Last month, Ellen Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, kicked off a speech at a local think tank with a joke. “I didn’t know so many people cared about missile defense,” she said, and then quipped, “Only kidding.”
In recent weeks, there has been little room for joking as the Obama administration has had to deal with the fallout of shelving an agreement the Bush administration inked last year to put 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. President Obama scrapped Bush’s controversial missile defense shield in favor of a land- and sea-based system that focuses more on blocking Iran’s ability to fire short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Suddenly, what was once Bush’s controversy quickly became Obama’s — though this time the criticism came from two stalwart American allies instead of from Moscow. A day after the announcement, a Polish tabloid summed it up as “Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back.” A Czech newspaper declared, “An ally we rely on has betrayed us, and exchanged us for its own, better relations with Russia, of which we are rightly afraid.”
The awkward timing of the announcement, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, didn’t exactly help ease those worries, nor did the fact that the region is also in the midst of celebrating the 20th anniversary of revolutions in 1989 that freed Central and Eastern Europe from the shackles of Soviet communism.
Late last month, Obama sought to quell some of the anger, sending Vice President Joe Biden on a three-nation tour to Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland, where he met with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who said he welcomed the new proposal for a missile shield because it would replace a bulkier version previously planned for Poland. “I want to stress that Poland views … the new configuration for the missile shield as very interesting, necessary, and we are ready at the appropriate scale to participate,” Tusk said at a news conference with Biden.
Though the initial flap has died down, questions remain about whether Russia won the upper hand in the missile defense debate.
In Washington, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Obama’s decision “calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe.” He, too, mentioned Russia, saying, “Eastern European nations are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.”
Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the Russians — who saw the previous shield as an unwarranted provocation on their border — welcomed the news.
At the same time though, so did many critics of the original plan, which was derided as unnecessarily antagonistic to Russia and ineffective in combating a threat that didn’t yet exist, given Iran’s lack of long-range missile capabilities.
Obama said the alternative plan — to deploy Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missiles, first at sea and later at land — would rely on “techniques that are proven and cost-effective and will counter the current threat more effective and do so sooner.”
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, put it more bluntly: “U.S. President Barack Obama replaces a system that did not work against a threat that did not exist with weapons that can defend against the real Iranian missile capability. Better still, he NATO-izes the system to strengthen the alliance, not divide it,” Cirincione wrote in Foreign Policy following the announcement. “It is not appeasement; it is the new defense realism, the triumph of pragmatism over ideology.”
Still, to some, the move reopened the wounds of the ideological debate that swallowed up Eastern and Central Europe during the Cold War, when the region was used as a pawn in the Washington-Moscow power struggle. Now, 20 years after the fall of communism, is Eastern Europe once again being sacrificed to appease Russia?
“The Soviets may be long gone, but the sense of insecurity that defined the period of occupation remains woven throughout Polish society,” Wojciech Lorenz writes in “Poland: Straddling the Nuclear Frontier,” which appears in the fall 2009 edition of World Policy Journal. “Today, Poland still looks eastward, anxious to see how Russia plans to regain its central position on the world stage, and concerned that Moscow will act on its barely disguised intentions of regaining as much as possible of what used to be in its sphere of influence.”
Poland’s concerns are built on — and symbolized by — the decision of Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to cede Poland to the Soviets at the end of World War II. It was not only a slap in the face after Poland lost about 20 percent of its population at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets, it also paved the way for Soviet occupation of the Eastern bloc and soon afterward the Cold War.
Poland quickly became a hub for Russia’s nuclear warheads aimed at the West as well as the dividing line between the Soviet bloc and the NATO countries — sandwiched in for decades as a potential target.
“Now, Poland is yet again a potential target,” wrote Lorenz, a journalist with the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. “Today a geopolitical puzzle piece in regional energy wars, Poland is now a member of the European Union and a NATO ally, yet still somehow reluctant to leave the Russian sphere. Looking forward, Poland struggles to engage Russia and the West without provoking either.”
Lorenz points out though that many Poles saw the original missile defense proposal as dangerously antagonistic, and neither the Polish nor the Czech publics never enthusiastically embraced the idea anyway — at least not until the Russians began their own loud protests.
Still, abandoning the plan has brought up painful memories of Russian capitulation — and even with or without the missile debate, Russia continues to make people nervous throughout Central and Eastern Europe after its war last summer with Georgia and its subsequent flouting of a European Union-negotiated agreement to remove troops from the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Earlier, Moscow also succeeded in sidelining Ukraine and Georgia’s bids for NATO membership. Russia has also been pushing to regain influence in Ukraine ahead of that country’s presidential elections. And after the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute left Europe out in the cold last winter, Europeans again feel vulnerable to the newly resurgent Russian bear.
Ironically, Poland and others in the East weren’t as affected by the gas outages as Western Europe was. As a result, much of Western Europe is now looking forward to a new pipeline planned to run underneath the Baltic Sea that would give Russia a direct supply line to the west, bypassing current routes through Eastern Europe. Conversely, this has many in Central and Eastern Europe worried that Moscow will use the new pipeline to drive a wedge between them and their western neighbors, politically dividing EU members that have vowed to act collectively to protect one another’s security.
