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Czechs wary of US-Russia missile deal

Offer to halt deployment could be Prague setback

By Judy Dempsey
International Herald Tribune / March 4, 2009
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BERLIN - President Obama's offer to Russia to halt the deployment of the US missile defense system in Eastern Europe in return for Russian help to prevent Iran from developing long-range weapons could be a serious setback for the Czech Republic's strategic interests, analysts said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Poland, which reached an advantageous bargain with Washington in the event the missile defense system is not deployed, was more sanguine in its reaction to the US offer.

Both the Czech Republic, which is to be the host of a high-tech radar facility, and Poland, the planned site of 10 interceptor missiles, see the defense system as a guarantee of extra protection from the United States, above and beyond the mutual aid that NATO members can demand of allies if they are attacked.

Both countries have strong memories of Soviet domination.

Nikola Hynek, a defense expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, noted that without the radar system, there would be no US soldiers in his country. "The government here is becoming very anxious," he said.

One sign of that nervousness was the lack of official reaction from Prague yesterday - in contrast to assured statements from the foreign minister of Poland and his spokesman.

The decision to base the radar system in the Czech Republic was signed last July by the administration of former president George W. Bush. A month later, after Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, Poland and the United States agreed to base as many as 10 interceptors on Polish territory. Russia denounced the accords, saying any US missile system in Eastern Europe would be considered a threat to Russia.

The Czech and Polish governments have always said that the shield was to protect Europe against possible attack from countries in the Middle East, particularly Iran.

The Czech government, which is firmly pro-Washington, had set few conditions for stationing the radar system close to Prague, and it has little recourse if the Obama administration decides to halt the project altogether.

Two weeks ago, at a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Krakow, Poland, the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, asked the Polish authorities for more time before decisions were taken on putting interceptors in Poland.

Poland, which adopted a much tougher negotiating stance - agreeing to accept US interceptors only if its own air defenses were upgraded - struck a much calmer tone after learning of the US offer to Russia.

"We expect the American side to fulfill the agreement made last year," said Piotr Paszkowski, a spokesman for Poland's Foreign Ministry.

Radek Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, who last week held talks in Washington with the US secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, told Polish television that "the secretary of state said that we are going to carry out what really matters to Poland." Sikorski said the United States and Poland would go ahead with a deal for "first the temporary and then permanent stationing of a battery of Patriot missiles" in Poland.

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