WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s security interests may end up being better served under the flexible defense system now proposed by Washington than it was under the previous land-based plan, an adviser to the Polish prime minister said on Thursday.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama shelved a project to install interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic and said he would instead seek a system involving first sea-based and later land-based interceptors.
The key concern for NATO member Poland has been not so much the kind of missile system deployed as the implicit U.S. commitment to its defense implied by the stationing of American military hardware on its soil.
“If this system becomes reality in the shape Washington is now suggesting, it would actually be better for us than the original missile shield programme,” said Slawomir Nowak, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
“We were never really threatened by a long-range missile attack from Iran,” he told TVP INFO television.
The Bush administration first proposed the “missile shield” to address concerns Iran was trying to develop nuclear warheads it could mount on long-range missiles. U.S. intelligence now believes Iran is unlikely to have a long-range capability until between 2015 and 2020.
Russia strongly opposed the shield, especially its planned location in eastern Europe near to its borders, and has warmly welcomed Obama’s decision.
Polish officials say Washington may ask Poland eventually to host SM-3 interceptors targeting short and medium-range missiles as part of the new land-based system.
“Firstly, we have to learn what exactly is the new proposal the United States is willing to offer to us,” said Nowak.
“We are familiar with the SM-3 system and the Americans have assured us Poland is one of the countries where they want to place this system.”
Under the new plan, Washington would deploy Aegis-equipped ships first with interceptors capable of shooting down ballistic missiles to defend both U.S. forces and European allies.
The land-based systems would be fielded in a second phase starting in about 2015.
Ex-communist countries in eastern Europe are perturbed by Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, especially its short war with Georgia last year. Poles also fret about its neighbor Ukraine possibly returning to Moscow’s fold.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski has been particularly critical of Moscow and has expressed dismay at Obama’s decision.
After meeting Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. annual general assembly in New York on Wednesday, Kaczynski told Polish television: “I told the president (Obama) of our lack of satisfaction over the abandonment of the missile shield.”
A senior member of Tusk’s ruling center-right Civic Platform echoed Kaczynski’s concerns on Thursday.
“I think for all of us it was a big surprise that the United States backed away so quickly from the missile shield. This is a reason to say frankly that this is a problem for Poland,” Zbigniew Chlebowski told Polish radio.
An opinion poll published last weekend showed 48 percent of Poles thought Obama’s decision was good for Poland, while 31 percent took the opposite view. Analysts do not expect the decision to dent the popularity of Tusk’s government.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall