US, Poland status of forces pact deepens military cooperation

The US, Poland status of forces pact signed Friday allows deployment of a missile defense system to go forward. An earlier proposal for a more robust missile system had drawn the ire of Russia.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Ellen Tauscher, the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Stanislaw Komorowski, the Polish deputy defense minister, exchange documents after signing a deal to regulate the stationing of American troops and military equipment in Poland, in Warsaw, Poland, on Friday.

The US and Poland have reached an agreement to station an American antimissile defense system on Polish soil two months after plans to install a more robust missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic were scrapped in the face of intense Russian opposition. But the close military cooperation between the US and Poland, including US troops in the country, means the deal is likely to remain a major concern for Russia.

The deployment, under a new Status of Forces Agreement reached between Poland and the US, calls for US troops to install and operate a mobile, land-based set of short- and medium-range missiles to defend against incoming attacks.

The equipment includes SM-3 IA missiles and a MIM-104 Patriot mobile missile battery. Both types of missile are designed to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The missiles could arrive in Poland as soon as the first quarter of 2010.

Though Russia is unhappy about the growing military ties between the US and former Warsaw Pact nations, the current plan is more modest than the earlier one, which included long-range missile interceptors. The missiles to be stationed in Poland will not have the capacity to be used offensively against Russia and aren’t capable of shooting down the long-range missiles in the Russian arsenal.

“This agreement constitutes a proof for the strong cooperation between our two nations,” said Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs. “I hope that it will become only stronger.”

The Polish news agency PAP quoted Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich as saying that “the SOFA deal should be ratified soon by the parliament,” which should “permit the US to meet the commitments it had undertaken last August.”

The minister was visibly referring to the Declaration on Strategic Cooperation that the Bush administration and the Polish government signed on Aug. 20, 2008. Under the pact, 10 Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) missiles would be put in a planned U.S Air Force base in northern Poland. The interceptors would be supplemented by a tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

This past September, when President Obama announced that the antimissile defense would be scrapped in favor of a ship-based system, plans for placing a Central Europe-based missile-defense shield were thought to be decisively cancelled. Eventually, the scheme re-emerged on Oct. 7, when Ms. Tauscher stated that Poland could host the SM-3 interceptors as part of a new defense system. A final understanding was reached in late November.

Russia’s hostility toward the antimissile shield was considered a major factor in Obama decision to water down the project. Declarations by Polish and Czech politicians that anti-missile defense and the stationing of US troops on their soil was security against Russian aggression did not help Washington convince Moscow that the shield’s prime objective was to secure US territory and troops abroad from attacks.

Various commentators at home and abroad also accused the president of yielding to Russian pressure in exchange for support on Iran and Afghanistan.
”The Obama administration seems to be nurturing a false impression that Russia has a major influence over Iran, which isn’t even halfway true,” says Dmitry Babich, a political commentator with Russia Profile magazine. “In fact, in its relations with Moscow, Tehran behaves as if the two were equal partners. For Iran, cooperating with Russia is nothing more than a temporary necessity.”

The new antimissile defense is less likely to spur criticism from the Kremlin. Contrary to the Bush-era plans, which designed the Poland-based facilities to include nuclear warhead-delivering intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the system will counter only short- and medium-range missiles. Its main aim would be to halt the rapid buildup of Iran’s armaments, as it is estimated that Tehran is presently working on developing missiles of the same range.

“Russian foreign policy is reluctant toward any alteration of the balance of power in Europe,” argues Mr. Babich. “If Russian officials say, as did Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that the new anti-missile defense is acceptable to Russia, it is because they don’t have the impression that US plans could alter the European status quo to a great extent.”

The signing of a Status of Forces Agreement between the US and foreign governments is a prerequisite for stationing American troops abroad. The accord establishes the framework for the US. troops’ stay, including the taxes to be paid by the US for the military base and the terms of jurisdiction over American troops, should criminal charges be filed against them.

“It was virtually the most important provision that we wanted to obtain. The American side expected us to drop this claim, but finally, we’ve established that in every case, the Polish justice system will be given the priority of jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. troops on Polish soil,” Poland’s Deputy Defense Minister Komorowski told the Rzeczpospolita daily. “However, on the US government’s special request and in extraordinary circumstances, we may decide not to use this power,” he added.

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