Why US-Poland missile deal rouses Russian bear

US officials say the system is merely a protection against rogue states like Iran.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Russia's strident objections to the deal between the United States and Poland on a missile defense system are largely unfounded.

That's the view of American officials and analysts, who say Moscow's aim in the controversy is to divide NATO and drive a wedge between the US and its allies.

Moscow reacted angrily over the weekend to the agreement between the US and Poland to put a missile defense system comprised of 10 interceptors in Poland. American officials have long maintained that the system will protect Israel and US bases in the Middle East against a rogue nuclear missile strike from the likes of Iran, and does not pose a threat to Russian security. Russia sees the site as a threat and fears greater intrusion into its traditional sphere of influence.

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But analysts in Washington widely believe Russia is using controversy over the agreement within Europe and NATO to further divide the US and its allies.

"I think that the Russian argument is a disingenuous one, and everyone knows it," says Chris Hellman, a policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a policy group in Washington. "It really isn't targeted at those guys."

Yet the agreement also reflects the growing fear in countries such as Poland, Ukraine, and Estonia that they could be attacked by Russia as it attempts to reemerge as a international power.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported this week that Russia is sending launchers for short-range ballistic missiles into South Ossetia that are capable of targeting the Georgian capital of Tblisi. The move hints that Russia isn't planning to remove its troops from Georgia any time soon under the truce agreements announced over the weekend.

Some European allies have not supported the missile shield agreement, for fear it could amp up nuclear proliferation and cause nuclear ripples across the globe, where other countries such as India, China, or even Pakistan must reassess their own nuclear capabilities.

The US has tried to counter that fear, saying the proliferation of ballistic missiles is in part due to the lack of defenses against them, thus justifying a system such as the one to be put in Poland.

"If we join together – US, NATO, Russia – and field effective missile defenses, I believe it will have an effect on the value of these weapons," said Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, at the Pentagon last month. "It will devalue them in the eyes of some of these countries."

The US has maintained that it will base the interceptors in Poland but not activate them until a true threat from Iran emerges. But while some countries believe the missile shield causes problems in a broader, political context, most recognize that it is not a threat to Russia.

But that hasn't stopped a politically savvy Moscow from venting, Hellman says, and exploiting disagreements within NATO, of which Poland is a member, that a missile defense system there is a good idea. "The Russians treat it as a threat, but they know it's not going to work," Hellman says.

Reports of the finalized agreement sparked an angry response from Moscow, with Gen. Antoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, reportedly saying Poland was exposing itself to a strike if the missile shield was located there.

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev struck a more diplomatic tone, saying Russia "will continue to work on this subject and discuss the problem" while acknowledging his government's frustration with the timing of the agreement, which has been in the works for more than a year.

"The deployment of the new missile defense forces in Europe is aimed at Russia," President Medvedev said on Friday in Sochi. "So, fairy tales about deterring some rogue states with the help of these facilities do not work." The comments came during intense negotiations between Russia and Georgia over Russia's incursion into the South Ossetia region of Georgia earlier this month.

Russia's fears would be justified if the US was basing not 10 interceptors, essentially designed to counter an accidental strike or a single missile, but hundreds more, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, another think tank in Washington.

"It is possible to contrive a worst-case cold-warlike scenario of the US placing 500 rather than 10 interceptors in Poland, but that's the sort of thing it would take to give Russia any real basis for concern."

Mr. O'Hanlon notes that if Russia were to base the same number of interceptors in Cuba, it would spark wide concern among "old fashioned nuclear targeteers," but that in the end the concerns are baseless.

The deal also signals a new level of security agreements between the US and Poland, amounting to a bilateral security assistance agreement that effectively protects Poland beyond NATO. The agreement also includes the deployment of an American Patriot missile defense system, which may further antagonize Russia.

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