Why U.S. Wants Missiles In Poland

The U.S. plans to build a missile defense program in Poland. The fact that the announcement comes in the wake of the Georgia-Russia conflict is no coincidence. How could the plans impact U.S.-Russian relations?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

NPR's senior diplomatic correspondent, Mike Shuster, is covering that NATO meeting in Brussels. Mike, welcome back to Day to Day. I know that you are working on a series of reports on this entire missile defense system. What is it that the U.S. is going to build in Poland?

MIKE SHUSTER: Well, the United States wants to build. It hasn't gotten full agreement yet, but it wants to build a missile field where it will then place 10 missile interceptors that are capable - the United States and the Bush administration hope will be the case - that are capable of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles that might be carrying nuclear weapons that are fired from that part of the world.

CHADWICK: So the U.S. has said it thinks the threat here is Iran, that this is not about Russia. Would this missile defense system be used against Iranian missiles or Russian missiles or both?

SHUSTER: Well, the United States has been very explicit that this is all about Iran, and the United States has been discussing this since last year with the government of Poland and also with the government of the Czech Republic because, in addition to the 10 missile interceptors that the United States wants to put into Poland, it wants to put some kind of advanced radar near Prague to be part of this whole system.

And the explanation for the Europeans has totally been all along that this is about Iran. There's been some skepticism in Europe about that, but nevertheless, that's the reason that the United States has been giving. What's interesting now is that, as a result of this crisis in Georgia and the actions of the Russian government, the Russian military - now there seems to be not an explicit, but a suggestion nevertheless that the United States and Poland might be doing this in response to what's happened in Georgia. And therefore, that suggests that this is somehow about Russia, as well.

I should add that there are critics of missile defense in the United States who don't believe that it will work. But the Russians do, and the Russians say over and over again - well, maybe not the initial 10 interceptors placed in Poland, but over the course of years, in the future, they fear that the United States would acquire the technology to beef this system up, that it might actually challenge Russian missiles some time in the future.

CHADWICK: The foreign minister of Poland just told us that the agreeing to this deal last week is a coincidence. People there buy that?

SCHUSTER: It's hard to believe that that's a coincidence. The Polish public opinion polls has been against it until Russia invaded Georgia. Now, there is a majority, according to the most recent polls in Poland, that favor it.

The Polish government had said that it was willing to consider the deployment of these missiles in Poland, but they wanted a better deal from the United States. They wanted more money, and they wanted the United States to deploy to Poland patriot missiles, the most advanced version of Patriot missiles, in case Russia should look upon Poland unfavorably. And, in fact, it has looked upon Poland unfavorably once Poland agreed to this.

CHADWICK: The U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, said over the weekend that this very tough Russian language, this could lead to a nuclear attack on Poland, putting these missiles in, that this is empty rhetoric. Is there a sense there that Poland may be placing itself in a very dangerous situation?

SCHUSTER: I think that there's a sense in Poland that they feel that they may be in a dangerous situation. This is a state with a history of trouble with Russia for more than 200 years. The secretary general of NATO made reference to that rhetoric about targeting Poland with nuclear missiles from Russia. He called that rhetoric pathetic today.

CHADWICK: NPR diplomatic correspondent Mike Schuster reporting from the emergency NATO meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Mike, thanks.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Alex.

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Russia Feels Slighted As West Fears Its Resurgence

Georgia Crisis Stirs Concern In Ukraine

As NATO meets to consider a response to Russia's military actions in Georgia, there is renewed attention on another former Soviet republic that's also on Russia's radar: Ukraine.

The Kremlin has been unapologetic about its actions in Georgia. Russian officials have repeatedly, forcefully and sometimes emotionally insisted that Russia has the right to protect its soldiers and those it calls citizens.

In the West, the country's actions have spurred concerns about a resurgent, muscle-flexing Russia. Newspaper cartoons depict a snarling bear — an image not seen since Soviet times.

Russia is growing vastly more confident, and it feels slighted by the West, experts say.

Loss Of Empire

Fifteen years ago, after the Soviet Union fell apart, scientists were forced to work as taxi drivers, and soldiers were reduced to wearing rags. The standard of living, never great, plummeted.

Victor Kremeniuk, with the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, says everything Russians were used to suddenly disappeared.

"The empire for many people was the major sense of their existence. Now, it's no more," he recalls.

But Russia is no longer on its knees: It is developing a new identity.

While Kremeniuk does not endorse Russia's actions in Georgia, he says Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's harsh words in recent years have reflected widespread and growing frustration.

"It was regarded as poor, retarded, you know, just underdeveloped, and so on," Kremeniuk says. "Now, under Mr. Putin, Russia has finally emerged as a more or less well-to-do nation, but it wanted to have the feeling that now it will be regarded by the other nations differently, with more respect."

A Neglected Relationship?

Rose Gottemoeller of the Carnegie Moscow Center says the Bush administration did not adequately respond to Russian concerns.

"Washington has been neglecting the relationship with Russia profoundly over the last eight years," Gottemoeller says. "We've had a situation time and time again when President Bush has gone to a summit meeting, you know, declared his cooperation with his good friend President Putin, and then he's gone back to Washington and nothing has happened."

Some in the Bush administration argue that Russia is simply unwilling to acknowledge the post-Soviet realities. Nikolai Zlobin, a Russian analyst with the Washington-based World Security Institute, says the West is also inflexible.

"Why, for 15 years after the end of Cold War, West did do very little to make Russia an ally and friend," Zlobin says. "Every Russian leader came to power saying reasonable things about the West and, sooner or later, something happens which will turn them anti-American."

Zlobin doesn't pretend the new Russia is easy to deal with. At home in Russia for a brief visit, he is stunned at the growth of nationalism and anti-American feeling.

"I talk to my friends. ... They basically say America is extremely selfish country and doesn't understand that other people may have different ideas, different agendas, different approaches," Zlobin says.

Threats Of Isolation

Putin has made his concerns known repeatedly, calling NATO absorption of Russia's neighbors Georgia and Ukraine "red lines." U.S. support for the independence of Kosovo has been another issue of contention.

If the West can redraw European boundaries against the wishes of Russia and its ally Serbia, then Russia argues it can redraw boundaries, too. Kremeniuk says the U.S. was also unduly provocative in the way it set up anti-missile defenses in Russia's backyard.

"They do not trust that this effort undertaken by the U.S. in Europe is against Iran or against terrorist launches," Kremeniuk says. "They still think that this is against Russia. Why, what is the reason that instead of inviting both nations to cooperate closely, they fight each other on that?"

It's unclear what the aftershocks of Russia's recent actions in Georgia will be. As Gottemoeller notes, Russia's friends and neighbors, like Belarus and Kazakhstan, have been noticeably silent about this attack on another former Soviet state.

"All of them are in a stupor because they don't know what to say. They don't want to speak out and support Russia, but on the other hand, they don't want to come out and oppose Russia," Gottemoeller says.

Washington's threats of isolating Russia are widely discussed in Moscow, but the Kremlin has leverage it can use — it is Europe's key supplier of energy. And analysts say if the West turns away from Russia, Russia has options. It can turn East to new emerging powers like India and China.

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