It’s official, the United States will install missiles in Poland pointed at Russia. The historic and highly controversial deal was signed in Warsaw this afternoon by Condoleezza Rice, ushering in a new era in Russo-Western relations.
The decision by Poland to allow the US to build its missile base there, and a mirror decision by the Czech Republic to build a twin radar facility in that country, seemingly couldn’t come at a worse time for relations between Russia and the West. Set as it is with the backdrop of the Georgia conflict, the timing is likely to enrage Russia even further.
The US insists the missiles are not directed at Russia but are rather for Europe’s protection from rogue states such as Iran. But there is no denying that the missiles are within easy striking distance of Russia, right at its doorstep. As part of the deal, the Americans will get a permanent garrison of US troops along with an agreement that the US will give Poland complete protection in the event of any conflict. All of this is outside the framework of NATO. Russia is obviously far from pleased that this is happening in its former satellite state. After all, they point out, the US didn't tolerate Russia putting missiles in Cuba. Why should the Russians tolerate this?
The Polish public is far from ecstatic about this deal, and last night President Kaczynski (one of the famed Kaczynski twins) held a televised speech attempting to convince the Poles that the decision is in Poland’s best interests. But many Poles fear that the decision will actually make Poland less safe by making it a target for Russian aggression. These fears were stoked on Friday when Russian general Anatoly Nogovitsyn described the missile base agreement as an act of aggression against Russia and warned Poland that it was leaving itself open to retaliation - and possibly even a nuclear attack.
Many Poles – and Czechs as well - also feel that Poland is now just becoming a vassal state of another superpower, 28 years after they escaped from their previous superpower overlord.
But beyond the implications this has for Eastern Europe’s relations with the United States, I’m even more curious about the implications for its relations with Western Europe and the EU. Eastern Europe seems to be integrating itself into the West on two fronts. On the political and economic front it has joined the EU and is progressing full-steam ahead on being integrated fully into the block. But as the EU affords no military protection, on the defense front they are aggressively integrating into a US protectorate system, going even beyond the US-dominated NATO alliance to negotiate separate protections with the Americans. Clearly, the former Warsaw Pact countries do not have any faith in their Western European neighbors to defend them if they were attacked.
Is this system tenable? Is a union that creates a unified economic and political block yet remains militarily impotent and easily dividable doomed to failure? And even if it isn’t, is it responsible to create such a union under those circumstances?
The recent events in Georgia have demonstrated that there is much disagreement these days between the US and Western European nations about the direction NATO should take, and many people in Europe are increasingly losing faith in an alliance that seems to some to be outdated. In today’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins wrote a scathing editorial calling NATO “useless” and blaming it for the current situation. It was, he writes, NATO which antagonized the Russians into action, building a Cold War 2.0 military fortress in Eastern Europe and aggressively pushing for Ukraine and Georgia to join it. Was pushing for their membership really worth the cost of provoking the hyper-sensitive Russians? While the Pentagon insists that the current crisis only underscores the need for NATO to protect Europe from Russia, they are glossing over the fact that it was NATO itself which provoked the current crisis.
If Western European governments start to see the situation as Jenkins does, there may come a time when Europe will say “thanks but no thanks” to NATO and decide that it is ready to handle its own self defense. But by that point, Eastern Europe may have been turned into an American military zone completely outside the NATO framework. You’d then have a European union half under American military occupation and half not. Awkward! Brussels should perhaps be watching these American military deals to the East with a bit more scrutiny.