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U.S. Defense Deal With Poland Stirs Angry Russian Rhetoric

August 20, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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A newly inked deal paves the way for the building of a U.S. missile defense base in Poland -- a move that has infuriated regional power Russia. Experts examine the state of U.S.-Russia relations.

RAY SUAREZ: The rhetoric from Russia today was its harshest ever on the issue of missile defense. The foreign ministry said Russia would have to respond with more than diplomatic words to the deal signed today between Poland and the United States to set up part of a U.S. missile defense system in northern Poland.

It’s supposed to be part of a shield against long-range missiles from Iran. But in addition to 10 interceptor rockets, the package includes Patriot missiles, which can only hit incoming missiles fired by a nearby enemy.

Russian military officials have said Poland is opening itself to attack by agreeing to deploy the U.S. rockets.

Today, Secretary of State Rice said those comments “border on the bizarre.” Months of negotiations between the U.S. and Poland came to a quick conclusion just days after Russia sent troops to Georgia.

Two views now. John Isaacs is executive director for both the Council for a Livable World and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Fred Kagan is a resident scholar specializing in defense issues at the American Enterprise Institute.

And, Fred Kagan, why did the United States do this right now?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, we have been negotiating this deal with the Poles for quite a long time. I do suspect that the timing was connected with the Russian actions in Georgia.

And I think that it’s important to keep in mind that, after Russia invaded Georgian territory, the president of Poland, along with the presidents of the Baltic states, issued a very strong statement, earning a rebuke from Moscow.

I think the Poles have come to recognize the danger that they face in this new world that Putin’s aggression in Georgia has created. And it made it easier to get the deal through.

And I also think that we recognize the necessity of providing Georgia with defensive weapons systems that will protect — I’m sorry, Poland — that will protect Poland itself from possible Russian attacks of the sort that we’ve seen in Georgia. So that’s why I think we threw in the Patriot missile batteries, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: John Isaacs, do you accept Fred Kagan’s proposition that the invasion of Georgia helped speed up an agreement with Poland on this citing?

JOHN ISAACS, Council for a Livable World: I certainly accept that, but it certainly also gives the lie to the Bush administration’s case that it’s making for many months, many years, that this missile defense system that we’re going to deploy in Poland was directed at Iran and certainly not at Russia.

Well, I think what Condoleezza Rice said today, the Polish leaders, some American politicians have made it clear, this missile defense system fuels the Russian fears of what they’ve been saying all along, that the missile defense system is really directed at them.

Redirecting defense toward Russia

John Isaacs
Council for a Livable World
... what we have now is a false missile defense. This system that we agreed to deploy won't be ready for deployment for several years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there hasn't been any move in Iran, has there, to demonstrate an ability to hit far-off targets with missiles?

JOHN ISAACS: They've been trying to develop long-range missiles, but they have -- there is no yet -- there's not yet any Iranian missile that can hit very long distances.

I mean, to me, I go back, oh, the beginning of last century, when going back to Russia, Russian villagers would build these false fronts so when the -- in villages, so when the tsar passed through, the tsar would think, "Oh, my goodness. What great development in this area," a false village.

And what we have now is a false missile defense. This system that we agreed to deploy won't be ready for deployment for several years. We haven't even built it, much less tested it. And it will be several years away before we get it deployed. So what we promised today is a promise that is many years off.

RAY SUAREZ: So taking John Isaacs' point, was having the announcement, the signing now, when there's no Iranian threat and no system ready to deploy, unnecessarily provocative?

FREDERICK KAGAN: No, because the agreement is to develop and deploy the system. And there is an Iranian threat. The Iranians have just recently been testing Shahab 3 missiles that have a range of 2,000 kilometers, which is far in excess of what they need...

JOHN ISAACS: Testing, but not successfully.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, good heavens, shall we wait until they're actually landing in Europe? I mean, the problem with the defensive system, as we've repeatedly made clear, is that it takes time to build and develop a system. And the time to be doing that is before your enemy actually has the capability.

The question is, if the Iranians have no such intent, then why are the Iranians trying to develop multiple-stage rockets that would actually give them intercontinental range?

But the key thing here is that the notion that this system is somehow directed at Russia is absolutely laughable. The geometry is wrong. The U.S. missile defense program, which has been showing the Russians virtually the blueprints and diagrams of this system all along, has shown very clearly that interceptors launched from this spot will not be able to hit Russian ICBMs that are launched from Central Asia and that fly very close to the North Pole.

If we were building a system against the Russians, we would deploy it in north U.K. or something or Iceland or something like that. We would not be deploying in Poland.

RAY SUAREZ: So what do you make of their reaction, then, if what you're saying is true?

FREDERICK KAGAN: The Russian reaction is insane. The Russian reaction is itself a provocation.

What the Russians are basically trying to say is that the United States does not have the right to negotiate defensive agreements with its NATO allies because Russia still regards Poland as being part of its sphere of influence. And this is fundamentally an attempt by Putin to roll back the expansion of NATO.

