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.