WASHINGTON - Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said President Bush yesterday had removed key stumbling blocks in negotiations to allow US missile defense interceptors on Polish soil.
Negotiations had stalled over Poland's demand for help in upgrading its military in exchange for allowing the interceptors. US negotiators wanted to deal with the Polish demands separately and leave promises vague.
But Tusk said Bush had agreed that the missile defense program and the US-aided modernization of the Polish military would be considered all in "one package."
"The words of President Bush were very convincing," he said. "This is a politician, who is controversial for some but in my opinion is very trustworthy."
Bush, in a joint appearance with Tusk at the White House, said he had assured the prime minister that the United States would develop a concrete plan for helping Poland modernize its military "before my watch is over."
The Bush administration has been seeking to begin construction of its European missile shield prior to Bush's departure in 2009, and to complete the work by 2012. The plan also includes installing radar in the Czech Republic. But because the negotiations with Poland are lagging and any deals would have to be approved by the Polish and Czech parliaments, it may be difficult to meet the timetable.
Polish supporters of the plans are concerned that a new US administration could kill the project. Republican John McCain is a strong supporter of the missile defense program, while Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been less vocal.
The missile defense plans have become one of the thorniest issues in US-Russian relations. Russia opposes the siting of a US global missile defense system so close to Russian borders, arguing that it would undermine the Russian deterrent. The Polish government argues that the security backing is necessary because Russia has threatened to target Poland with nuclear missiles if it should allow the interceptors.
Tusk said Bush assured him that the United States will continue to try to convince Russia that the missile shield is not a threat, but instead is aimed at countering threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea.
Following the meeting at the White House, Bush said the United States recognizes the need for Polish forces to be modernized, and "we're responding."