Why US-Poland missile deal rouses Russian bear
US officials say the system is merely a protection against rogue states like Iran.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.