MORAG, Poland (Reuters) - Poland hailed the deployment of a U.S. Patriot battery and troops on its soil on Wednesday as an important boost for its national security, but Russia said the move harmed regional “trust and predictability.”
The surface-to-air missile battery, which is accompanied by 100 U.S. military personnel, arrived Sunday at Morag in northern Poland’s picturesque Mazurian lake district, about 70 km (50 miles) from Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad.
Its mission is to train Polish troops and it poses no threat to Russia’s vast military arsenal, but its presence is hugely symbolic for Poland, which has long complained it hosts no major NATO hardware or troops 11 years after joining the alliance.
“We in Poland see the deployment of the Patriot battery here as a move toward strengthening our national security and ties with America,” Defense Minister Bogdan Klich told a welcoming ceremony also attended by U.S. Ambassador Lee Feinstein.
Under a 2008 accord between Warsaw and Washington, the battery, which is unarmed and is normally stationed in Germany, will be deployed in Poland for about one month four times a year. The first deployment ends on June 16.
The rotations will continue until 2012 when Warsaw expects to have a battery permanently stationed on its territory.
U.S. officials said there were no plans to arm the battery in Morag, which lacks proper storage facilities, but said it would carry missiles in future deployments at other sites.
“You need to walk before you start to run. So we are beginning this operation with this configuration here today and in the future we will include live missiles,” said Feinstein.
The Patriot battery deployment is not linked to ongoing U.S. talks with Poland and other ex-communist states about future missile defense systems that Moscow strongly opposes.
For Poland, the battery provides belated U.S. recognition of its loyalty as an ally which sent troops to Kosovo and Iraq and currently has about 2,600 troops serving in Afghanistan.
But Russia, Poland’s communist-era overlord, reiterated its criticism of the Patriot deployment Wednesday.
“Such military activity does not help to strengthen our mutual security, to develop relations of trust and predictability in this region,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday.
“We note with regret that our questions to the Polish and U.S. sides have remained unanswered, as well as our arguments in favor of temporarily moving the deployment region as far as possible from Russian borders,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The Patriot’s arrival coincides with fresh efforts by Moscow and Warsaw to improve bilateral ties, long strained by rows over missile defense, NATO enlargement, energy supplies and history.
Russia has shown particular sensitivity to Polish concerns since a plane crash on its territory last month killed Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, mostly senior officials.
There was no immediate hint of any retaliatory Russian move to the Patriot deployment in the Foreign Ministry statement.
Russia’s defense ministry denied in January suggestions it might boost its Baltic naval fleet in response to the Patriot deployment in Poland.
Moscow relies heavily on its strategic nuclear missiles for defense because of the poor state of its conventional troops, so it is particularly sensitive to any deployments of anti-missile systems such as the Patriot.
Local officials in Morag welcomed the Patriot’s arrival.
“We had been very worried the military base in Morag would shut down and this would badly hurt the town,” said Zbigniew Poloniewicz, deputy mayor of the county that includes Morag.
“Now, with the American soldiers coming here, we can get more jobs in servicing them while in Morag.”
Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Matthew Jones