WARSAW (Reuters) - The United States and Poland signed a deal on Wednesday to station parts of a U.S. missile defense shield on Polish soil, drawing a sharp response from Moscow.
The deal is seen as certain to aggravate tensions between Russia and the West already strained by Moscow’s military intervention in Georgia.
The 10 interceptor rockets in Poland, along with a radar complex in the Czech Republic, will form the European part of a global system Washington says will be able to shoot down missiles from “rogue” states or groups such as al Qaeda.
“This is an agreement that will establish a missile defense site here in Poland that will help us to deal with ... long range missiles ... from countries like Iran or North Korea,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who signed the agreement with Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski, told reporters.
Despite U.S. assurances to the contrary, Russia sees the ballistic missile shield as a threat to its own security and some Russian politicians and generals have said Poland must be prepared for a preventive attack on the site in the future.
Rice said she understood why NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had denounced such remarks as “pathetic rhetoric.”
“What the secretary general was referring to is fulminating about how you’re going to attack Poland because there are 10 interceptors aimed at long-range threats of the future from countries like Iran when you’ve been offered all kinds of measures to demonstrate” that the missiles are not aimed at Russia, Rice said. “(It) just borders on the bizarre.”
In an interview with CNN, Rice said Russia knows NATO has a commitment and obligation to defend Poland.
“They (Russia) must know that the United States would never permit an attack on the territory of an ally under Article 5,” said Rice, referring to part of the North Atlantic Treaty that says an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said later: “Russia in this case will have to react and not only through diplomatic protests.”
The shield was “one of the instruments in an extremely dangerous bundle of American military projects involving the one-sided development of a global missile shield system”.
A ministry statement said it would provide no protection against “imaginary Iranian danger”.
The interceptors will be placed at the ex-Warsaw Pact base of Redzikowo in northern Poland, 1,360 km (800 miles) from Moscow and 300 km from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea coast.
Russia says Washington and Warsaw rushed through the deal as a response to its military action in Georgia. Warsaw and Washington deny this although Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said events in Georgia show Poland’s security concerns need to be taken seriously by the United States.
Poland, the biggest ex-Soviet satellite in central Europe, and the Baltic states have condemned the Russian troops’ advance into Georgia, and political commentators have drawn parallels with the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968.
Surveys have shown a turnaround in Polish public opinion in favor of the shield since the Russian intervention in Georgia.
NATO endorsed the U.S. missile defense plan for Europe at a summit in April even though some European allies doubt its effectiveness and worry it could lead to a new arms race.
The missile shield deal must now be approved by the Polish parliament, which is seen as a formality because the government as well as the main opposition party support it.
The Czech government has already agreed to host the radar site but it faces a tougher task of pushing it through parliament, where it holds only half the chamber’s 200 seats.
Analysts said Poland’s agreement to join the plan was a positive but not decisive signal for the Czech ratification.
“While before it was unclear whether Poland would go for it or not, the Czech opposition could object to the concept as a whole,” said Petr Just, from Charles University in Prague.
Tusk’s government bargained hard over terms after coming to power last November, demanding greater military cooperation with the United States for hosting the site.
The negotiations seemed stuck in July but a compromise was reached just as Russia intervened in South Ossetia.
Under the deal, Washington finally agreed to meet a Polish demand to base a battery of Patriot missiles in Poland as defense against a short-range attack Warsaw fears.