U.S., Poland Sign Missile Defense Deal

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is signing a deal Wednesday in Poland to build a U.S. missile defense base there. The agreement has already angered Russia.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

It's hard to overlook the timing of the agreement that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed in Poland today. She signed a deal that would include Poland in the expanding American missile defense system. That is an act that infuriates nearby Russia, although Rice says there's no reason for them to worry.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): This is a system that is defensive and is not aimed at anyone. It is nonetheless a system that establishes firmly again and reaffirms the strategic cooperation, relationship and friendship between Poland and the United States.

INSKEEP: Russia isn't convinced though, and this move comes just after Russia dismayed the United States and others by sending troops into the Republic of Georgia. NPR's Mike Shuster is Europe following the missile defense story and joins us from Brussels. And Mike, when we spoke with you yesterday, Rice was in Brussels talking with NATO leaders about Georgia. Suddenly she's in Poland signing this agreement. Any connection?

MIKE SHUSTER: There's certainly a connection, Steve, but there wasn't supposed to be. The United States and the Bush administration for the better part of the last year had been working overtime to convince the Russians that the missile interceptors and the expansion of the American missile defense system that they wanted to put into Poland doesn't have anything to do with Russia and the threat of attack from Russian missiles.

They've said all along the threat is really Iran and Iranian potential long-range missiles, and that's why they wanted to expand the American missile defense system to Europe. The Polish government was reluctant to agree to this and had been negotiating quite slowly with the United States for many months.

Now all of the sudden Russia invades Georgia and the Poles jump on this very quickly. And in fact there seems to be a direct tie-in between Secretary of State Rice going to Warsaw after having been discussing this at the NATO headquarters here in Brussels.

So yes, despite denials, it seems very symbolically they're very connected.

INSKEEP: You have the Americans in effect saying Russia, if you're going to do things we don't like, we'll do things you don't like. The U.S. not actually saying that but in terms of their acts doing it.

SHUSTER: Well, the United States has said all along that it wants to place these missile interceptors in Poland, despite Russian resistance and opposition. It's just that the Georgia crisis certainly sped this up and convinced both the Polish government and gave more momentum to the Bush administration to pursue this.

INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about what the Bush administration has said is the real reason for these interceptors, which is to defend against Iran. Does Iran have a missile that could fly over several countries and strike Europe for which this missile defense would be needed?

SHUSTER: Well, we know that Iran has medium-range missiles. We are not sure that Iran has a missile that could reach Europe, and I think we do know that Iran does not have an intercontinental ballistic missile that it could launch and reach the United States. So this is all in the future.

And in fact, Secretary of Defense Gates said late last year, and U.S. officials have been saying all along, that they won't activate this system. This was in discussions with Russia. They want to build it, deploy it, but wait to activate until it's clear that Iran does have a missile that could reach Europe or even fly further.

INSKEEP: Well, then why is Russia so concerned about a missile defense system that is still at this point, it sounds like, theoretical?

SHUSTER: Fundamentally, because I think they don't believe U.S. officials and they believe that the initial deployment of 10 missile interceptors in Poland won't stop there. I've talked to Russian analysts who say if you think about this five, ten, fifteen years into the future, they fear that the United States will perfect this technology - it's unperfected so far - and put more missile interceptors either in eastern Europe, Poland or on ships not far from Russia, and that ultimately - the Russians say - they fear that this could challenge their nuclear deterrent.

INSKEEP: Okay. So does Russia really believe that it is paying a political price and a strategic price for having invaded Georgia and made the West unhappy?

SHUSTER: Of course that's a question that the Russian leaders haven't said yes to. But you have to figure that the leaders in the Kremlin have to balance a lot of issues now - Georgia, Moscow, Poland, NATO - in order to determine whether this has been good for them or not.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Shuster is following all this from Brussels. Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Steve.

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