The signing of a Polish-US agreement to base an American missile shield on Polish soil triggered a war of words between former Cold War enemies, adding to the tensions over the crisis in Georgia. Washington has denied that the missile shield is aimed at Russia but Moscow said the deal contains new elements perceived as a direct threat.
Russia lashed out over the agreement on 20 August. It was signed the same day in Warsaw by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Polish colleague Radoslaw Sikorski.
Despite US insistence that the shield targets Iran, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in a statement that the planned missile shields "do not have, and in the foreseeable future will not have, any target other than Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles".
It concludes that "Russia will be forced to react, and not only through diplomatic demarches (procedures)," the statement reads.
The Warsaw Agreement contains a new element: an additional base of US Patriot air defence systems in Poland, the ministry said.
"By definition, such grouping can have no relation to the response to the imaginary Iranian threat. Not only does Tehran, which the US stubbornly uses to scare the Europeans, have no motivation, but it will simply have no technological possibilities to threaten Europe with a missile attack in the years to come, let alone the United States," the Russian ministry stated.
After signing the agreement, Rice said Russian threats "border on the bizarre" and promised that the US would "guarantee" Poland's territorial integrity.
"I don't think this is a new Cold War," she said. "It is a difficult time, but I think we shouldn't overstate the depth of the difficulties," the US Secretary of State added.
US negotiations with Poland to station part of its missile defence system on Polish soil have long been protracted, but recent developments in Georgia accelerated the finalisation of the deal. Public opinion in Poland now also strongly supports the country's hosting of the strategic facility.
Poland has also been most outspoken in condemning the advance of Russian troops into Georgia. Commentators have drawn parallels with the Georgian crisis and Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968. Today (21 August) is the 40th anniversary of the crackdown of the Prague Spring by the Soviet Union (EurActiv 31/07/08).
As though NATO membership was not a sufficient guarantee, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski made it plain in an interview that by hosting part of the US missile shield defence system, his country wanted to make sure that there are "US boots" on its soil as an additional guarantee against Russian appetites.
"The British didn't come through in 1939. You declared war but you didn't go to war. That's why we're demanding capabilities, 'boots on the ground', and not just parchment," said Sikorski.
Leonid Ivashov, head of the Moscow-based Academy of Geopolitical Sciences, said the missile shield was directed against Russia. "We should expect that elements of a US missile shield will be placed not only in Lithuania, but also in all territories bordering Russia and controlled by NATO," Ivashov said. He added that the main purpose of the US global missile shield was to neutralise Russia's nuclear potential by 2012-2015, saying NATO eastward expansion was part of this plan.
According to him, Ukraine and Georgia's possible accession to NATO would have dire consequences for Russia's defence capability, notably as Ukraine already had radars [in Mukachevo and Sevastopol] that may be used against Russia. "The US wants to create an impenetrable shield capable of intercepting and destroying Russian nuclear missiles on launch pads, in the initial trajectory, in orbit and on the final trajectory," he said.
John Isaacs, who heads the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says the new European missile defence system generated "a lot of profits for defence contractors [...] but no real addition to US security."
Former top US weapon tester Philip Coyle said the new European missile defence system would do little - if anything - to protect Europe against enemy missile attacks. "It's too easily overcome by an enemy," Coyle said, noting that even US defence officials acknowledged that the system would be able to defend against one or two missiles launched from Iran, not dozens, and that current technologies would not be effective if they faced a swarm of decoy missiles. "It's all a lot of sword-rattling, but [...] it's a sham," Coyle said.