President Obama landed in Poland Friday on the last stop of his four-nation European tour for talks that are expected to focus on improving bilateral relations and the American military presence in Poland.
Mr. Obama may announce rotating F-16 fighter jets from the US airbase in Aviano, Italy, to a base in Lask, central Poland, a largely symbolic gesture in to boost relations with Poland, a key US ally in Europe.
Obama has worked to improve relations between Warsaw and Washington, which took a hit with his announcement in 2009 that he was scrapping Bush-era missile shield plans, including 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic. The project had much support among local elites, but not among the public.
Eastern European leaders, including regional heavyweights Lech Walesa, the former Polish president, and Vaclav Havel, former Czech president, accused Washington of caving to Moscow, which long argued the system would blunt its own nuclear deterrent.
Such was the political fallout that Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to the region in late 2009 to reassure Eastern European leaders that Washington's "reset" with Moscow would not jeopardize their security. Obama repeated that theme when he held a summit with regional leaders in 2010 in Prague, where he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty.
Following his appearance at a G8 meeting in France, Obama's first visit to Poland will signal "a new chapter" in Washington's relations with Poland and Eastern Europe, according to Bartosz Wisniewski, a research fellow at Warsaw's Polish Institute of International Affairs.
"Every visit of an American president is important for Poland," said Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, longtime US foreign policy expert. "For Poland, relations with the US are a guarantee of independence," Brzezinski to the Polish Press Agency.
As Obama arrived Friday in Warsaw, much of the news about his trip was dominated by Mr. Walesa's refusal to meet with the president. He didn't reveal many details about his decision, other than to say, "This time a meeting does not suit me."
Washington has been charming the Poles with talks of arms and soldiers ever since burying the first missile shield. A battery of Patriot missiles was deployed in Poland in 2010, along with a small contingent of US troops, the first foreign soldiers on Polish soil since Soviet troops pulled out in the 1990s.
The Poles weren't completely pleased either. The Patriots are to be first rotated in from Germany and only for "training" (meaning without warheads). One disgruntled Polish deputy defense minister is reported to have fumed, "We don't need garden planters." After 2012, however, the Patriots are set to become permanent and fully armed.
The US military footprint could expand even further if Obama and President Bronislaw Komorowski announce as expected the rotation of F-16 jets to Poland. The planes would be used for training purposes only, but Mr. Wisniewski says the agreement would have "symbolic" meaning.
"Poland already has 48 of its own F-16s, and these F-16s will be rotated in and used only for training purposes. But the agreement is a sign of deepening ties between the US and Poland, and, ultimately, it is good for Poland's security," Wisniewski said.
Obama and Polish leaders could also discuss Poland's role in the revamped missile shield, including plans to place SM-3 interceptor missiles in Poland.
Moscow is likely to be watching closely especially after the May 3 announcement from Washington and Bucharest that Romania – which already is home to four US military bases – would host interceptor missiles and up to 500 US soldiers at a southern naval base as part of the European defense shield.
The Kremlin criticized the Romanian deal, accusing Washington of pressing ahead with its missile shield plans despite promises of cooperation with Russia.
While in Warsaw, Obama and Polish officials are also expected to discuss Poland's potential shale gas riches and the impact they could have for energy security in Europe, which is trying to diversify its energy sources and break free of Moscow's near energy stranglehold on the region.
A recent US Energy Information Administration report estimates that Poland has recoverable shale gas resources of 5.3 trillion cubic meters, the largest of any European state studied and equal to over 300 years of Poland's annual gas consumption.
US Ambassador Richard Morningstar, Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, told a recent conference in Warsaw that "Poland has a chance to become a leader in the shale gas revolution."
ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and ExxonMobil are among firms that received licenses for prospecting unconventional gas in Poland, according to Polish media reports. According to the German magazine, Spiegel, France and Germany are backing Polish shale drilling efforts as they face strong opposition on the issue in their respective countries due to the environmental risks associated with shale drilling techniques.