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Biden reassures Central Europe on trip

Vice President Joe Biden makes significant strides during a trip to Central Europe this week in relieving anxieties the Obama administration stirred up when it scrapped a Bush-era plan for missile defense.
Czech Republic US Biden
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, is welcomed by the Czech Republic's prime minister, Jan Fischer, in Prague on Friday.Petr David Josek / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vice President Joe Biden made significant strides during a trip to Central Europe this week in relieving anxieties the Obama administration stirred up last month when it scrapped a Bush-era plan for missile defense.

Biden won agreement Friday from the Czech Republic to join Obama's reconfigured missile defense system, just two days after Poland said it also would take part. The NATO chief, meanwhile, praised the new plan as offering good defense for the West from future Iranian threats.

"Ministers welcomed the fact the new approach puts European missile defense more into a NATO context," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in nearby Bratislava after U.S. Defense Minister Robert Gates briefed alliance defense ministers on the system. "It is good for solidarity."

Russia vehemently opposed the Bush-era plan, which would have put missile interceptors in Poland near Russian territory and in the Czech Republic — areas in its Cold War sphere of influence. When Obama suddenly announced last month that he was scrapping that plan for a reduced missile defense system linked to NATO, many Poles, Czechs and others in the region feared it marked a capitulation to Moscow — a power still viewed with deep suspicion in much of the former Eastern Bloc.

Warsaw and some in Prague were also stung because the new system would give them reduced roles. They had counted on Bush's plan to tie their security destinies closer to the U.S., which is still viewed as the only credible guarantor of stability as Russia grows more assertive.

But those fears seem to have dispersed with Biden's stops this week in Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic.

An effort to 'calm nerves'
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Biden appeared to achieve Washington's apparent objective of reaffirming U.S. interest in Central Europe and providing a more accurate depiction of its revised missile defense plan.

"I think the Biden trip was principally an effort to calm nerves and to reassure countries of Central Europe that the U.S. was not losing interest and pursuing rapprochement with Russia at their expense," Kupchan said.

American officials have said that some of the initial criticism was unjustified and based on a flawed belief that the U.S. was completely giving up on the plan.

Kupchan described the region's initial reactions to the revised plan as "premature," but also criticized the Obama administration for not doing a very good job of rolling out the policy change.

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 in Europe.

Poles in particular were appalled the U.S. announced its plans for a reconfigured missile defense system on Sept. 17, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II. They felt that timing showed a lack of sensitivity, and Polish tabloids accused the U.S. of stabbing Poland in the back while political experts described Obama's plan as a slight.

Obama's proposal calls for a focus on short- and medium-range interceptors to better counter expected threats from rogue states such as 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.

Czechs 'ready to participate'
Obama has said the old blueprint was scrapped largely because the U.S. concluded Iran is less focused on developing the kind of long-range missiles for which the Bush-era system was developed.

With Biden's visit to Warsaw on Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk — who weeks ago said he would use more caution in signing onto deals with the U.S. — had resorted to language more typical of his pro-U.S. nation, going so far as to describe Polish views as "identical" to those of Washington.

The Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer on Friday said, while standing beside Biden, that his country "is ready to participate in the building of such a new architecture."

The United States was "very appreciative of the prime minister's statement today," Biden responded, adding that Washington would send a high-level defense team to Prague next month to "discuss the terms this participation will take."

Neither Biden nor Fischer gave any details, and it remains unclear if the Czechs could even deliver on any promises made now by Fischer's weak caretaker government. A new Czech government will be formed after elections in May.

In Russia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko on Thursday welcomed Obama's decision to dump the Bush-era plan, and said Moscow will carefully watch the next U.S. moves on missile defense. He said Russia was still conducting "a thorough analysis" of the new proposal.

Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, said he hopes Moscow will join the new missile defense system, saying it "will be much easier to tie it in with Russian capabilities."