WARSAW (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged close U.S. cooperation with Poland on Saturday on missile defense, the upgrading of its air defenses and in developing shale gas and nuclear power to boost its energy security.
On his first visit to Warsaw, Obama also defended his “reset” of relations with Russia, a policy that has sometimes unnerved Poles wary of Moscow’s resurgence and its efforts to roll back Western influence in former Soviet republics.
“Poland is one of our strongest and closest allies in the world and is a leader in Europe,” Obama told a joint news conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
“What we want to do is to create an environment in this region in which peace and security are a given. That’s not just good for this region. It is good for the United States of America. And we will always be there for Poland.”
Obama and Tusk finalized a deal to establish a U.S. aerial detachment in Poland from 2013 that will help to train Polish pilots in use of F-16 warplanes and C-130 transport planes.
“The size (of the detachment) is not large but it is a very meaningful gesture,” Tusk said, alluding to Warsaw’s long-standing desire for “American boots on the ground.”
“What I have heard today gives me the feeling that we are working together to improve Poland’s security.”
Obama reiterated Poland’s role in missile defense plans meant to counter the possible threat of short and medium-range ballistic missile attack from countries such as Iran. The plans envisage deploying SM-3 interceptors in Poland from 2018.
Obama has invited Russia to take part in his missile defense plans for Europe but Moscow is seeking a bigger say in the development of them, stirring unease among Poles and others.
“We believe missile defense is something where we can cooperate with Russia ... This will not be a threat to the strategic balance,” Obama said.
Warsaw has tried to mend its own long-chilly ties with Moscow but areas of friction remain, including over an investigation into the causes of a plane crash in Russia last year that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.
Obama visited a monument to the crash victims on Saturday.
On energy security, Obama confirmed U.S. firms’ interest in developing Poland’s shale gas deposits — estimated by some experts to be the biggest in Europe at 5.3 trillion cubic meters — and in helping to build its first nuclear plant.
Warsaw hopes both projects will greatly reduce its heavy reliance on polluting coal and on Russian natural gas imports.
Obama had sharp words for neighboring Belarus, whose courts have sentenced opposition politicians to lengthy jail terms in recent days. He and Poland have both urged President Alexander Lukashenko to free them all and show respect for human rights.
“The kind of repressive actions we’re seeing in Belarus can end up having a negative impact over the region as a whole and that makes us less safe and makes us less secure,” Obama said.
He said Poland’s transition to democracy over the past two decades provided a model both for ex-Soviet neighbors such as Ukraine and Belarus and for reforming Arab countries.
Promoting democracy in eastern Europe and in the Arab world was the theme of Obama’s talks on Friday evening with some 20 central and eastern European leaders assembled in Warsaw.
Speaking in a hall of the presidential palace where Round Table talks took place in 1989 that ended Poland’s communist regime, Obama said Warsaw could provide useful lessons in building a democracy for reformers everywhere.
In a gesture that delighted his hosts, Obama threw his weight behind efforts in the U.S. Congress to ease the visa regime for Poles traveling to the United States, a major irritant in bilateral ties.
Writing by Gareth Jones; editing by Mark Heinrich