Monday, January 28, 2008

When you have the shield...

“When you have the shield it is easier to use the sword.”

When I heard this quote from a speaker at the last week’s conference on Coercive Arms Control I felt reminded that I still have to catch-up with the developments on the U.S. missile defense bases. Here we go:

The percentage of Czechs opposing the plans of their government to host a radar station as a part of the U.S. missile shield has increased. In May 2007 61 percent were against that idea, in November last year the figure reached 68 percent and it climbed to 70 percent one month later.

Regardless of the vox populi the Czech politicians continue to discuss the matter with their U.S. counterparts. The officials were confidential and announced that they are close to an agreement and that the finish line is clearly within view. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg stated in an interview in mid December 2007 that negotiations between the Czech Republic and the United States on the stationing of the controversial radar base would probably last until February. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said that a draft accord on the radar base was scheduled to be submitted to parliament in April. However, he cautioned that "we prefer quality to speed" and that his government had not set any firm deadline for completing the negotiations. Obviously the quality was not as good as originally expected: on January 23 the Defense Ministry spokesman Andrej Cirtek was quoted: "Negotiations … are progressing, but it can by no means be said when they will be completed".

There is not only a change when it comes to the duration of the negotiations but also in terms of substance. It seems that someone paid attention to what Ellen Tauscher, the Chairwoman of U.S. House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said earlier: Let’s NATO-ize! A similar comment was made by the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in late November 2007. During a meeting on January 17 also the Czech Prime Minister and U.S. Missile Defense Agency chief Henry Obering agreed upon that the U.S. missile defense shield should be part of NATO's system.

The fifth round of negotiations between the United States and the Czech Republic opened today in Prague. The Czech Prime Minister Topolanek will be in Washington from Feb. 27 to March 1 where the radar base will definitely also be on the agenda.

Let’s shift northward:

I blogged already earlier that the new Polish government takes a more rational approach towards the missile defense issue than the predecessor government did. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk manifested this impression when he indicated in early January that he was in no hurry to decide whether his country would become home to 10 U.S. missile interceptors. He also said on January 10 that "it is not a race against time. The essential thing is to get what we want from the negotiations". He continued that Poland will only agree to provide a base for US interceptor missiles if it boosts Polish security. BBC's Adam Easton, reporting from Warsaw, already gave a rough idea how such an improvement could look like: Poland now wants U.S. military hardware and a bilateral security agreement before it agrees to host the base. Warsaw is demanding as protection from possible Russian attack the installation of the U.S. Patriot air-raid defense system, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). A bilateral military agreement should also guarantee that Poland receives the most up-to-date US weapons, Tusk said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said that the United States "has treated these suggestions as serious proposals from a serious ally." The Washington was prepared for serious talks on these issues and hopes that now talks with Poland will be intensified, he added. Some analysts do not expect this to happen any time soon and point out that Warsaw is awaiting the new leadership in the White House before taking any firm decision.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski poignantly said in an interview published in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza on January 6 that "This is an American, not a Polish project" and therefore one has to wait until the terms are right. The same Foreign Minister said on January 15 that his nation as early as next month could agree to house 10 U.S. missile interceptors. The deal is likely to come when new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visits Washington to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in February, Sikorski said. The date for the meeting is not yet set, but it is likely to take place after Tusk’s visit to Moscow on February 8. Vladimir Putin will certainly remind Mr. Tusk that if the next U.S. president is a Democrat who decides to pull the plug on the antimissile system, Poland will find itself having incurred the wrath of Russia and having nothing to show for it. In the light of the recent gas and beef rows with Russia, Poland will act cautiously.

However, less than 17 years after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the Eastern European states transformed themselves into market economies, Poland shows that it understands the principles of capitalism only too well: the price is important. Sikorski’s statement that "We feel no threat from Iran" clearly indicates, that Poland is willed to wait until the offered price is right. It seems that within the nine days from January 6 to 15 the price was significantly increased. There is no information available on what was offered from the U.S. side but I will keep you posted as soon as I get some news.

At the moment the situation seems to be reversed from what it used to be towards the end of last year: now the Czechs come up with vague statements that resemble open-ended talk-shops while Warsaw appears to be keen on signing a deal.

Just as a brief addendum: recently the U.S. Missile Defense Agency posted a four-pager on their accomplishments throughout 2007. It is still too early to speculate whether the next year’s edition will hold ground-breaking entries on Poland and the Czech Republic.

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