Warsaw simmers as Moscow enjoys reset with America
On Sept. 17, U.S. President Barack Obama made a late-night telephone call to Poland Prime Minister Donald Tusk to relay the bad news that the United States would abandon the Bush-era missile defense shield program slated for Poland and the Czech Republic.
First, it must be said that good timing does not seem to be a strong point of the fledgling Obama administration. Not only did the U.S. Oval Office ignore the seven-hour time difference between Washington and Warsaw, probably startling Tusk awake in the middle of the night, the call was placed on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.
Talk about a bad call.
It was even reported that Tusk turned down Obama’s original phone call, and then a subsequent one placed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. website Politico.com quoted two Polish government sources who claimed Tusk politely rejected the phone calls because “he wanted to be fully prepared” for the conversation (Tusk’s decision to delay the subject may have ultimately paid off, but more on that later).
But it could have been worse. After all, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, bowing to extreme Polish sensitivities over World War II, admitted that Russia had made its share of mistakes.
“These mistakes must be admitted,” Putin said in the Polish port city of Gdansk, in a gesture that brought relations between the two countries to their most visible thaw in recent memory. “Our country has condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. We have the right to expect other countries that made deals with the Nazis to do the same.”
Although Putin’s speech was warmly greeted across Poland, it did not relieve the sting of Obama’s missile defense rejection two weeks later.
After all, Warsaw had banked a lot of political capital in the grandiose-sounding military plan, which was touted as a way of Poland rubbing elbows with the super powers that be.
Moreover, the deal was sweetened by the promise of high-spending western workers flooding into Poland that such a large project would have demanded. Then there were the promises of U.S. military equipment for Poland’s technologically starved armed forces. In the end, Poland, which has been playing the anti-Russian card for many decades, came out looking a bit naked against a menacing world.
“Polish and Czech leaders long saw Bush’s missile defense plan as a way to cement military links with the U.S. and protect the region against an increasingly self confident Russia,” the UK Mail's foreign department wrote.
Indeed, the “Iran threat,” ostensibly the reason behind the need for missile defense, was rarely discussed in Poland.
“Iran was a poor choice of bogeyman for Poland,” says Dmitry Babich, a political commentator with Russia Profile. “The Polish authorities have, for at least the last 15 years, been trumpeting Russia as the mean aggressor.”
According to Babich, those self-perpetuating and self-defeating stereotypes have come back to haunt Poland.
“Your own stereotypes and anti-Russian attitudes,” cautions Babich, “will ultimately lead to humiliation, as they most certainly did with Poland.”
Indeed it does for Polish President Lech Kaczynski, whose ultra-conservative party regularly spouts the most outrageous opinions about Russia.
For example, Poland’s Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski once compared the Russian-German gas consortium to a new-age Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, while Kaczynski himself gave Georgian Internet portals, blocked by Russia during the August war, access to his presidential website.
Poland looks to pump up, regardless
But despite the major setback, Warsaw seems adamant about pursuing some sort of limited defense system against its perceived threats.
Just days after the U.S. announcement, Poland’s state-owned arms manufacturer Bumar floated the idea for an alternative anti-missile “protective umbrella” for the region.
According to the company, the “Polish shield” project would consist of multiple layers of defenses. The first would be constructed around the Polish designed surface-to-air GROM (thunder) portable missile system, which boasts a range of 4 to 6 kilometers.
Bumar says the second and third defense layer would provide defense range capabilities from 20 to 200 kilometers. This stage of the project would be anchored on Polish radar and command systems, in cooperation with the French-built Aster 30 rockets.
It should be stressed that such a system, with its limited range, would have little or no effect against a threat from Iran.
“We are capable of designing protective umbrellas not only for Poland but also neighboring countries, too,” stated Bumar president, Edward E. Nowak.
According to Poland’s Rzeczpospolits newspaper, company representatives have already presented Polish defense minister Bogdan Klich with blueprints of the project.
Meanwhile, Poland jumped on the somewhat more realistic news that the Obama administration – which is getting heat at home from the Republicans for “weakening America’s resolve in the face of a mortal threat,” as one Congressman put it – plans to give the former Soviet satellite state a role in its new plan to defend Europe against Iran’s short- and long-range missiles.
On Thursday, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Ellen O. Tauscher, told the Senate that the new plan involves ship-based Aegis radars and their Standard missile interceptors.
“This is a very robust system that deals with the current threat now and protects NATO allies first,” Tauscher said, while reminding that Iran’s recent missile launches “visibly demonstrate the nature of this threat.”
Meanwhile, it should be remembered that Poland, despite news of the shelved missile plan, did get something from the United States.
Poland has been promised U.S. Patriot missiles, a move that has received surprisingly little response from the Kremlin.
“We need to strengthen our defense,” Tusk told Interfax on the eve of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to Poland in September. “This is what explains our plans related to Patriots and other defense elements that need to be deployed in Poland.”
Naturally, Russia fiercely opposed the American missile defense plan, which envisioned 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, arguing that it would pose a threat to its security. So it goes without saying that Obama’s decision was warmly welcomed by the Kremlin.
“That is definitely a decision that was dictated by his perception of the protection of the interests of the United States of America,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told an audience at the University of Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit.
“This is neither a pro-Russian, nor pro-Chinese or pro-European decision. That is an American decision.”
“Russia welcomes this initiative on the part of the United States,” Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told RIA Novosti on Thursday at a joint press conference following a Russian-French Council for Security Cooperation conference.
Serdyukov then said the Defense Ministry would deliver to the country’s top officials their proposals in response to the revised U.S. missile shield plans.
“We were instructed by our president to study this issue,” said Serdyukov, “and we will prepare our proposals in the near future and submit them for his consideration.”
It will be interesting to see what new recommendations the Ministry of Defense will propose for Russia in the face of Poland’s commitment to beefing up its armed forces, with or without the presence of a threat in its immediate neighborhood.