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PRAGUE, Apr 21 2008 (IPS) - NATO countries have given cautious support to U.S. plans to extend its missile defence system to Eastern Europe, just as Washington is working hard to fulfil Russia’s conditions to agree to its construction.
The U.S. wants to extend its missile defence system (MDS) to Eastern Europe by building 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.
At their last meeting as heads of state, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Sochi, Russia, on Apr. 6 to discuss the U.S. base, among other issues.
Bush promised to try to integrate Russia into the global missile defence shield project “as an equal partner to the U.S.”, although similar attempts at cooperation between the two sides have failed in the past.
This was in the wake of the Bucharest North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit Apr. 2-4, in which the organisation gave cool support to U.S. plans, welcoming the possibility of eventually integrating the U.S. shield into the alliance’s defence structures.
Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS that Europe does not seem worried about the questionable effectiveness and costs of the project and that Washington could have appeased worried European allies by assuring an agreement with Moscow would be reached.
NATO currently lacks missile defence capacities but is carrying out feasibility studies. With the extension of the system, “NATO only has to worry about covering the south-eastern corner of Europe,” Witney told IPS.
In its present shape, the MDS runs against NATO’s principle of collective and indivisible security, as it would only protect north-western Europe from a hypothetical missile attack.
“It won’t be a big bill for the alliance, and given the fact the majority of the investment will be done by Washington it is easier for Europeans to support the project,” added the former chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels.
Russia and the U.S. could come to an agreement under which the radar station and the missile launchers would remain inactive until the hypothetical Middle Eastern threat materialises.
But Russia feels Washington’s confidence-building measures are not addressing the real issues, such as what prevents the U.S. from upgrading the base into a larger, possibly nuclear infrastructure in the future.
Moscow, convinced that the new elements in the MDS are aimed against it, is asking Washington to clarify under which conditions the U.S. plans to deploy the Eastern European base, and if it plans to build more deployment areas elsewhere. Experts point out that if Russia agrees to the construction of the base, it will have a long list of demands for Washington.
Otherwise, should the facilities be built in Eastern Europe, Moscow could take “measures of a military, technical nature,” in the words of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
Military officials in Moscow have repeatedly stated Russia would consider the new facilities military targets, against which even nuclear weapons could be deployed if necessary.
The U.S., in spite of Polish and Czech resistance, is apparently offering Russia the possibility to conduct inspections on the missile facilities, and technical monitoring of the base.
But Czech and Polish politicians refuse to accept a permanent presence of “Russian troops” in their countries, and would only agree to occasional inspections which they say should be reciprocated by Moscow.
Due to the presence of Soviet troops in Czech and Polish territory until 1989, for most of the public and politicians a permanent Russian presence in a military facility is unacceptable.
Russia is pushing hard for a permanent presence, possibly aware that Poland and the Czech Republic will never accept it. The Czech and Polish demand for similar inspections to be made by their officials in Russian territory were at most amusing to Russian officials.
“We have no plans to move our MDSs, to create MDSs around the USA, around Poland, around the Czech Republic. So we were quite satisfied with the state of reciprocity set out in the missile defence treaty – but the Americans withdrew from it, so there can be no talk of reciprocity now,” Lavrov told the media.
Czechs and Poles are not happy that the U.S. is negotiating with Russia over their heads, and recent reports go as far as claiming that negotiations with the more demanding Poland are stalled.
Polish media claim the U.S. has approached the Czech side to see whether it would be willing to host both the radar base and the missile launchers. But the Czech government, which plans to sign an agreement on the radar’s construction next month, will have to come to terms with opposition within its own coalition or risk the project’s refusal by parliament.
The Green Party, a junior coalition partner, says NATO’s declaration is not enough to convince them of the multilateral nature of the project, and several high-ranking Green officials have recently declared the radar should respond to NATO’s command from its inception.
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