Deal made for a future system

John Isaacs
Council for a Livable World
Poland is a member of NATO, so we have agreed to come to the defense of the Polish government and the Polish people, should there actually be military confrontation.

RAY SUAREZ: John Isaacs, today and yesterday, the rhetoric from Russia was very strong, threatening Poland and talking about serious repercussions for the siting. And then the American secretary of state reminded the Russians that there was a joint defense treaty, so the United States would come to Poland's aid. This sounds like war talk.

JOHN ISAACS: It certainly is extreme rhetoric from the Russians. There's no doubt about it. But I think the United States did not need to move forward today with this agreement.

There's no reason we shouldn't continue researching the program. In fact, the two Armed Services Committee, the Senate and the House Armed Services Committee, including the committee on which Senator John McCain, the Republican almost nominee, presumptive nominee serves, voted to cut money and prevent any actual construction of the missile, until it's built first and it's tested first.

So we're talking about tests two years away. There's no reason to sign an agreement today, except we wanted to respond to what happened in Georgia and we wanted to ratchet up the rhetoric and the moves.

And I think it's very dangerous from what Russia is saying, and it's very dangerous what the U.S. has been doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what forms could Russian retaliation take at this point?

JOHN ISAACS: I don't think they'd launch a military strike, but I don't know. There are economic steps, the kind of pressure that they used to exert on the periphery countries, they might try again. I don't know what they would try with Poland.

But, again, Poland is a member of NATO, so we have agreed to come to the defense of the Polish government and the Polish people, should there actually be military confrontation.

But we're not -- we shouldn't be moving back to the Cold War. We shouldn't be moving back to the days of threats.

We have to ultimately work with Russia against international terrorism, to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and preventing the nonproliferation, trying to safeguard nuclear materials and nuclear weapons in Russia.

This is -- we have to work with the Russians. So both sides really have to back away from this and try to resume some sort of productive relationship.

Holding Russia accountable

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
I'm far from convinced that Russia has been a particularly useful partner to begin with, but I would point out that we were not the ones who began this.

RAY SUAREZ: Fred Kagan, back away, resume productive relations?

FREDERICK KAGAN: I don't think we've had productive relations. I don't think the Russians have been terribly helpful.

While the Russians have supposedly been helping us with Iran, they've also been providing fuel for Iranian reactors. They've also been providing advanced technology to the Iranians, some of which is being used to kill our soldiers in Iraq. And they've also been working to delay and undermine the sanctions regime against Iran, apart from providing all sorts of moral support to Tehran.

So I'm not -- I'm far from convinced that Russia has been a particularly useful partner to begin with, but I would point out that we were not the ones who began this.

The Russians started all of this with an absolutely illegal invasion of Georgia. Whatever you think of what was going on in South Ossetia, and I'm not going to prejudge that, the fact that Russian tanks moved into Georgia, have occupied towns within Georgia beyond the borders of South Ossetia, the fact that Russian soldiers have been absolutely systematically demolishing barracks and buildings in Georgian military bases, within Georgia proper, all in flagrant violation of international law, which was clearly, among other things, a challenge sent to us, and we know that because that's what the Russians said.

If you look at what the Russian statements were, they were saying, "You see? This shows that you shouldn't take Georgia into NATO, because look at what we'll do."

Now, I think it's entirely appropriate in that context for us to make it clear that we intend to defend our NATO allies.

And I beg to deliver that there's no immediate defense here, because although the missile system will take some time to deploy, we are also promising to provide the Poles with Patriot batteries, which we can do right away, which will provide an immediate defense.

Frankly, I think it would be a good idea for us to provide Patriot batteries to the Baltic states and to Georgia, as well. And before we start talking about how provocative that is to the Russians, the question is, why is it provocative for Russia's neighbors to have the ability to defend their own airspace if Russia does not intend to get into a war with them?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, why is it?

JOHN ISAACS: Well, I'd go back and say -- it's all the Russians' fault, and go back 20 years. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the dissolution of the various parts of the Soviet Union became separate states, the Warsaw Pact broke up, the independent -- the Central European countries became independent, that was an opportunity, I think, to try to build stronger relations with Russian and to promote a genuine democracy.

But instead what we did at that point -- and this gets right to the point today -- we expanded NATO into a lot of the countries of the former Soviet Union in violation, apparently, of a promise we made to Gorbachev. When the two Germanys united, we told Gorbachev we would not expand NATO. But, instead, while Russia was down, we stepped on Russia's neck and said, "Tough luck. We're strong. You're weak. We're the ones that are going to make all of the decisions," and so we expanded NATO.

And so we've been pushing Russia away. At this point, I think, again, both sides have taken a lot of steps that are quite provocative. And if we don't watch out, we're going to get into a hot war, instead of a cold war.

But we need to go back -- whether the Russians have been -- ultimately, if we're going to get a settlement in Iran, if we're going to get a settlement in North Korea, if we're going to deal with nonproliferation, we have to work with the Russians. That's the facts on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: John Isaacs, Fred Kagan, gentlemen, thank you both.