International Herald Tribune

Judy Dempsey
June 18, 2008
BERLIN: Poland is balking at further negotiations with the United States over plans to deploy an anti-ballistic missile shield, prompting Washington to seek out Lithuania, formerly part of the Soviet Union, as a possible location for the interceptors, officials said Wednesday.

The U.S. approach to Lithuania is likely to stir up fresh tensions with Russia, which has already threatened to take measures if Washington deploys the shield’s interceptors in Poland and its radars in the Czech Republic. Both are NATO countries that belonged to the defunct, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

But taking the missile defense shield onto former Soviet territory was a suggestion that surprised, and even stunned, some European security experts.

“The last thing we need is another conflict with Russia,” said Gereon Schuch, program director in the Robert Bosch Foundation for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Council for Foreign Affairs.

Russia is already seething over NATO’s attempts to expand to Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, especially since NATO’s top envoys completed a visit there this week to see what reforms Ukraine was undertaking in order to start membership talks.

Russia has made it clear that it would try to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and would even retaliate. It is, for example, preparing to introduce visas for Ukrainians entering Russia.

If the United States negotiated to deploy interceptors in Lithuania, Russia would almost certainly adopt an even tougher stance toward that country. The Russian defense and security establishment still finds it extremely difficult to accept that the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – broke away and became independent from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequently joined the European Union and NATO.

“There is no doubt that Russia would exploit this to the full if parts of the U.S missile shield were based here,” said Raimundas Lopata, political science professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.

The U.S. State Department said its security experts had already spoken to the Lithuanians.

“We have had general conversations with the government of Lithuania about missile defense issues,” said Tom Casey, deputy spokesman. “But, certainly, we expect and hope that we will be able to conclude an agreement with Poland in the near future. And we do expect it will work out, so I don’t think there’s going to be a need for any alternatives.”

But Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that “there are other options available to us,” adding, “There are several European countries that could host the interceptors and Lithuania is one of them.”

Juozas Olekas, the Lithuanian defense minister, said Wednesday that his government was waiting to see what terms Washington might offer.

The overtures to Lithuania reflect exasperation on both the Polish and American sides over their negotiations to deploy the interceptors in Poland.

In March, Poland’s center-right government, led by Donald Tusk, presented Washington with a short but costly list of conditions for placing up to 10 inceptors on its territory. The Polish demands included U.S. provision of a mobile air defense system that NATO diplomats have said could cost billions of dollars.

Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, said last month that if Warsaw agreed to accept the interceptors and a U.S. presence in the country, it needed to modernize its air defenses to protect itself from threats. The Polish Defense Ministry has said those threats could come from Russia.

So far, the United States has rejected the Polish requests, apparently leaving the government in Warsaw with the impression that no deal could be struck with the Bush administration before it leaves office in January. Ministers have said it might even be better to wait until a new administration was in place.

“I believe the resolve is strengthening among some circles in the Polish government to wait for the new administration to complete the missile defense talks,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, director of the independent Center for International Studies in Warsaw.

Some Polish analysts see the U.S. approach to Lithuania as an attempt to exert pressure on Warsaw. “It won’t work because this administration will not have time to conclude any negotiations with Lithuania,” said Smolar, a security expert.

Negotiations have also hit an unexpected snag with the Czech Republic, which has already agreed to deploy the shield’s radar system and was hoping to conclude negotiations last month. But the two sides are haggling over the status of any American personnel who would be based in the Czech Republic and whether they would be answerable to local judicial and financial authorities.

“This is now in the hands of the finance ministry in Prague,” said Andrej Cirtek, spokesman for the defense ministry. “We will see if the U.S. will accept our proposals.”

The Foreign Ministry in Prague said Wednesday that the government still expected to sign the final agreement next month