U.S. ally fears price for loyalty

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. proposal to build an antimissile shield in Poland has forced a close ally to reassess Bush administration policies that many officials here say could make their country a target for Russian rockets and Islamic terrorists.

Poland has been a steadfast friend to the United States, sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and emerging as one of the few pro-American voices in Europe. But interviews with Polish officials suggest that Warsaw is skeptical about the idea of playing host to a missile defense shield to protect the U.S. from possible strikes by Iran and North Korea.

The plan would include 10 interceptor missiles based in Poland and a radar center in the Czech Republic.

The prospect has led Moscow, which opposes U.S.-backed military expansion in former Soviet bloc nations, to issue veiled threats that are reminiscent of those from the Cold War era. The matter also has underscored Poland's aging weapons systems and technological shortcomings for countering attacks.

The debate comes as Poles have grown disillusioned over the Iraq war and with Bush administration policies that many believe have isolated the U.S. and its allies. Poland is maturing as a nation and is less effusive these days about an America it had idealized for decades from the other side of the Berlin Wall, politicians and analysts say.

The coalition government of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said it probably would accept the U.S. proposal, although many officials in Warsaw and in other European capitals would prefer a wider system integrated with North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense plans. Washington also is asking Britain to house interceptor rockets, and European officials are concerned about angering Russia and touching off another arms race on the continent.

"We're open to an antimissile shield, but it must have a real impact on the protection of our own country," said Jedrzej Jedrych, a member of Parliament's national defense committee. "Installation of this system would make us a target not only for our neighbors, but also for terrorist organizations. We'd have to increase our security and ask for the U.S. to help us speed up the modernization of our military."

Poland's 800 antimissile and antiaircraft rockets are upgraded versions of Soviet-era hardware, and modernizing the arsenal could cost $1 billion.

Washington has been talking about the possibility of a shield for years. Formal negotiations with Warsaw and Prague, the Czech capital, are expected to begin soon, but a top U.S. general Thursday told reporters in Berlin that the Bush administration would consider merging the shield with NATO.

"I wouldn't be averse to that," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.

Critics say the system, designed to knock down nuclear missiles fired at the United States, is elaborate, costly and unnecessary because so-called rogue states such as Iran don't have such offensive capabilities. Poland is concerned that the plan would spur Russia to upgrade and reconfigure troop placements and missile systems.

Few officials believe there is a likelihood of military confrontation with Moscow, but since the fall of communism Russia has grown agitated by the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union. After Poland's recent purchase of American-made F-16s, for example, Russia moved new S-300 air defense systems into neighboring Belarus.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who says the proposed shield threatens his country's security, has accused the U.S. of "pursuing world domination." His generals have hinted that Russia may withdraw from a 1987 treaty with the U.S. that limits medium-range nuclear missiles. They have also warned that Poland and the Czech Republic will fall within the sights of new Russian missiles if the two nations go along with the U.S. defense plan.

Such comments further strained relations between Moscow and Warsaw, which have been tested by Russia's dominance of oil and gas markets and Poland's EU membership and its support of democracy movements in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Over the last seven years, Poland has more than tripled its military budget to about $8 billion.

Janusz Zemke, a Polish Parliament member and a former deputy defense minister, said that if Russia shifted rockets to Belarus and the nearby Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, it could easily strike his country and the U.S. shield.

"But, really, this missile defense system is insignificant to Russia," Zemke said. "But Russia wants to turn this into a controversy to gain something. At home, they want to increase expenditures to buy new military systems. They need a reason for this. And internationally, Moscow has a tough time admitting that its influence is shrinking."

The debate over the shield also reflects how U.S. influence in Warsaw has diminished in recent years. Kaczynski's conservative government is a firm supporter of the Bush administration, a relationship that enhances Warsaw's stature within NATO. But more than 75% of Poles oppose their country's Iraq role, and about 55% are against the missile shield. The Self-Defense Party, a member of the coalition, wants the missile shield issue put to a nationwide referendum.

"Why should we support U.S. hegemony around the world?" said Filip Ilkowski, a member of Stop the War Initiative, a group opposed to the Iraq war and the missile defense system. "We should not be involved in the [United States'] military policies. If the U.S. attacks Iran, it would be legitimate in Iran's view to attack U.S. bases in Poland. In a way, it would begin a new Cold War for our region."

The change in tenor is rooted in many things, including Poland's emergence in the European Union and a perception by politicians and the public that their nation is underappreciated by the Bush administration. Warsaw has yet to see the significant construction and technological contracts it had hoped for from Washington for the rebuilding of Iraq. And Poles sometimes wait hours at the U.S. Embassy to apply for $100 visas; their country does not require visas for U.S. citizens.

"There's a lot of negative energy between the U.S. and Poland these days," said Lukasz Kulesa, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. "The promise of Iraqi contracts did not materialize, and now we're being asked to do another favor for the U.S. It used to be that only the far left was critical of the U.S., but that attitude is slipping into the mainstream."

Speaking on a recent morning on topics ranging from eastern European politics to missile trajectory ranges, Kulesa echoed the pragmatism with which many Poles view their nation's relationship with America.

"Basically," he said, "we're demanding something from the U.S. The memories of the past are fading.... When it comes to business, it's business."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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