Tough Sell For Overseas U.S. Missile Defense Bases
For more than a year, the Bush administration has been urging the Europeans to embrace missile defense — specifically to install a high-tech radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland.
The NATO alliance backed the proposal earlier this year and, in the spring, the Czech government agreed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Prague for the formalities.
"I'm very proud to stand with you today to sign this landmark agreement," she said. "I think that it is truly a landmark agreement. It is an agreement that is befitting for friends and allies who face a common threat in the 21st century and wish to address it through the application of the best defensive capabilities that we can bring to bear."
A Time-Intensive Process
It may have been easy to gain the Czech government's agreement, but the Czech public has been divided on the issue. There have been several demonstrations in Prague and elsewhere this year against missile defense, led by a group called "No To The Base" — the base that would house the missile radar.
Jan Tomasch, a leader of the group, said the government's agreement is not the last word.
"This signing of the treaty doesn't really change much because the treaty has to be ratified by the Czech parliament, and the position of the government in the parliament is very weak," he says. "So, I don't think they will be able to get this treaty to be ratified by the parliament anytime soon, if at all."
The radar and the American soldiers who would operate remind some Czechs of the many years when Soviet soldiers were stationed on their territory.
Jiri Tutter, a leader of Greenpeace, which opposes the missile defense system, says that simply the idea of another country on Czech soil is difficult for the public to accept.
Earlier this year, the political situation was similar in Poland. Many there came out onto the streets to oppose the deployment of 10 interceptor missiles. The government in Warsaw favored the system, but the talks stalled when Poland wanted the U.S. to commit to its air defense should it accept the missiles.
Then Russia invaded Georgia, and almost immediately, the Polish government signaled its willingness to sign up. In early September, Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk hosted Secretary of State Rice in Warsaw.
"This is a very special moment in our common history," Tusk said. "We have achieved the main goal. It means that Poland and the United States of America will be more secure."
'Not Aimed At Anyone'
Rice again insisted that the missile interceptors in Poland would have nothing to do with Russia.
"This is an agreement that of course will establish a missile defense site here in Poland," she said. "A missile defense site that will help us to deal with the new threats of the 21st century — long-range missile threats from countries like Iran or from North Korea. This is a system that is defensive and is not aimed at anyone."
But for many in Europe and, indeed, around the world, it was difficult to believe Russia was not a motivating factor. After all, it was Russia's attack on Georgia that brought about quick agreement between Washington and Warsaw.
This has fueled Russian suspicions about the Americans, says Alexei Arbatov, a scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
"They say, 'Believe us. We are good guys. We do not mean harm to anybody. So, you should rest assured we do not mean anything against you.' That's what America's position boils down," Arbatov says. "And Russians have a lot of reasons to be mistrustful, because we have an example of NATO expansion, which started with three countries 10 years ago and now they are talking about Ukraine and Georgia as members of NATO."
For some in NATO, especially those states that were forced to remain in Moscow's orbit during the Cold War, that is precisely the point.
"From a political point of view, placing elements of missile defense in Europe means the strengthening of NATO, especially the link between both sides of the Atlantic, so there's no surprise that Russia opposes it," says Andrej Cirtek, spokesman for the Czech Defense Ministry.
Many of the proponents of missile defense in the U.S. have tried hard to convince Moscow that it has nothing to do with Russia's nuclear arsenal.
Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, the director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, expresses frustration that the Russians won't see that the system is focused on Tehran.
"Having 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic does not change the strategic balance," Obering says. "I mean Russia has hundreds of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], thousands of warheads, and there's no way that these interceptors threaten that."
Suspicions Of Expansion
But Arbatov suspects that the U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe will not stop with those 10 interceptors.
"Americans have never explained to Russia where would be the limits of the system, and how Russia may rest assured that this is not a system designed to undermine Russian strategic deterrence," he says.
Late last year, in order to overcome Russian suspicions, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed to delay the crucial last phase in the American deployment until there was incontrovertible proof of Iran's missile development.
"We would consider tying together the activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat. In other words, Iranian missile testing and so on," Gates said. "We have not fully developed this proposal, but the idea was we would go forward with the negotiations, we would complete the negotiations, we would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps would delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran."
Russia's leaders did not embrace the offer. Russian analysts say a verbal agreement like this is not good enough. It needs to be written down after negotiations between Washington and Moscow.
Opposition From Russia
If anything, the Russian invasion of Georgia and NATO's hostile reaction has hardened the opposition in Moscow to U.S. missile defenses — a subject Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev touched on in an interview with Italian TV earlier this month.
"If the decision to deploy missile interceptors is made," he said, "if the radar is switched on, we will have to respond because we haven't received any reasonable explanation why it's being done. This won't help security in Europe."
Russian analysts like Arbatov argue that if the U.S. really wants to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — which its missiles could carry — it should work closely with Russia because Russia has leverage over the Iranians.
"They can be prevented from moving so close to actual capability to produce weapons-grade uranium," he says. "But in order to do that, first of all Russia and the United States have to have joint position on that. And in order to do that, the United States should not do things which make Russia very hostile and very suspicious about American intentions with respect to Russia."
Before the war in Georgia, the gap between the U.S. and Russia was considerable. Now it appears unbridgeable — on missile defense and on most other key issues where both the U.S. and Russia have strong interests.
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