Scuttling a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland helps smooth relations between the U.S. and Russia. But at what price?
Some of America's staunchest allies are the East Europeans — and on Thursday, they expressed dismay at what many see as a slight after decades of their support for the U.S.
Among them were some famous names, including Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader and Polish ex-president. "I can see what kind of policy the Obama administration is pursuing toward this part of Europe," he said ruefully, adding: "The way we are being approached needs to change."
For most of the past decade, cozy relations with Washington were practically a given across the "new Europe." George W. Bush famously courted the region after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and leaned on it for troops to fight alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barack Obama took office undecided about Bush's plan to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and sophisticated radar in the Czech Republic — a system designed to shoot down long-range missiles that might be fired from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. Building had not started in either country.
The Czech installation was planned for the Brdy military installation 55 miles (90 kilometers) southwest of Prague. The Polish site was to be at a former military air base near the town of Redzikowo, about 115 miles from Russia's westernmost edge.
Reaching out to Russia
Obama has been reaching out to Russia, which had expressed outrage at the notion of missiles being pointed in its direction from a region that was firmly in the Soviet orbit just 20 years ago.
On Thursday, Obama announced he was shifting the plan from Eastern Europe to other locations. He and other administration officials said they have concluded that Iran's medium- and short-range missiles pose a greater threat and require more flexible technology.
Obama's decision got a positive reception in Russia, hailed by President Dmitry Medvedev as a "responsible move."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she viewed the shift as "a hopeful signal for overcoming difficulties with Russia when it comes to a uniform strategy to combat the threat of Iran together."
Officially, Czech leaders said they understood the rationale for abandoning the shield, and they expressed confidence that the country would remain secure.
But some expressed dismay at the reversal.
Former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government signed treaties with the Bush administration to build the radar system — and took a lot of heat from Czechs who feared it would make their country a terrorist target — went on Czech radio to vent his frustrations.
‘Bad news’ for Czech Republic
"The Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before," he said. "It's bad news for the Czech Republic."
Obama's decision also drew flak in Washington. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called it "shortsighted and harmful to our long-term security interests."
"We must not turn our backs on two loyal allies in the war on terror," he said.
Although Obama said the United States will continue to work cooperatively with "our close friends and allies," the future implications of the move appeared mixed.
Poland's prime minister held out hope his country might play a role in the revamped U.S. defense.
"There is a chance for strengthening Europe's security with special attention given to Poland," Donald Tusk told reporters, adding: "I would not describe what is going on today as a defeat for Poland."
But a prominent Czech legislator suggested the rebuff would have consequences should Washington ask for troops — or anything else.
"If the administration approaches us in the future with any request, I would be strongly against it," said Jan Vidim, a lawmaker with the conservative Civic Democratic Party, which had supported the missile defense plan.
Opponents of the shield, such as Jan Tamas — an activist who had organized numerous protests — hailed Obama's decision.
"It is a big victory for the Czech Republic. We are happy that we will be able to continue to live in our beautiful country without the presence of foreign soldiers," he said.
And Mariusz Chmiel, a top official in the northern Poland region where the missiles would have been based, proclaimed himself "the happiest man in Poland" now that the plan has been shelved.
Even so, scrapping missile defense comes as a huge setback to many Polish and Czech leaders, who viewed it as a way to strengthen military ties with the U.S. in a form of defense against a resurgent Russia.
Fears of Moscow run especially deep in Poland, highlighted by a key anniversary Thursday. Exactly 70 years ago — on Sept. 17, 1939 — Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union at the start of World War II.
Aleksander Szczyglo, head of Poland's National Security Office, characterized the change as a "defeat primarily of American long-distance thinking about the situation in this part of Europe."
"It's quite unfair," said Petr Boubin, 36, who owns a cafe in the Czech capital. "I think Obama is making too many concessions to Russia."