“Yesterday tanks, today oil,” Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, a former head of Poland’s security service, said in a recent New York Times article. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski even compared the pipeline project, which is between Russia and Germany, to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divvied up Central Europe into spheres of German and Soviet influence.
All of this has prompted some Poles to lose confidence in the security guarantees laid out by the sacred Article 5 of the NATO Charter that says an attack on one member is an attack on all. Now, many say their best defense to contain Russia not only entails a modernization of Poland’s forces, but also requires American boots physically on the ground, as was suggested under the original missile defense shield plan.
“A country which has American troops on its soil just does not get invaded,” Sikorski has said. Polish President Lech Kaczynski also voiced concern that the new plan left Poland in a dangerous “gray zone” between Western Europe and the old Soviet sphere.
That’s why it is no surprise that shelving Bush’s plan — even though many Poles opposed it — has not only opened up old psychological wounds, but forced some to ask why Poland ever sent 2,500 troop to Iraq to help with the U.S.-led war effort, given that the country has yet to see anything tangible in return.
With this as a backdrop, Tauscher used a forum at the Washington-based Atlantic Council last month to drive home the message that Poland and the Czech Republic still have a great opportunity to be a partner — “plug and play” — in the reshaped missile defense plan.
“The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles, and we will continue working with them in many areas to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationships,” Tauscher insisted, assuring the audience that there was no attempt to “curry favor with the Russian government, or to secure some kind of tradeoff in negotiations for a START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] follow-on treaty.”
But Tauscher admitted: “The rollout could have been handled better.”
Indeed, many say the Obama administration shot itself in the foot, especially if it was trying to subdue any lingering concerns Eastern Europe had about U.S.-Russia relations. Not only were Warsaw and Prague surprised by the move, having only received an overnight phone call from the president prior to his official press conference, the announcement came days before Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in New York and fell on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.
Daniel Kostoval, deputy chief of mission at the Czech Embassy in Washington, says the anger is now subsiding as people have had time to digest the details of the plan.
“Of course, somethings are not 100 percent perfect,” Kostoval told the crowd gathered at the Atlantic Council forum. “So the decision of the current U.S. government came in the way that sends out emotional waves in the Czech Republic. Nobody can deny this. But I think this emotional wave is over. We are eager and ready to participate in this new architecture.”
James M. Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations attributes the blowback to the messy rollout, partisan politics in Washington, and an overarching fear that Obama will not aggressively push missile defense.
Still, Lindsay told The Washington Diplomat that anyone who paid close attention to the presidential campaign and news reports over the summer should not have been surprised by the policy shift.
He pointed to an August report in the New York Times in which the administration was said to be mulling over adjustments to the missile defense plan so that it dealt with “what they see as an accelerating threat from shorter-range Iranian missiles.”
In the story, the spokesman for Poland’s foreign minister was also quoted as saying, “The missile defense system is now under review. The chances it will be in Poland are now 50-50.” Even prior to that, Poland had dragged its feet in the negotiations with the Bush administration for months to extract more military concessions from the United States before agreeing to host any system (and though the agreement with Bush had been signed, the Polish Parliament hadn’t gotten around to ratifying it).
Now, the world is watching to see if the United States is able to extract any concessions from Moscow. Despite repeated assurances, the jury is still out on whether the United States reworked the missile plan as part of its efforts to “push the reset button” with Russia. Many still wonder whether Russia will return the favor by cooperating on Iran, which so far it hasn’t. Some say Obama has given up a major leverage without getting anything in return. Others say reworking the missile defense has removed a needless irritant in the relationship — at least for now.
“I think the administration was wise to revamp the program without trying to negotiate something with the Russians or extract something from the Russians,” Lindsay said. “Russia’s outrage served as broader strategic ends and the missile defense plan became a convenient whipping boy that was used against the U.S. They were not going to make concessions for closing down the program because it serves a useful purpose for them,” he argued.
Whatever the case, history and the geopolitics of today suggest the long-term safety and security of countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic hinge on how Russia’s attempts to reassert itself as a world power evolve.
“I think what they want is a bigger say in world affairs,” the Czech Embassy’s Kostoval said. “They think they are being kept in a certain cave, not being let out.”
That foreboding specter of Russia’s intentions also colors the views of many Poles, who are struggling to find their new position in a post-Cold War environment where they both need their powerful neighbor yet can’t shake the memory of what that power is capable of.
“They say it’s a phobia, and it is a phobia, but it’s a phobia based on experience,” Zbigniew Lewicki, head of American Studies at Warsaw University, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Nobody is worried that Russian soldiers will come marching now, but in 10 years, in 20 years? Russia wants to dominate the world as much as possible, and they have not given up on this part of the world. They still think it belongs to them.”
So whom can Poland turn to in the face of renewed Russian aggression? “It is time now for a mature look, stripped of illusions, at our possibilities and our future,” Foreign Minister Sikorski recently told Rzeczpospolita. “I think today we all know that if we are to look to somebody, we have to look to ourselves.”
About the Author
Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.