U.S. shield may not be deployed: Polish official

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland sees a strong possibility that the United States will not deploy in central Europe a missile defense system fiercely opposed by Russia, a deputy foreign minister responsible for the project said on Thursday.

Andrzej Kremer was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that the White House would shelve plans to deploy the system in Poland and the Czech Republic because Iran’s long-range missile programme “has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated.”

The Bush administration had pushed for the defense shield to protect against what it said was the possibility of Iran developing nuclear warheads to put on its long-range missiles. Russia sees the project as a direct threat to its own security.

“We know the review of the missile shield is not yet over and in 10 days Deputy Defense Minister Stanislaw Komorowski and I will go to Washington to find out. From different sources we hear there are serious chances the shield won’t be deployed here,” Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer told Reuters.

Kremer said it was for the Obama administration, not for media, to inform Poland of any decision.

“Media are not the way governments communicate with each other... but we are only interested in the final decision of the U.S. government.”

The Wall Street Journal report has highlighted ex-communist central Europe’s fears that President Barack Obama may be ready to cut a deal over their heads with Russia on missile defense in return for Moscow’s help in dealing with Iran.

In an open letter to Obama in July, senior figures from the region including Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Poland’s Lech Walesa urged him not to be swayed by Russian objections in making his decision on the missile shield.

Poland and the Baltic republics, in particular, have been alarmed by what they see as Russian “neo-imperialism” in Moscow’s dealings with ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia.

Another senior Polish official, Witold Waszczykowski, also said a decision to shelve the missile shield project would not come as a surprise for Warsaw.

“We have been hearing such things for a while now via different papers, from some conferences and so on,” said Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau which advises President Lech Kaczynski.

“This would be very bad. Without the shield we would de facto be losing a strategic alliance with Washington,” he said.

For Poland, the timing of the report is particularly sensitive. Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland following a pact between Moscow and Nazi Germany, an event seen by Poles as “a stab in the back.”

“I hope this is just a coincidence,” said Waszczykowski.

Writing by Gareth Jones; Warsaw newsroom, + 48 22 653 97 22