Poland and US sign missile-shield deal
The United States and Poland signed a controversial deal to set up a missile defense system in Poland, an initiative that has long angered Russia.
Warsaw -- Poland and the United States signed a deal on Wednesday, agreeing to establish a missile defense base on Polish soil, a move that has inflamed tensions with Russia.
After more than a year of tough bargaining, Poland formally agreed to host 10 American missile interceptors in return for US military aid, including Patriot air defense missiles.
"It is really not just a historic occasion but an extraordinary occasion," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after she and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski signed the deal in Warsaw.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk also welcomed the deal: "Our countries, Poland and the United States, will be more secure," he said.
Plan for Eastern European
The Czech Republic is to host the other part of the system, a tracking radar near the German border. If parliaments in both nations agree, the project means the two former Soviet-bloc nations will get their first US military bases.
Russia has fiercely opposed the planned shield, despite repeated US assurances that the system would defend Europe and the United States against missile threats from "rogue nations" like Iran, not target Moscow's strategic nuclear arsenal.
About 65 percent of the Polish public now think their country should fear Russia, according to a poll published in the Polish daily, Wyborcza, on Wednesday. The majority polled, however, said they had no fear of Iran, North Korea, China or Germany.
A new argument
Polish President Lech Kaczynski has called the recent Russia-Georgia conflict a "very strong argument" for a missile shield deal.
The timing has also drawn criticism, including from Moscow, that the accord could be seen as Poland's response to Russia's military assault on Georgia -- a link denied by the two chief negotiators after they initialed the deal last week.
Poland bargained hard for US military aid, particularly for a boost in its air defenses after Moscow threatened to target the planned missile-shield bases in its former satellites.
With an upcoming US presidential election in November, some have said George W. Bush's imminent departure from the White House has also pushed the deal through. Some Polish officials hinted that the next president might be less inclined to strike a bargain with Poland.
The interceptors are designed to destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles in space. In contrast, the Patriots sought by Poland are theater defense weapons with a range of about 70 kilometers.
Earlier, Rice insisted that the missile shield posed no threat to Russia.
"We're talking about a missile defense system that couldn't possibly be aimed at the Russian nuclear deterrent," she told the BBC Tuesday. "Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads. This is for small missile attacks of the kind that Iran might launch."
The Pentagon expects the missile shield to be fully operative by 2013. To blunt Russian fears, the US has offered Russia to join the project or inspect the planned sites.
Sikorski last week renewed the offer for Russian inspections. He also reached out to Moscow, while denouncing its "brutal" assault in Georgia.
"When the smoke has cleared after the battle, we will stay neighbors," he wrote in the Polish daily Fakt.
More in favor
While the US plan has been unpopular among Czechs and Poles, latest polls in Poland show that opinion had swung in favor of the shield in the wake of the fighting over South Ossetia, which lies between Russia and Georgia.
In a sign that Poland's government -- although more EU-friendly than the previous one -- wants stronger ties with the US, the agreement also included a pledge of US military cooperation sought by the Poles.
The document says the US is "committed to the security of Poland and any US facilities on the territory of Poland," Tusk said at the signing ceremony.
Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said Wednesday that the Polish military supports placing the Patriots near Warsaw to protect the "administrative, political and military centers of our nation."
The Bush administration began sounding out Poland and the Czech Republic about four years ago. Formal talks with Poland began in May 2007 but they hit a snag after Tusk came to power in November and sought an improved deal for Poland.
Kaczynski called the signing an "important day" in Polish history during a televised address to the nation Tuesday.
Poland had taken a step to "strengthen its position in the world," he said.
-- Dominika Maslikowski/Expatica