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A Polish Missile Crisis?

By Ellen C. Bryson, None

In light of recent statements and actions from Russia, the United States should be more careful in its diplomatic relations with its former nemesis. A recent comment made by President Dmitry Medvedev is characteristic of his country’s current attitudes: he states that Russia is not afraid of “the prospect of a new Cold War.” This remark comes in the context of Russia’s recent conflict with Georgia and its threats to bomb proposed U.S. missile sites in Poland. These sites, which would be part of a missile defense system that the U.S. plans to install in Poland and the Czech Republic, would defend Europe against a possible threat from “rogue states,” namely Iran and North Korea. Even if the missiles that the U.S. is planning to install would actually be used as intended, the current plans for the missile defense system should be either altered or abandoned altogether because they will increase the current tension between the U.S. and Russia.

The decision to install the main missile site in Poland, which is one of the NATO countries closest to Moscow, has incensed Russia, and it has threatened to destroy the missile site, if it are set up. While the missile system, as currently designed, would be ineffective against the Russian nuclear arsenal, the U.S. has promised Poland, in return for allowing the missile installation, a Patriot missile defense system, which would be aimed at Russia and have the capability to shoot down military planes as well as missiles. Russia sees the missile deal as an opportunity for the U.S. to increase its military presence near Russian borders. Once the system is installed, Russia argues, it would be easy for the U.S. to use the system to target Russia.

Installing the missiles is a touchy issue not only because of the geographic proximity of nations to Russia, but also because of their former status as satellites of the U.S.S.R. During the Cold War, Poland and the Czech Republic were part of the Warsaw Pact, which the U.S.S.R. formed in response to NATO. After the Cold War ended, however, they aligned themselves with Western Europe, and as of 2007, six of the eight founding Warsaw Pact states had joined NATO and the European Union. Although NATO is no longer officially an enemy of Russia, Russia’s opposition to the NATO membership bids of Georgia and Ukraine last April suggests that it still views NATO with distrust, and that it desires to keep the remainder of its former bloc from aligning themselves with the West. By installing missiles in former Warsaw Pact states, the United States may be seen as pitting Russia’s former allies against it.

The missile deal poses further problems because it not only covers the physical installation of the missile defense system, but also sets up a pact of “mutual commitment” between Poland and the U.S. to aid each other “in case of military or other threats” with greater speed than NATO would provide. This assurance of mutual aid is backed up by the Patriot missiles, which, while they are defensive, would allow Poland to respond to a Russian attack without needing outside assistance. The U.S. still claims that this missile deal is no threat to Russia, but Russia was clearly on the minds of Polish officials when they signed the deal after Russian troops entered Georgia last month. At the time, Polish president Lech Kaczynski stated, “[Russia is after] Georgia today, Ukraine tomorrow, and Poland may be next.” Whatever American intentions may be, Poland views this deal as an extra assurance, beyond its membership in NATO, against Russian aggression. With a prospective recipient of U.S. arms taking such a stance, it should not be surprising that Russia views this deal as threatening.

If Russia carried out its threat to bomb the missile sites, then either the United States or NATO would have to respond because of treaty obligations. Even if the missile deal itself does not provoke conflict, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has warned that the deal will lead to “an inevitable arms race” between Russia and the U.S. The U.S. should avoid such provocations as much as possible, without making significant sacrifices to its own security and that of its allies.

Some analysts have questioned the military necessity of installing this defense system in Eastern Europe. The U.S. already has a missile system that can defend it against the current threat from North Korea, and E.U. officials have questioned whether Europe faces an immediate threat that calls for a U.S.-run defense system. In April, however, NATO declared its support for the missile defense system, so if Iran’s nuclear capabilities are truly an urgent threat, it should be possible to install the system in a NATO member state farther from Russia’s borders than Poland the Czech Republic are.

In light of recent tensions with Russia, the U.S. should avoid antagonizing Russia without very good reason. The U.S. should not install an unnecessary missile system that risks sparking an otherwise unrelated conflict. If the missiles are truly necessary, then the U.S. should plan to install the missiles somewhere they will not incite Russia to start a needless war. Perhaps Russia is unafraid of another Cold War, but conflict rarely occurs without two willing participants.

Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Cabot House. She spent this summer in Poland as a WorldTeach volunteer.

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