by Kingston Reif
After more than 18 months of hesitation, the United States and Poland on August 20 suddenly signed an agreement to place American missile defense interceptors on Polish territory. According to the Associated Press, parliamentary and presidential approval also appears likely, though no date has been given for when this might occur.
AFTER GEORGIA, POLAND THINKS TWICE
Poland’s acquiescence to the missile defense agreement after months of uncertainty is widely believed to be a result of Russia’s recent aggressive actions in Georgia. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the principal obstacle in negotiations between the United States and Poland centered on Poland’s insistence that the United States provide it with an advanced Patriot air defense system. Washington had been firm in resisting this demand, but Russia’s belligerence in Georgia seems to have altered its thinking.
Likewise, Russia’s invasion of Georgia ignited simmering Polish fears of a resurgent Russia bent on recapturing its Soviet-era dominance in Eastern Europe. These fears are reflected both in the speed with which the missile defense agreement was concluded in the aftermath of the war in Georgia, and in the Polish public’s changing view of the deal’s merits.
The United States promised Patriot missiles to Poland that can intercept short-range missiles or attacking aircraft, including an American Patriot battery to be moved from Germany to Poland that will temporarily be operated by approximately 100 U.S. military personnel. In addition, the two sides expressed a “mutual commitment” to come to each other’s defense in the event of an attack. This commitment appears to be more far-reaching than the security guarantees that come with Poland’s membership in NATO.
Though Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski claimed that the two sides agreed to the terms of a deal “before the events in Georgia, and because of the U.S. calendar,” most Polish officials tell a different story.
According to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, “Today, after what has happened in the Caucasus, it can be clearly seen that real security guarantees that would not leave Poland just with the installation are essential….It seems such arguments are taken more seriously now by the U.S.” Similarly, Polish President Lech Kaczynski stated that Russia’s aggression is a “very strong argument” in favor of a missile defense deal with Washington. Even Sikorski couldn’t help but concede that “what is crucial, and what decided the success of the talks over the last couple of days, was that the U.S. offered us new proposals.”
It strains credulity to suggest that the U.S. decision to offer these new proposals was not impacted by events in the South Caucasus.
THE RUSSIAN REACTION
Predictably, Russia was apoplectic about the missile defense agreement. According to Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, the agreement “was signed at a time of a very difficult crisis in relations between Russia and the U.S. over the situation in Georgia.” Rapidly signing the agreement right now, Rogozin said, “shows that, of course, the missile defense system will be deployed not against Iran, but against the strategic potential of Russia.”
Anatoly Nogovitsin, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, was even more emphatic in his opposition, warning that “Poland, by deploying [the interceptors], is exposing itself to a strike one hundred percent.”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated that the “deployment has the Russian Federation as its target.” Yet Medvedev struck a less belligerent note than Nogovitsin by noting that the agreement “is sad news for all who live on this densely populated continent, but it is not dramatic.”
U.S. officials continue to insist that Russia’s strategic objections to the U.S. proposal have little objective merit. As Secretary Rice put it, “Missile defense, of course, is aimed at no one…It is in our defense that we do this.”
On one level, Russia’s objections are undoubtedly overblown. An initial deployment of 10 interceptors isn’t likely to pose a significant danger to Russian nuclear forces. Yet Russia’s objections can’t be attributed to political posturing or paranoia alone.
First, the timing of the agreement calls into question Rice’s claim that the third site “is aimed at no one.” If the system was aimed at no one, why was the agreement rushed to completion only days after Russia’s invasion of Georgia? It’s no secret that Poland is far more concerned about Russian missiles than it is about Iranian missiles.
Second, Russia’s belief that U.S. missile defenses in Europe would not be as defensive in nature as the U.S. claims is not completely unfounded. Russian defense analysts are undoubtedly questioning the purpose of a system that would be in a position to target Russian missiles but would not be able to protect a large swath of Europe from an Iranian missile attack. In addition, despite the Missile Defense Agency’s claims to the contrary, the interceptors planned for Poland would be fast enough to catch Russian missiles launched west of the Ural Mountains toward the United States.
Moscow likely regards the initial deployment of 10 interceptors as a precursor to much larger and more ambitious deployments in the future, since if one believes the Bush administration’s dire predictions about Iran’s future capabilities, Tehran would have the knowledge, capacity, and incentive to build far more than 10 missiles capable of hitting Europe and the United States.
Third, Russia views the third site proposal as another step in a long line of steps, beginning with the eastward expansion of NATO, taken by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War which have had the effect of encroaching upon Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and beyond. One cannot fully account for Russia’s opposition to the proposed European deployment absent an understanding of this crucial context.
The United States needs Russia’s cooperation now more than ever to address the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program; negotiate deeper, binding, and verifiable reductions of nuclear warheads and delivery systems; and buttress programs that secure and safeguard Russian nuclear materials.
Pursuing a system that antagonizes Moscow will make it all the more difficult to achieve these vital national security objectives.
NOT A DONE DEAL YET
The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress cut the $85 million the administration requested for third site construction until the Polish and Czech governments give final approval. In addition, it called for independent evaluations on missile defense options for Europe, and required that the Secretary of Defense certify that the proposed two-stage interceptor to be deployed in Poland “has demonstrated, through successful, operationally realistic flight testing, a high probability of working in an operationally effective manner” before acquisition and deployment of operational interceptors can begin. Congress has begun to impose similar funding cuts and restrictions on the Bush administration’s Fiscal Year 2009 budget request for the third site.
Though the U.S.-Poland missile defense agreement brings the Bush administration a step closer to meeting Congressional requirements, both the Polish and Czech parliaments have yet to approve the agreements. According to the Associated Press, parliamentary approval appears likely in Poland as both the government and the lead opposition party support the deal.
However, Czech parliamentary approval remains in doubt. A recent poll conducted for a prominent Czech newspaper showed that “almost 60 percent of those polled said that in the context of the Russia-Georgia conflict, they are opposed to the planned installation of a U.S. missile defence radar base on Czech soil.” Czech officials hope to submit the agreement to the Czech parliament sometime in November, although some analysts maintain that the deal will not be voted on until 2010.
Another obstacle that must be overcome before construction and deployment of the third site can begin is the Congressional requirement that the Secretary of Defense certify that the interceptors to be deployed in Poland will work in an operationally effective manner. The Missile Defense Agency hopes to complete three tests of the interceptor by 2010, and expects the full system to be in place by 2012 or 2013.
Yet tests of the existing U.S.-based system have frequently been delayed, in some cases for many months. In addition, given that only 7 of the previous 13 tests of this system have been successful, more than three tests are likely to be required to confirm the system’s operational effectiveness.
Key Republican lawmakers have indicated that they intend to use Russia’s invasion of Georgia to overturn the restrictions on construction imposed by the Democratic-led Congress. However, key Democrats continue to criticize the proposed system. As House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairwoman Representative Ellen O. Tauscher (D-CA) put it, “Go ahead and move on with research and development….But as far as putting holes in the ground in Poland, we are saying no.”