U.S.-Poland Missile Deal Irks Russia

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Relations between the U.S. and Russia, already strained by the conflict in Georgia, took another hit as Poland has agreed to host part of a U.S. missile defense system. Russia warned the Poles they were turning themselves into a target.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. President Bush said today that the Cold War is over and the days of satellite states are behind us. The fact that he even had to say that is evidence of the hostile rhetoric surrounding the conflict between Russia and Georgia. And there is another issue complicating relations between Russia, Europe and the U.S. Poland is a former Soviet satellite, now a member of NATO. And yesterday Poland signed an agreement with the U.S. to house part of an American missile defense system.

AS NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Russian leaders are furious.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A day after Poland and the U.S. initialed a deal to put 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, Russian president Dimitry Medvedev said it's clear now what the U.S. is after.

President DIMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Russian spoken)

KELEMEN: The deployment of missile defenses in Europe is aimed at the Russian Federation, he said. A top Russian general accused the U.S. of aggravating relations and said that Poland's decision to accept U.S. missiles exposes it to attack. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Georgia today called Poland an ally and said the Bush administration is committed to its security. She angrily brushed aside Russia's harsh rhetoric.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): We have tried to work with the Russians in all kinds of ways - Bob Gates and I were there twice - trying to show the Russians that this missile defense system is aimed at small missile threats of the kind that one could anticipate from Iran, for instance. We have talked about all kinds of measures that could be used to demonstrate to Russia that this system was not in any way aimed at their deterrent.

KELEMEN: But the timing of the U.S.-Polish announcement is what matters to the Russians, according to Michael McFaul of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Professor MICHAEL McFAUL (Stanford University): And no matter how you try to explain it 'til you're blue in the face, it looks provocative from the Russian point of view.

KELEMEN: The Polish government was never very enthusiastic about the U.S. plans and dragged out the negotiations for over a year and a half, eager not to antagonize Russia unnecessarily. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was also holding out for more help in modernizing Poland's air defenses. He told the BBC last night that the conflict in Georgia did not affect Poland's position.

Mr. RADOSLAW SIKORSKI (Foreign Minister, Poland): This had nothing to do with Georgia. What was crucial and what decided the success of the talks over the last couple of days was that the U.S. offered us new proposals.

KELEMEN: As part of a deal initialed yesterday, the U.S. will provide Poland with an American Patriot battery operated by American personnel and enhanced security cooperation. But while publicly Polish officials say they didn't change their minds because of Russia's actions in Georgia, most observers, including McFaul, see this missile defense deal as part of Poland's efforts to shore up its ties with Washington as Russia flexes its muscles.

Prof. McFAUL: It's a direct response to Russian aggression. It's not a direct response to the threat from Iran. It's not a direct response to some new technological breakthrough that we now know how to do this better. It's obviously a response to Russia.

KELEMEN: The Czech Republic had already agreed to house a radar system as part of the missile shield. The Bush administration is cementing the U.S. missile defense program, making it less likely the next U.S. president will back off from it. The trouble for the next administration is how to do it in this new more complicated atmosphere with Russia.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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