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EUROPE: Georgia War Steps Up Support for U.S. Missile Bases

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Aug 25 2008 (IPS) - Following tough negotiations, the U.S. and Poland have signed a deal on extension of the U.S. missile defence system to Eastern Europe, weeks after the outbreak of the Georgian-Russian conflict.

The U.S. wants to build a radar in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland that will allegedly protect Europe from missile attacks by ‘rogue’ states in the Middle East.

The U.S. signed a treaty on the stationing of the radar on Czech soil earlier this summer.

Statements by Polish officials indicate that Poland prefers to wait for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November before ratifying the deal in parliament.

Ratification might prove complicated, especially in the Czech Republic where parliamentary support is everything but ensured.

Moscow claims the base can monitor military operations in much of European Russia, will affect the strategic balance of forces in Europe, and spark an arms race.

“The Russians have a clear plan on how to respond to the missile system, but not yet to the Georgian situation, so the question now is whether they will be tougher on the Polish deal in light of the Georgian situation,” András Deák, Russia expert at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs in Budapest told IPS.

On Aug. 8 Georgian troops tried to take control of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, de facto independent since 1992. Russia, officially in South Ossetia on a peacekeeping mission, responded by launching a military offensive in Georgia.

The Georgian-Russian war brought the Polish and U.S. sides closer to a deal that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says is aimed at Russia.

“In Washington’s eyes, this conflict has proved that Russia is not a stable partner to the United States and that it still perceives its international environment as its exclusive area of influence,” Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich said shortly after the deal was reached.

“Most probably, they realised that Poland needed protection not only against long range missiles but also against medium and short range missiles,” Klich said.

For Russia the Polish-U.S. deal, which finally includes deployment of Patriot missiles in Poland, proves its suspicions that the system was aimed against it rather than a hypothetical Middle Eastern threat.

The recent tensions follow a year of discussing confidence-building measures between Russia and the U.S. that would allow Russian monitoring of the future base.

As Washington’s rhetoric increasingly demonstrates that it perceives Moscow as a potential enemy, the feasibility of such confidence-building steps is being called into question.

Russia says it will respond to the deployment with “asymmetrical measures”, though it has not publicly specified how: a strong possibility is the set-up of military infrastructure in either Belarus, a strong ally of Russia, or in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave neighbouring Poland.

“It’s going to be more than a symbolic, but less than a real response,” Deák says. “There will be a set of harsh rhetoric, but as usual it will be difficult to separate Russian rhetoric from the real action.

“They don’t want to go into an arms race with the U.S., but the Georgian conflict could change things, they might get much tougher,” the analyst told IPS.

Nationalist and pro-U.S sectors in eastern Europe have condemned the Russian-Georgian conflict as a premeditated aggression by Moscow against which the ‘West’ should not capitulate.

On one side stand those that feel the “Russian aggression” must not go unanswered, and the radar is the best way to show that the West is not afraid. This is the stance suddenly supported by the majority of the Polish population, up until now mostly against the base, but which in an Aug. 18 poll was 55 to 41 percent in favour of the U.S. military installation being built on Polish soil.

For others the Russian action served as proof that Moscow is ready to go as far as hitting ‘Western’ military targets if it feels encircled.

Russian officials, who say that in 1999 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) issued a unilateral declaration announcing it would not deploy military hardware in the new member states, have reportedly started to flirt with the possibility of bringing military infrastructure to the vicinity of Washington, in either Cuba or Venezuela.

“It could be done cheaply but it’s not sure the Cuban government would go along with it, there is no evidence the Latin American regimes would cooperate. But it’s a possibility,” says Deák.

“There is a growing likelihood of an aggravation of relations; we are far from a cold war but we might have very frozen relations,” Deák adds.

The analyst notes that much will depend on how the Georgian situation is solved in terms of a Russian pullout, a new peacekeeping arrangement, and the ability of both the West and Russia to separate their various disagreements and not see them as part of a general conflict.

“The real danger for Russia is that it might face absolute isolation,” Deák told IPS.

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