obama will not stop pushing American interests, they (the Russians) will go back, sooner or later, to rattling their sabers again,” Weiss said.
Polish analysts say the shield accord for Warsaw is as much about a perceived threat from a newly reassertive Russia -- dubbed “imperialistic” by President Lech Kaczynski -- as about any hypothetical challenge from Iran.
For that reason, in return for agreeing to host the interceptors, Tusk’s government persuaded the United States to station a battery of Patriot missiles in Poland as defense against a short-range attack Warsaw fears. Since the shield accord was clinched last August, Polish analysts say, Russia’s brief war with Georgia and its strongarm approach to Ukraine in their row over natural gas supplies to Europe have justified Warsaw’s worries about Putin’s Russia.
“After the war in Georgia, after the gas war, what else, what additional wake-up call does Europe need (with regard to Russia)?” Waszczykowski said.
Polish and Czech analysts said NATO and the European Union must speak with a single voice in their dealings with Russia.
“We need a common stance in the EU, in NATO, not to confront Russia -- nobody really regards Russia today as an enemy -- but to persuade it that partnership means just that, not ... trying to play one country off against another,” said Smolar.
Additional reporting by Jan Korselt in Prague and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw
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