Russia raises stakes over US plan for missile shield

By Stephen Castle, Europe Correspondent
Published: 20 February 2007

Poland and the Czech Republic have been warned that they risk becoming Russian military targets if they go ahead with plans to host bases for a US missile defence shield.

The threat from Moscow, which is vehemently opposed to the American plan, promises to deal further damage to relations between Russia and former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe, particularly Poland. It has also provoked alarm in several European capitals which fear Moscow may adopt a more aggressive stance in dealings with the EU.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has already said he does not trust US claims that the deployment of missile defence systems in Europe is intended to counter threats from rogue states such as Iran.

Russia's missile forces chief, Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov, said yesterday that to proceed with the move would upset strategic stability. He added that Moscow's "strategic missile forces will be capable of targeting these facilities if a relevant decision is made".

The comments coincided with the clearest indication yet that the Czechs and Poles will come out in favour of hosting the US missile shield, which is designed to repel ballistic missile attacks launched by hostile nations or terrorists.

The US has insisted that the European arm of the shield is for defence against Iran. Bases at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg in California would protect the US from threats from North Korea.

Under the proposals Poland would host up to 10 ground-based ballistic rockets while the Czech Republic would have an advanced radar system to track missiles. Moscow has threatened to retaliate by installing medium-range ballistic missiles in a region neighbouring Poland.

Speaking in Warsaw the Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, who has already supported the idea of hosting the US bases, said: "We've come to the conclusion that both countries will probably answer in the affirmative." That sentiment appeared to be echoed by his Polish counterpart, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who said the anti-missile system "is not aimed against Russia in any way". Suggestions that the system would change the alignment of forces in Europe were a misunderstanding, he said. "This truth is being conveyed to our partners in the west and the east."

That sentiment has not convinced opinion-formers in other European capitals who are alarmed at the Polish and Czech decisions to side with Washington. "It is a national decision that has European implications," one European diplomat said, adding it illustrated a lack of European commitment in Warsaw and its instinctive support for US policy.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Foreign Minister of Germany, which holds the EU presidency, criticised the US in an interview with the Handelsblatt newspaper, saying it should have discussed its defence plans with Russia before making the proposals to Poland and the Czech Republic.

Public opinion is divided on the issue in eastern Europe and Mr Topolanek may struggle to get parliamentary approval for Czech participation. Fifty-five per cent of Poles oppose the plans, according to a survey for the Warsaw-based Centre for Public Research.

However, the idea of siding with the US on defence issues and standing up to Russia is deeply ingrained in the politics of Poland and the Czech Republic. Relations between Moscow and Warsaw are poor, and Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party has campaigned on a nationalist platform, promising to be tough in negotiations with Russia.

Poles have been alarmed by Moscow's apparent use of its energy supplies as a political tool and by plans to build a pipeline under the Baltic linking Russia with Germany. Tensions have been exacerbated by trade disputes, in particular Russia's refusal to accept meat from Poland.