PRAGUE – The US proposal to set up an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe has drawn the Czech Republic into a high-level diplomatic debate between Moscow and Washington for which they may not be fully prepared.
The defense system would have two elements: a radar in the Czech Republic and an antimissile base in Poland.
It is officially intended to protect the West from missile attacks by "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea.
The US has offered to activate the radar only if both Moscow and Washington agree on the "Iranian threat," which most experts claim could only materialize in 5 to 10 years, if at all.
Public commotion erupted following a proposal made by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Prague, suggesting Russian representatives could be present at the base.
Gates’ proposal took Czech politicians by surprise.
Czech Prime-Minister Mirek Topolanek, initially refused to comment on the proposal, but later clarified that he would allow "inspection days" for Russian officials, but never the presence of their troops, which bring back traumatic memories for Czechs.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tomas Pojar, chief negotiator and one of the many government members dissatisfied with Gates’ proposal, added that Russian inspections should only be accepted "on condition that the Czechs would be allowed to do the same in Russia."
Moscow has stated its openness to discuss the US offer, but that it is waiting for an official proposal.
US officials have reacted to Czech dissatisfaction by promising to consult Prague on all steps taken in consultations with Russia.
Czech opposition leader Jiri Paroubek says that he cannot "imagine that a government that has been so reserved in its relations to Russia would suddenly tolerate Russian military presence here."
"It turns out that, in the final analysis, a strengthening Russia is a more important partner for the US than a small Central European ally," Jiri Pehe, a former Czech Presidential adviser wrote in the Slovak daily Sme on October 26.
"It has turned out that Czech-US relations are not special, since the Americans do not even perceive the psychological and political impacts of their proposal to the Czech public," Pehe wrote.
Czech social-democrat shadow-foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek is worried that the debate over the base could lead to an "inadmissible return of the bipolar world" and a circumvention of NATO (North-Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the EU (European Union).
The dialogue between the former Cold War adversaries began in mid-2006 when Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the US joint use of a Russian radar located in Azerbaijan.
This caught politicians in Washington and Prague by surprise.
Russia fears the Czech radar could monitor military movements well within its territory.
Before the US responded to the Russian proposal, Czech analysts and politicians deemed the Russian proposal which was meant to replace rather than complement the Czech radar as both technically and politically impracticable.
Even Russia’s opponents recognized the skillful diplomatic move of Putin’s proposal, which came in response to calls for cooperation from US President George W. Bush.
The US argues that the Azerbaijani radar is technically incompatible with Washington’s needs, though Russia claims the radar can be upgraded to US requirements.
Before Putin’s proposal, Moscow had unconditionally opposed US plans, which it perceives as another step in the eastward advance of US military presence.
The US claims the base is of a defensive nature, but Russian experts believe it could easily be turned into an offensive infrastructure.
Russian military personnel have speculated over the last months on possible retaliatory measures, signaling the possibility of a renewed armed race.
On July 14 Moscow imposed a moratorium on the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which will free the Russian military from previous international commitments and constrains and allow it to upgrade its military arsenal.
Russian generals have also made disturbing statements about pointing missiles towards targets in Eastern Europe if the US infrastructure was to be built.
While the US has repeatedly assured Russia that the system is not aimed against it, Moscow is weary of developments in Warsaw and Prague were supporters of the base want it primarily to counter Russia, and not the alleged Middle Eastern threats.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has repeatedly stated that in 5 to 10 years Russia could become a threat to Europe.
The base has put the Czechs at odds with several fellow EU and NATO member states as well.
At the start of the radar debate Czech officials made a series of strong statements indicating that they were willing to set up the infrastructure in spite of European opposition to it.
The government’s rhetoric has now evolved a more conciliatory tone calling for the integration of the project into European defense structures.
High-level Slovak and Ukrainian officials have complained that their countries’ proximity to the proposed base directly concerns them. They are calling for more NATO and Russian involvement.
Politicians in the German and Austrian government have made similar statements, with Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos going as far as to call the idea of building a base a "provocation."
Several members of NATO would like the project to respect the principle of indivisible security, which would require a radar that shields all of European NATO and not just certain countries.
"The setup of an antimissile shield in Europe has consequences on the security of all Europeans," Marianne Barkan-Cowdy, spokesperson for the French embassy in Prague told IPS.
While noting France welcomes cooperation on ballistic threats, Barkan-Cowdy stresses France remains convinced of the need for a "profound dialogue with Russia, in the framework of bilateral exchanges and of the NATO-Russia Council," adding that Paris hopes the "ongoing exchange of opinions between Russians and Americans may continue."
The US Congress recently made a 139 million dollar cut in the budget for the base, indicating that the US government may have more pressing concerns in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in Poland talks have lost momentum after the election of the Prime Minister Donald Tusk in October. Tusk has promised both close cooperation with Washington and a tougher approach to US demands. He says his party has no fixed doctrine on the shield.