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Missile Defense High on Agenda as Biden Tours Central Europe


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As Vice President Joe Biden tours Central Europe this week, missile defense is high on the agenda. In Poland on Wednesday, Biden secured an agreement to host U.S. antiballistic missiles after original plans for a defensive missile shield were scrapped.

According to the White House, Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Poland Wednesday had nothing to do with placating America's disgruntled allies. But here in Warsaw, people were waiting for only one thing - an assurance that despite scrapping Bush-era plans for an antiballistic missile shield, the U.S. had not turned its back on Central Europe.

What Poland got instead is a new missile defense plan. "Standard Missile-3" interceptors will be placed on Polish soil, along with other interceptor missiles deployed on U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean and the North Sea. Biden said Wednesday the U.S. commitment to Poland is "unwavering" and he said the new missile plan is "a better way" to defend against missile threats.

But according to some experts, this new system leaves much to be desired. Jan Filip Stanilko, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Sobieski Institute, a political think tank, explains why the old plans made Poland feel more secure.

"The main advantage was having a stable American installation in Poland, something which is built, unmovable, and which may be the reason to defend this installation and country," he said. "The Patriot missile is moveable, and it's obviously not enough because we need 20 such missile batteries and we got only one."

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced last month that the old missile shield was being canceled, the Polish political establishment panicked. Local newspapers ran alarming headlines talking about betrayal. Stanilko is worried that now no one will step in to defend Poland in the event of an attack.

"From the Polish perspective, we are unable to defend ourselves by our own means. We need support of the strong states," he added. "So this project was understood as the first part of creating the safety infrastructure in this part of Europe."

Many Poles assumed the U.S. decision to cancel the shield was an attempt to cozy up to Russia, which was strongly opposed to the original plans. The White House denies that this was the case. But the timing of the announcement was undeniably clumsy, coming on the same day that Poland commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in World War II.

During a televised interview with Polish television, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said that the announcement dispelled the illusions of those who were counting on the U.S. to protect Poland, no matter what.

But during his visit, Vice President Biden did his best to reassure Poles that the U.S., and NATO, were still on their side.

"Under NATO's article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all. And this strategic assurance is absolute," said Mr. Biden. "President Obama and I consider this to be a solemn obligation."

All of this comes at a time when Poland's confidence in the U.S. is waning. Mr. Obama's popularity ratings are considerably lower in Central Europe than in Western Europe. And in July, a number of Central European politicians - including Poland's Lech Walesa - wrote an open letter to Mr. Obama accusing him of neglecting the region.

Still, not everyone here is convinced that American missile defense is so important.

As one woman in Warsaw explains, politicians and the press have been getting very upset about the missile shield, but ever since Poland joined NATO ordinary Poles have felt much stronger and more secure. They feel they don't need to be defended - not against Russia, or anybody else, she says.

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