Barack Obama throws US missile shield into doubt
The construction of a US missile shield in Europe has been thrown into doubt after Poland said that President-Elect Barack Obama had failed to commit himself to the project.

By Matthew Day in Warsaw and Alex Spillius in Washington
Last Updated: 9:54AM GMT 11 Nov 2008

Officials in Warsaw said that after a conversation between President Lech Kaczynski and Mr Obama, they believe that the chances of the controversial project going ahead now stood at no more than "over 50 per cent".

Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister, also conceded that the worsening state of the American economy might force the president elect to ditch, or at least delay the programme, in favour of domestic priorities.

Poland and the US committed themselves to the project on paper in August in the wake of Russia's military intervention in Georgia. A cornerstone of the of the defence strategy of President George W. Bush and designed to protect the West from attack by "rogue states" such as Iran, the shield would see Poland host ten interceptor missiles and the Czech Republic host the radar component of a system.

Any delay would delight a resurgent Russia, which has described the plan as an affront to its national security and has threatened to place missiles near Poland in retaliation.

A statement from the spokesman for Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president, said that Mr Obama "did not make any promises concerning the anti-missile shield" in a conversation the two men had last Friday, despite claims to the contrary published on the Polish leader's website.

Denis McDonough, a foreign policy adviser to Mr Obama, said that during the phone call Mr Obama had reiterated his long-standing position supporting the deployment of the missile shield but only when the "technology is proved to be workable".

Several test firings of the system have ended in failure, and in October a report by the Pentagon's Institute for Defence Analysis warned that a hasty deployment of the system could undermine its quality and reliability.

The loss of the shield would come as a blow to Polish national security. Increasingly anxious over Moscow's assertive foreign policy, Poland, which lived under Soviet domination for most of the post-war years, regards the system as symbol of the West's commitment to its defence.

Russia is clearly expecting what it would consider a more reasonable approach from an Obama administration. After meeting Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that the next president's views provide hope for a "more constructive" approach.

Mr Lavrov said there would be further consultations on the defence issues with Washington this year, but suggested any final agreements would likely come only with the new US administration.

"We have paid attention to the positions that Barack Obama has published on his site. They instill hope that we can examine these questions in a more constructive way," state-run RIA-Novosti quoted Mr Lavrov as saying.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, has expressed his willingness to meet Mr Obama on the sidelines of the G20 meeting on the global financial crisis in Washington at the end of the week.

But he chose the day of Mr Obama's win to announce the deployment of short-range missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost in Europe.

Numerous analysts said Mr Medvedev's response was clearly authored by Vladimir Putin, no longer president himself but powerful in the prime minister's post and long the spearhead of Russian attacks on the US.