WARSAW (AFP) — Warsaw and Washington signed a preliminary deal on basing part of a US missile shield in Poland, in the face of Moscow's vehement opposition and mounting East-West tensions over Georgia.
US and Polish negotiators inked the accord Thursday in a ceremony after two days of talks in the Polish capital.
"This is an important agreement for the security of the United States, for the security of Poland and the security of our NATO allies," chief US negotiator John Rood told reporters.
Washington plans to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland plus a radar facility in the neighbouring Czech Republic by 2011-2013 to complete a system already in place in the United States, Greenland and Britain.
Washington insists the shield, which was endorsed by all 26 NATO member states earlier this year, is to fend off potential missile attacks by "rogue states," notably Iran.
US President George W. Bush "was very pleased with this development," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters in Washington.
"In no way is the president's plan for missile defense aimed at Russia. In fact, it's just not even logically possible for it to be aimed at Russia given how Russia could overwhelm it," she said.
The plan, however, has become a major source of tension with Moscow. It considers it a security threat designed to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent, and has vowed a firm response if the Czechs and Poles go ahead.
The timing of the deal amid the crisis in Georgia indicates the system is aimed at Russia, Interfax news agency quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Friday.
"In reality this project has no relation to the Iranian missile threat but is aimed against Russia," Interfax quoted the senior ministry source, who it did not identify, as saying.
The matter is all the more sensitive because the Czech Republic and Poland were Soviet satellites until 1989, before transforming into staunch US allies when the communist bloc collapsed. They joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
"These installations ... only worsen the situation. We will be forced to respond to this adequately. The EU and US have been warned," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last month.
While Prague signed a radar deal in July, Washington's talks with Warsaw have been grinding on for 15 months.
Amid fears about the potential risks -- not specifically from Russia -- of hosting the silos, Poland has persistently pressed the United States to provide a Patriot missile air-defence system.
"We do take very seriously the concerns of our ally," Rood said.
Announcing the deal earlier Thursday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk explained that Washington had accepted Warsaw's "key demand, the presence of Patriots."
"We would start with a battery under US command, but made available to the Polish army. Then there would be a second phase, involving equipping the Polish army with missiles," he said.
"In five, seven or 10 years we want to be sufficiently well-equipped and well-trained to be ready, both with our allies but by ourselves, to defend ourselves at a critical moment."
A senior US defense official said under the deal Washington would provide a Patriot missile battery from a battalion based in Germany, which will require 100 military staff in support.
Tusk said that the United States had also "committed to close cooperation with Poland in the event of a danger from a third party."
Rood said that was "a new element to take our security agreement to a new level."
Tusk cautioned that the final accord that negotiators are to start fleshing out would still have to ratified by parliament.
Asked when he expected everything to be sealed, he refused to give a target.
Previous rounds were often low-key, but the latest talks were been thrown back into the spotlight by fighting between Russia and Georgia, which like Poland is an ex-communist country turned US ally and also has strong vocal support from the Poles.
"I have no indication that Russia's invasion of Georgia at all influenced the negotiations, but who knows? You can draw your own conclusions," said US Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell in Washington.
"However, the European missile defense is not aimed at countering Russia's missile arsenal, but rather at emerging threats such as Iran," he said.
The US-Polish deal appeared highly symbolic, showing a resurgent Russia that flexing its muscle in the Caucasus has not given it a new say on its Cold War-era turf further north.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had said the Georgia crisis showed "we're facing a new international situation. The situation doesn't change our arguments but in my view reinforces them".
But after the deal was inked, he downplayed its role, saying the looming US presidential elections -- long seen as a factor that could have put the talks on ice -- were more significant.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »