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Obama Missile-Defense U-Turn Rocks Central Europe

The sea-based SM-3 will be the heart of Obama's new system.
The sea-based SM-3 will be the heart of Obama's new system.
U.S. President Barack Obama's decision last week to dramatically revise long-standing U.S. plans for a missile-defense system hit Central Europe like a bombshell.

Critics of the missile shield rejoiced, but the news drew angry words in Poland and the Czech Republic, which had agreed to host elements of the controversial system proposed by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

"I expected different things, but not such arrogance from the United States," Lech Walesa, Poland's iconic former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told RFE/RL. "Some discussions and explanations should have taken place before to make it look like a mutual arrangement rather than a unilateral decision."

Central European politicians, including Walesa, had spent more than two years defending the U.S. shield against stiff public resistance at home, and Obama's move could deal a serious blow to their credibility.

"Many politicians here invested a lot of political capital into defending missile defense," says Frantisek Sulc, a reporter for the Czech weekly "Tyden" and the coauthor of a book on missile defense. "They didn't like that step because they now look like losers. There is strong opposition not only from the population but also from other political parties, especially from the Social Democrats. They will be really, really careful before jumping into anything like that again."

Cold War Fears

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates assured both countries they would be able to participate in the new missile shield. It would initially be based in the air and at sea, but would later include land-based interceptors in Europe.

"I expected different things, but not such arrogance from the United States," Lech Walesa, Poland's iconic former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told RFE/RL.
Obama took pains during two televised appearances to explain that the new system would protect Europe far more efficiently from Iranian short- and medium-range missiles. U.S. intelligence now believes they represent a more immediate threat than long-range missiles.

The president denied caving in to Moscow, which had fiercely denounced the U.S. shield as a threat to its national security.

But Obama's explanations have done little to soothe jagged nerves in Warsaw and Prague.

"Betrayal!" Poland's "Fakt" tabloid exclaimed on its front page following Obama's September 17 announcement. "The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back."

"No Radar. Russia won," echoed the largest Czech daily, "Mlada Fronta Dnes."

The Bush administration had insisted that its missile-defense scheme -- which called for a radar near Prague and 10 missile interceptors in northern Poland -- was aimed solely at countering potential missile attacks from rogue states such as Iran.

But in Central Europe, many saw the shield as a symbol of U.S. protection -- both military and political -- against a resurgent Russia.

Czech journalist Sulc says a deep-running fear of Russia explains much of the dismay over Obama's move.

"They feel the [U.S.] administration somehow made a deal with the Russians behind [the backs of] the Czechs and the Poles," he says. "Those fears are really, really strong, even 20 years after the revolution."

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel (left) and former Polish President Lech Walesa are among those disturbed by Obama's decision.
The timing of Obama's announcement, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, added fuel to the fire.

Despite Obama's reassurances, few in Europe believe his decision to scrap the Bush-era shield had nothing to do with Russia.

"I think it was a friendly gesture [to Russia]; I believe it was influenced by the Russians," says former Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, who led missile-defense negotiations with Washington until last summer. "We have a number of signals coming from Russia that they've been working on Obama for the past several months."

Shifting Priorities?

Former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, another prominent negotiator during missile talks with Washington, said Obama's decision was a "concession" to Russia that signals a shift in U.S. foreign policy.

"We fought for this radar, and it was difficult to get the whole thing through," he told RFE/RL. "I don't think it's a sellout of Eastern Europe, but it definitely shows that American political priorities are somewhere else now. They are more in the Middle East, more in Iran."

Obama's decision was not entirely a surprise.

Speculation had grown in recent months that the U.S. president would ditch his predecessor's antimissile plans in return for Moscow's support in other areas, especially over Iran's disputed nuclear program.

In March, a report in the Russian daily "Kommersant" cited a source as saying Obama had send a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev offering to trade the shield for Russian support on tougher UN sanctions against Tehran.

Medvedev this week signaled a departure from Russia's previous stance on Iran by saying Moscow could consider backing new sanctions.

And in July, former Czech President Vaclav Havel, together with some 20 other prominent intellectuals and former politicians from Central Europe, penned an open letter in which they warned the United States against sacrificing the missile shield to appease Moscow.

The letter was published shortly after Obama's first visit as president to Russia.

Russian Motives

In stark contrast, Obama's u-turn on missile defense drew a chorus of praise in Moscow. Medvedev on September 23 hailed Obama's decision as "a constructive step in the right direction."

The Kremlin's enthusiastic initial reaction surprised a number of security experts, most of whom agree the new system would be more effective than the previous one and could be implemented sooner.

But many believe scrapping the Bush-era shield handed Moscow an easy opportunity to claim victory over Washington.

Russian defense expert Aleksandr Golts says Moscow's triumphant mood doesn't mean Russian officials won't backpedal as more details emerge on the replacement system.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Russian experts announced soon that the current setup, too, threatens Russia's security," he says.

Analysts say the U.S. missile issue gave Moscow an excuse to stall negotiations with Washington over a new strategic arms treaty, under which Russia would have to destroy half of its massive nuclear stockpiles.

Russian officials have already begun voicing concerns about the new missile-shield plans. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said the planned sea-borne missile interceptors could be redeployed "to Russia's shores."

(RFE/RL's Anna Zamejc contributed to this report)

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