US Missile Defense
Splits Europe

BUDAPEST – U.S. President George W. Bush is visiting the Czech Republic and Poland this week as part of Washington’s ongoing diplomatic effort to convince the region’s leaders of the need for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe – revealing a potential new division among European countries.

The missile-defense system, allegedly intended to protect the West from missile attacks by “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea, would have two components by 2011: a radar in the Czech Republic and an anti-missile base in Poland.

Facing increasing criticism from Moscow, the United States has promised to step up diplomatic efforts to consult with both Russia and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) members about the base.

Russia has welcomed the offer but says it is fundamentally opposed to the project and doubts the stated reasons behind it, arguing that Iran and North Korea would not possess the capability to produce ballistic missiles that would pose a threat to Europe or the United States.

Moscow also sees the base as part of the U.S. strategic nuclear complex which, by coming to Europe, would disrupt the global balance of strategic forces.

Austria, France, Germany, Norway, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg have also expressed reservations about the bilateral U.S. plans backed by the Czech and Polish governments.

Experts have pointed out Europe could be heading towards a new division along the lines of those created following the U.S.-led war in Iraq, when most post-socialist countries aligned with the United States.

“The EU is again showing the internal division between those who want to develop a more autonomous foreign and security policy and those who wish above all U.S. involvement in European security,” Pedro Courela, analyst at the Lisbon-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies (IEEI), told IPS.

Courela thinks that the calls for the base to be discussed at a multilateral level are an “attempt at giving a new sense to transatlantic multilateral relations,” instead of the prevailing bilateralism which in the latest case has “meant a blow to transatlantic relations.”

“The U.S. does not seem willing to negotiate decisions taken and accepted by the Czech Republic and Poland; we’ll have to wait and see if Western European countries show any capacity to bring the topic into the framework of NATO,” the analyst told IPS.

Heeding European concerns, the Czech government, but not Poland, has requested that the United States eventually integrate the system in a future NATO missile-defense system.

The request was included to please the government’s Green coalition partners, whose left-leaning sector is vowing to cooperate with the opposition in pushing through a popular vote on whether to allow the base to go forward.

Poland, on the other hand, has insisted on the bilateralism of the issue and is dismissing the possibility of discussions with Russia.

But the Czechs did precisely that when on April 27 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus in Moscow to talk about the U.S. missile-defense system.

Putin was straightforward in his condemnation of the U.S. base, under which, he claimed, relations with Europe “will worsen” and “the threat of damaging or even annihilating one another is bound to increase manifold.”

In a joint conference, Klaus said he had “assured President Putin that the Czech side has no intentions whatsoever to make these radars pose any threat to Russia,” to which Putin replied, “which is understandable, since the Czech Republic would not have control of the stations.”

However, Klaus’ visit did not have much effect on the Czech Republic and Poland, where most officials and much of the press remain highly suspicious of Russia’s arguments and claim the infrastructure of the base is too insignificant to threaten Moscow in any way.

To this, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces Gen. Yuriy Baluyevskiy responded that “the number of interceptors currently planned … is of no principal significance. What is important is the very creation of the infrastructure, which is a self-developing system and can have its capabilities built up.”

But for many in Prague and Warsaw the U.S. base presents them with an unprecedented possibility to become privileged allies of the United States and escape from what they feel are Russia’s ambitions in the region.

The base is in some cases even defined as the final step towards liberation from Russia.

“This began with the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The building of the radar would be the culmination of the process of regaining freedom,” Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek recently told the press.

While promising the shield will enhance their security, Czech and Polish proponents of the base are also calling for improved security guarantees from the United States.

Not even a U.S. House of Representatives’ decision to cut funding for the base’s construction has dealt a blow to the determination of the Czech and Polish cabinets, but it has shown that often their foreign policy positions are closer to those of the U.S. Republican Party than those of the Democratic Party.

Speculations are also on the rise on how Russia could retaliate against a base built in Eastern Europe.

The possibility of a new arms race is being taken seriously in Moscow: Russia has already threatened to retreat from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF), the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), and might not extend the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty after 2009.

Retaliation could also come through economic policy, as the Czech Republic and Poland are highly dependent on Russian energy and Moscow could induce an economic crisis by curbing supplies.