Monday, January 07, 2008

Poland signals a shift on U.S. missile shield

Signaling a tougher position in negotiations with the United States on a European anti-ballistic missile shield, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski says the new Warsaw government is not prepared to accept U.S. plans to deploy part of the shield in Poland until all costs and risks are considered.

"This is an American, not a Polish project," Sikorski said in an interview published in the weekend edition of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

The previous Polish government had consented in principle to accept parts of the U.S. shield, but no formal agreement has been signed. Now Sikorski is saying that the terms under which the shield would be deployed were unclear and that the new government wanted the risks to be explained, the financial costs to be set out and clarification on how Poland's interests would be defended if the shield were deployed on its territory.

"We feel no threat from Iran," Sikorski said, challenging the U.S view that some of the biggest threats facing the security of Europe and the United States are from "rogue states" in the Middle East, including Iran.

Still, Sikorski said, "if an important ally such as the United States has a request of such an important nature, we take it very seriously."

He added: "It is not only the benefits but the risks of the system that have to be discussed fully. It cannot be that we alone carry the costs."

There was no official response from the United States. Bogdan Klich, Poland's new defense minister, is expected to make his first official visit to Washington this month to explain his government's position.

NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance, said Sunday that the missile defense issue was essentially a bilateral discussion between Poland, the United States and Russia.

"NATO is happy to be a forum for discussion, and it is a useful one," said James Appathurai, a spokesman for the alliance. "But it does not substitute for the bilateral track."

Sikorski also said he was worried that the United States could abandon the project after the American presidential election in November. In that case, Poland would nevertheless have to bear political costs, like the deterioration of relations with Russia, if it signed on to the shield prematurely.

The deployment of the U.S. missile shield has become such a contentious issue between the United States and Russia - and indeed between Poland and Russia - that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has warned of a new arms race if Washington proceeds with deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Having accused Washington of threatening Russia's national security interests, Putin last month suspended his nation's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

Under that treaty, one of the last major arms pacts concluded between the former Cold War foes, countries stretching from Canada across Europe to the eastern parts of Russia cut their conventional forces and agreed to on- site inspections and an elaborate system of verification and notifications. It was implemented in 1992.

The Kremlin did not say how long it would suspend its participation. But Russian diplomats said it depended on not only what kind of concessions the United States was prepared to make concerning changes to the treaty, but also whether Poland and the Czech Republic would deploy part of the U.S. missile shield.

The new approach on missile defense taken by Poland's new center-right coalition government, under Prime Minister Donald Tusk, reflects a different negotiating strategy from the previous nationalist-conservative government led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Kaczynski, who was much more pro- American, had in principle agreed to deploy several interceptors on Polish territory without going into detail over the costs, the maintenance and the risks to Poland's security, according to Polish officials.

But the former prime minister did little to allay Russia's fears about deploying the missile shield in Poland, or to drum up support in other European Union member states. He left it up to the United States to explain the issue to the Kremlin and to European governments.

In contrast, Tusk and Sikorski, while having no illusions about Russia's new self-confidence under Putin, have nevertheless repeatedly said they want to improve relations with Russia.

Later this month, Poland and Russia for the first time will hold direct talks in Warsaw over the missile shield. The Russian side will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kisliak.

Sikorski, who was defense minister in the Kaczynski government, had been forced to resign early last year after criticizing, among other things, the government's handling of the missile defense negotiations. He later joined Tusk's Civic Platform party and was appointed foreign minister last month.