Poles Down the River?

The big news the past week on the international relations front was President Obama’s “secret letter” he had hand-delivered to Russian president Medvedev last month. In it, he supposedly suggested – or at least hinted at – a possible deal whereby the US would stop the planned deployment of an anti-missile system with the radar installations in the Czech Republic and the actual anti-missile missiles in Poland, in return for Russia’s assistance in stopping the alleged drive by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Even if nothing ultimately comes of it, this move certainly denotes some new thinking being applied to both Russo-American and Iranian-American relations. Then again, what about the Czechs and the Poles? As is so rightly pointed out in that NYT article (the one I link to above), in those countries “leaders invested political capital in signing missile defense cooperation treaties with the United States despite domestic opposition.”

(A side-note here, if you’ll permit me: The fools! Of course both the Czechs and the Poles should have simply waited until the new American administration took power last January, to see what the lay-of-the-land would be then regarding this proposed missile-shield. For it does seem clear that Obama has his doubts about whether this deployment is worth it even in its own terms, and further that he is willing to bargain it away for something else. It is absolutely true that both governments to a great degree had to shove these treaties, once having signed them, down the throats of some serious domestic opposition, and maybe in the end that would not have been necessary. It was back last summer (2008) when they did sign the treaties, and it should have been painfully obvious that by then the Bush Administration was the lamest of ducks. What also happened around that time, though – as you might recall – was the unpleasantness between Russia and Georgia, and suddenly both the Czech and Polish heads of government were snatching up their pens to sign the treaties with the Americans because of the closer defense guarantee to those states that they necessarily implied. And those treaties still imply that: as the NYT article also points out, the planned deployment of the battery of Patriot air-defense missiles into Poland – and the American troops to man them – will likely still go ahead no matter what does or does not happen with the anti-missile missiles. It’s already a big mess; the Poles and Czechs simply got conned by the Bush Administration into moving ahead too fast with it when there was no need to do so.)

We get some clue about the current outlook in Poland from coverage of this latest development in one of that country’s two main nation-wide papers, Rzeczpospolita. (Title: “Kommiersant”: Sensational offer from Obama about the [missile] shield.”) That “Kommiersant” in the article’s title is the Russian business newspaper of that name, which actually broke the story about President Obama’s letter, calling it “sensational,” and this piece basically recounts to Rzeczpospolita’s readers Russian coverage of that development. To Polish ears it’s ugly, very ugly. The message from Washington, for example, is phrased as a willingness to “forget about” the planned missile installation if the Russians cooperate; the Americans are described in Kommiersant as being heavily dependent on Russia’s help to deal with the Iranians (which is not likely true, anyway).

The bulk of this Rzeczpospolita article actually treats something else that is related, namely a recent interview done by Sergei Riabkov for another Russian newspaper, Niezavisimaya Gazeta (which the NYT, by the way, does not mention). We do definitely want to hear from this Riabkov now that the Polish-Czech anti-missile “shield” is back in the news, as he is the Russian negotiator with the Americans on that very issue. On the other hand, now that he is back in the spotlight, he talks some big smack. This new American administration, he declares, listens better to Moscow’s arguments than the old one did. And he magnanimously repeats Russia’s previous offer to partner with the Americans on anti-missile defense against Iranian weapons, based of course on a jointly-conducted threat-assessment. He proffers his own three-point assessment of the Obama administration’s viewpoint on the anti-missile shield, one that includes an emphasis on its “financial aspects” (and who knows, he might be right about that).

The point is, though, that the Russians in the person of Riabkov have now been given the opportunity to act as if they are buddy-buddy with the Americans when it comes to this anti-missile shield issue. And that must rankle with the Poles, after the solemn commitments they have made – mostly enshrined in the treaty with the Americans – to have it be built and deployed. They have had quite enough in their country’s past, thank you, of greater powers dealing over their head or not following-through on defense commitments once the balloon goes up and the armies start to march. And to think that it might now be the Americans about to do that, from the looks of things . . .

Poland is traditionally one of the most pro-American countries in the world, and one important reason for that is the support the Americans provided constantly throughout that dark Communist period. (The Reagan administration, for example, sent tremendous material and financial support to the Solidarity trade union as it confronted the “People’s Republic” authorities in the early 1980s.) You can bet that it was this attitude which figured heavily in the first place with the selection of Poland as the spot to base those missiles. So one can only hope, even as the Obama administration continues its foreign policy innovations – and possibly even goes so far as to scrap an anti-missile system that was no more than an expensive negotiating-pawn from the very beginning – that it will at the same time continue to work in full coordination with its Polish allies.

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