By Kęstutis Girnius, published in alfa.lt on 13 August
In an interview with the Wprost magazine several days ago Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski said that he proposed in the government to independently develop a missile defence shield that would protect Poland from air strikes. Such shield, he said, is necessary in order to secure Poland ‘from typical and the most threatening attacks: a missile attack or air raids’. According to the Polish president, it is meaningless to spend large sums on military hardware of other kinds, and Poland’s missile shield could be a part of the existing NATO missile defence system.
After his visit to Warsaw in mid-July, the Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius remarked, somewhat mysteriously, that ‘Poland presented new initiatives for developing and strengthening security which would extend over wider regions of Central and Northern Europe’. Mr Kubilius said that within the next six months this initiative is to be discussed between all countries in the region. He added that we need to be more concerned with security of the region but did not specify the concrete offers Poland was making. It may be reminded that this spring national governments of the Visegrad Group countries – Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – made a public commitment to deepen military cooperation.
Should this suggest that Poland is going to invite other countries in the region to participate in creating the defence shield? Invite it well may, but a positive answer is unlikely. Development and deployment of a defence shield requires very large amounts of money, exceptional scientific and technical knowledge as well as skills. The Soviet Union, even at the peak of its power, was unable to compete with President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, known as the ‘Star Wars’ programme. A number of historians argue that massive amounts of money spent on competing with the U.S. contributed to the collapse of the Soviet economy. Poland and other Central European countries would be unable to create an effective defence shield. Even if they wanted to.
It is not ambitious plans that motivate the Visegrad countries to deepen cooperation. Rather, it is trouble and a desire to fix the ever-increasing defence budget loopholes. Since the start of the financial crisis, Hungary has cut its defence spending by 29 per cent, Slovakia – by 22 and the Czech Republic – by 16 per cent. It is expected that the cooperation will buffer the negative effects of budgetary cuts. There’s no money for the defence shield.
The Visegrad initiative to cooperate was presented as an example of ‘smart defence’. Its aim is to optimize defence spending by avoiding duplication and ensuring that responsibility for specific areas of the shared defence system would be taken exclusively by those countries of the Group that are strongest and have most experience in those particular areas. An attempt of the Visegrad countries to create their own missile defence shield would stand in antithesis to ‘smart defence’. I am certain that most of them have no intention of pointlessly wasting their limited resources. The Czech Republic and Poland decided to carry out some of their military research together, but I don’t think that the research will have to do with the defence shield.
Mr Komorowski’s remarks were also surprising in that they were directed unmistakably against Russia. When the Polish president spoke about missile attacks or air raids, it was not Iran, to whom Poland is a terra incognita, he had in mind. It was the powerful Eastern neighbour, whose generals repeatedly threatened to ‘use destructive force pre-emptively’ against the countries which are going to let the U.S. deploy elements of its missile defence shield in their territory. This clearly anti-Russian note will further deter Northern countries from participating in the shared project.
If Poland cannot expect to find strong partners for creating the defence shield (a system which it would be unable to create alone), then why talk about it publicly? Especially when you imply that Russia poses the biggest threat. Mr Komorowski’s remarks are even harder to understand in view of the fact that in the course of the last two years Polish-Russian relations have improved and when even Russia’s opponents as tough as Adam Rotfeld, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and now an influential expert on foreign and security policies, urges improved relations with Russia. Poland is so much as reproached for its undue efforts to please the Kremlin leaders. A few months ago the President Dalia Grybauskaitė said that Warsaw seeks good relations with Moscow, while its smaller neighbours (and therefore Lithuania also) are given the role of a scapegoat.
Poland is not impressed with President Obama’s government. Warsaw was dismayed by his announcement of a decision to change the type of the defence shield without prior consultations. It was announced on September 17 – the date on which, in 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland subsequently to the agreement with Nazi Germany. The Poles were also rather angered by Obama’s inconsiderate and irresponsible remark about the role of the ‘Polish death camps’ in the Holocaust – Auschwitz, Treblinka and other concentration camps were in Poland, but they were run or controlled by Germans, not Poles. Poland, along with several other Central European countries, thinks that President Obama is rather ignorant about this region and is indifferent to their interests.
Several weeks ago the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited Poland. The visit was intended to not only please the U.S. voters of Polish origins but also show everyone that he cares about the Eastern Europe. Romney is very critical of Russia; he recently called it a ‘No. 1 geopolitical foe’ of the U.S. and often employs the Cold War rhetoric in talking about the ‘free world’.
Perhaps Mr Komorowski thinks that there’s no better time to gain some concessions from Obama’s administration than during the election campaign? Republicans might use Komorowski’s hints about the intention to build their own shield as a proof that Obama’s attempts to please Russia make one of the most loyal allies of the U.S. doubt Washington’s ability to honour its pledges to the extent of resorting to special measures in order be able to protect against the threat from Russia on their own. Perhaps it is expected that Obama, in an effort to neutralise such criticisms, will give greater emphasis to the security of Poland and the whole region?
Even though disappointed with Obama, Warsaw understands that Poland’s security rests on the U.S. and that the country is unable to build an effective defence shield alone. All this talk about the shield is a dramatic attempt to remind Washington that despite the improving relations with Moscow, the countries in the region do not have much faith in the good will of Russia and are awaiting from the U.S. friendly and encouraging words as well as a more concrete support.