U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sought reconciliation with America's staunch allies in eastern Europe on Wednesday, starting with Poland, which eagerly signed on to a revamped U.S. missile shield.
A month after the Obama administration stung Poland by scrapping a Bush-era plan that would have placed a major anti-missile base in the country, the Polish prime minister and president gave their backing to the scaled-down alternative. That was an achievement for Biden who will take his message to Romania and the Czech Republic.
Premier Donald Tusk signed on to President Barack Obama's revamped U.S. missile shield, declaring Poland ready to participate in the project, which is intended to counter threats from Iran.
"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 told reporters at a news conference with Biden.
The Obama plan would place SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles at a former air base in the town of Redzikowo in northern Poland — the same site that was to host U.S. missile interceptors in underground silos under the Bush plan.
Revamped planPoland views hosting a U.S. missile defense base as a means to cement its security ties with Washington, particularly in the face of a resurgent Russia.
The Poles "had to accept this version (of missile defense) even though there were a lot of negative comments coming out of Warsaw when the revamped system's details were released," said Marko Papic, a Eurasia analyst for Stratfor, a U.S.-based global intelligence company. "But then again a lot of that was just emotion from being 'abandoned.'"
Moscow, meanwhile, perceives the new plan as less threatening because it wouldn't initially involve inceptors capable of shooting down Russia's intercontinental ballistic missiles, experts say.
"It won't pose any threat until 2020," retired Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, who formerly headed a Russian Defense Ministry structure in charge of arms control negotiations, said last month.
"But that threat will only exist if our relations with the U.S. remain marred by controversy and we fail to agree on joint development and use of missile defense," he said. Russia has not officially reacted to the new plan.
Obama's decision to scrap the Bush plan removed a major irritant in U.S. relations with Russia. But it also sparked fears among the ex-communist nations of Eastern Europe — which have been among the staunchest U.S. allies since Communism's collapse in 1989 — that Obama was sacrificing their interests in order to improve ties with the Kremlin.
Biden's visit to Poland — and later stops in Romania and the Czech Republic — aim to reassure Washington's allies of its support and to dispel fears that the administration is ignoring their interests amid its push to reset relations with Russia.
Front line of defense
All three of countries on Biden's trip have viewed the U.S. as the guarantor of their security since shedding Soviet-backed regimes 20 years ago as communism unraveled and setting their sites on the West. Eager to bring them into the western fold, Washington spearheaded the successful drive to make the trio members of NATO.
In return, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic have thrown their support behind Washington in its fight against terrorism, contributing troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The Bush-era project would have placed 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic to intercept long-range missiles from Iran.
Under Obama's new missile defense plan, U.S. Navy ships equipped with anti-missile weapons — such as the Navy's Standard Missile-3 — would form a front line of defense in the eastern Mediterranean. Those would be combined with land-based anti-missile systems to be placed on shore in Europe.
The proposal calls for a focus on short and medium-range interceptors to better counter expected threats from Iran. The Pentagon says the SM-3 anti-ballistic missile is the most technically advanced and cost-effective way to counter Tehran's anticipated arsenal. No new details of the plan were announced Wednesday.
Obama has said the old blueprint was scrapped largely because the U.S. has concluded that Iran is less focused on developing the kind of long-range missiles for which the Bush-era system was originally developed.
Biden said the U.S. administration's new approach would meet "a growing threat" to the U.S. and Europe, and praised Poland for its readiness to sign on.
"We appreciate Poland has stepped up and agreed to host an element of the previous missile defense plan, and we now appreciate that Poland's government agrees with us that there is now a better way ... with new technology and new information, to defend against emerging ballistic missile threats," Biden said.
Eugeniusz Smolar, the director of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, said adopting the Obama administration's approach was an easy call for Poland.
"This proposal is much more Europe oriented because the new system is to deal more with the medium- and short-range threats, and this is exactly what Poland has been seeking," Smolar said.
He added that the new plan is also "more NATO oriented, which is good, because it means there will be much less tension among the allies who have been complaining that Poland has been doing its own agreement with the U.S. outside of NATO."
Biden also met with Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Polish soldiers who have served in NATO's mission in Afghanistan before departing for Romania.
He will visit the Czech Republic on Friday.