Among Czechs and Poles, same missile shield, differing sense of threat

Judy Dempsey
May 14, 2008

WARSAW: Whenever the United States sends missile defense negotiators to the Czech Republic and Poland, where the Bush administration intends to deploy parts of its anti-ballistic shield, they encounter surprisingly different attitudes.

In the Czech Republic, where negotiations are all but complete, the administration deals with a government that believes that the threat the shield is designed to counter comes from Iran and other “rogue” regimes.

“Our rationale for agreeing to accept the radars stems from the fact that we agree about the threats,” said Nikola Hynek, a security expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.

In Poland, traditionally one of the closest U.S. allies in this part of Europe, Donald Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform coalition has taken a dramatically different stance. It believes the threat comes from Russia, not the Middle East.

“Look at our backyard. There is Russia. There is the tension between Georgia and Russia. There is uncertainty in Ukraine and unpredictability in Belarus,” said Pawel Swieboda, director of demosEuropa, an independent research center in Warsaw. “That explains the Polish attitude toward security.”

These different perceptions have influenced the missile shield negotiations. Mirek Topolanek’s government in Prague presented a very modest wish list to Washington. There was little haggling over costs, how the radars for the missile shield would be protected, or how many jobs the bases would provide. Instead, the Czechs asked that their scientists be involved in the development of the shield and that the U.S.-Czech industry establish co-production projects. For the politicians, the Defense Ministry and the scientific community, this presents a great opportunity to bolster Czech technological expertise. The United States agreed, although it was not certain that it was prepared to share the missile technology itself.

When it came to the demands set by Tusk and his foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, the U.S. negotiators were taken aback, particularly since the previous nationalist-conservative government under Jaroslaw Kaczynski had set no conditions. “The Poles have become very tough,” said Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Poles, at least until now, have agreed to host up to 10 interceptors because, as Bogdan Klich, the defense minister, explained, this is their chance to obtain a security umbrella from the United States that neither NATO nor the European Union can provide.

But there is a twist in the Polish negotiating stance. Officials here say that once the United States has installed the system on its territory, it could make Poland more vulnerable – not so much from attacks from far afield, such as Iran, but much closer to home, such as Russia. That is why the Tusk government is insisting that the United States agree to modernize Poland’s air defenses by, for example, providing surface-to-air Patriot missiles. In talks with Polish officials here, there is an impression that if Warsaw wants to establish a long-term and more balanced relationship with the Kremlin, it will first require a strong security system to underpin it, such as the missile defense shield and the Patriot missiles.

The Poles are playing tough because they believe the Bush administration wants to wrap up these talks by the time it leaves office in January. “Missile defense is one of the legacy items,” said Flanagan. Even so, the Poles are pursuing a high-risk strategy.

Despite the rhetoric by Vladimir Putin, who as Russian president warned of a new Cold War if the Americans deployed the shield in Central Europe, the United States and Russia have recently signed two important accords. During the summit meeting in Sochi last month between President George W. Bush and Putin, they agreed to revive the special strategic framework in which both sides hold regular consultations over crucial issues. Last week, they agreed to cooperate in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy involving both Russian and U.S. companies in joint ventures. Furthermore, U.S. industries would be allowed the commercial sales of nuclear materials, reactors, and major reactor components to Russia.

Thus, the Polish fears about Russia may not correspond to the cautious shift toward cooperation taking place in Washington.

“Poland knows that the missile defense system does not threaten Russia. Russia knows that too, which is why the United States may be questioning the request to modernize Poland’s air defenses,” said Flanagan. In any case, he added, Poland should feel secure because NATO stands by Article V, whereby the alliance would come to the assistance of one of its members if it was attacked or threatened by attack.

Poland is driving a hard bargain with the Bush administration for another reason – it’s payback time. The Poles believe they have been treated shabbily since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Poland, strapped for cash, lacking new armored personnel carriers and other protection equipment for its troops, stepped in to fill the gap when Spain under its newly elected Socialist government in the spring of 2004 withdrew its troops. Poland sent nearly 2,000 soldiers to Iraq and despite casualties, dwindling support from public opinion at home and meager resources, Poland has stuck it out.

In doing so, it expected some rewards – for instance, reconstruction contracts for Iraq or at the very least, a visa waiver by the United States for Polish citizens. The administration has delivered neither. “We carried the can in Iraq, and now we are sending troops to Afghanistan,” said Swieboda. “The government in Warsaw believes the U.S. has not been very responsive to Polish expectations nor has it taken our considerations very seriously.” As a result, the Tusk government has decided to make the most of Bush’s remaining months, convinced that the outgoing administration is determined to sign off on the missile defense before it leaves office.

If the Poles get what they want, their negotiating strategy will have paid off. If they don’t, Poland faces the choice of lowering its demands or perhaps refusing the deployment. Either way, the Polish attitudes toward the United States will have changed. Being a good Atlanticist is not enough, Warsaw will have learned. You need some good bargaining chips too.