In shift, Bush draws NATO into controversial missile-shield plans

Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to cooperate if the radar system is based in Azerbaijan instead of the Czech Republic.

As lively as if they're debating sports, two Polish men, leaning against a wall outside a delicatessen here in Gdansk, trade barbs on another topic: their country's plan to host a US missile-defense base.

"It is a base for protection," says Richard, a retired electrician. But Jurek, a mechanic, cuts him off.

"No, no! I am totally against!" says the mechanic. "The Russians will cause us big problems if we agree to have this base!"

Jurek is not alone. While the Polish and Czech governments say they will agree to host a missile base and a radar station, respectively, nearly two-thirds of their citizens are opposed to the plan.

The European Union (EU) has also expressed concern, saying too few parties have been involved in the missile-base discussions and pressing for NATO's involvement.

Washington has resisted. But on a tour of Europe including stops in the Czech Republic and Poland this week, President Bush has signaled a significant policy shift, assuring leaders that the proposed shield would be coordinated with NATO.

"This would change opinion quite a bit," says Krzysztof Bobinski, president of EU and Poland, a pro-Europe think tank in Warsaw. "It would certainly bite away at public opposition. If people see that NATO will be involved, then [the missile shield] will seem more legitimate."

But while it may help mollify opposition in the host countries, the involvement of NATO could further antagonize Russia, the project's staunchest critic. Moscow has long viewed the alliance as a threat and has watched it extend eastward since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In a conciliatory speech at Prague Castle Tuesday, ahead of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of Eight summit in Germany, Bush said Moscow had little to fear about the base and should cooperate with it.

At their meeting Thursday, Mr. Putin offered to work with the US on a pan-Europe radar system and refrain from redirecting Russia's rockets at Europe if the US based the system in Azerbaijan.

Currently, two bases – in Alaska and California believed to hold a combined 16 missiles – make up the US missile-defense shield. Though it's been dismissed by some as a cold-war anachronism, the Bush administration has made missile defense a priority. A European component would intercept ballistic missiles from "rogue states" like Iran and North Korea, Washington says. But if the base were linked to a larger NATO system, Europe might have a say in commanding the shield.

"That would be a lot for the US to give up, to give up command and control," says Tim Williams, a security expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.

On Friday, Bush meets with Polish President Lech Kaczynski in the resort town of Jurata, across the bay from Gdansk – the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, which exposed the first cracks in the communist bloc.

In recent years, Warsaw has solidified relations with Brussels and Washington while turning its back on Moscow.

But some Poles question whether supporting Washington on the missile shield will yield any tangible benefits for Poland.

"I still don't know what we will get in return for this base," says Martin Leczczynski, a student in Gdansk. "I don't see our country as a target, so why are we afraid?"

Unlike Prague, which is only asking Washington to lift visa restrictions for Czechs, Poland is requesting that the US provide added protection, in the form of a separate base stocked with Patriot missiles, in case Poland comes under attack. Russia, whose Kaliningrad enclave borders Poland, has in threatened both countries.

Washington has rejected the request. That's contributing to Polish divisions over the base, says Mark Ostrowski, a columnist at Polityka, an influential political magazine.

Poland was one of the few European countries to openly back the Iraq war. He says the US has been slow to repay the favor – by moving to lift visa restrictions, for example.

"I think the Polish people feel a bit duped," says Mr. Ostrowski.

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