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Poland, Russia Sign Military Agreement - 2003-04-24

NATO member Poland has signed a military agreement with Russia, just days after it reached what is believed to be Eastern Europe's largest defense deal with the United States. Poland's moves are part of a complex balancing act being performed by several Central and Eastern European countries.

Russia and Poland have confirmed they signed a military agreement designed to launch a new relationship more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, said Moscow and Warsaw are, "headed for a new level of cooperation" in the military-technology field.

Like other new NATO members, Poland is under pressure to modernize its military to NATO standards.

The agreement with Russia mainly covers servicing and repair of military equipment sold by Moscow to Poland in the Soviet era. It is relatively small compared to the multi-billion dollar contract that Warsaw signed last week with the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin. Poland agreed to buy 48 F-16 fighter planes for $3.5 billion. That is the biggest defense contract ever signed by a former Soviet satellite state. The U.S.-made jets will replace Poland's aging Soviet-made MiG fighters.

Poland chose the U.S. government-backed deal over two rival European offers, involving the Swedish-British Gripen jet and the French-made Mirage 2000.

The military deal was seen as a breakthrough for the U.S. defense industry, which has been lobbying in the former Eastern bloc since the end of the Cold War. And it comes despite some concern in the region about strong U.S. influence.

A new poll in Hungary, for instance, indicates that half of Hungarians object to the U.S. status as the world's only superpower.

At the same time, governments of new NATO members Hungary and the Czech Republic have made clear they want to find cheaper ways to upgrade their Soviet-era military capabilities.

The Czech Defense Ministry is considering buying used supersonic fighter planes to limit the costs of replacing its Russian MiGs next year. Officials say there are now five offers on the table, from Belgium, Canada, Britain, Turkey, and Israel.

Hungary has already taken the low-cost route by leasing 14 Swedish-British Gripen jets to meet its alliance commitments. And new NATO invitee Slovakia has opted for the relatively inexpensive modernization of its MiG-29s.

Analysts say the decisions by Slovakia and Poland to maintain military relations with Russia are part of an effort to avoid making leaders in Moscow feel isolated, as their former satellite nations develop closer and closer ties to the west.

With NATO expected to expand to at least seven Eastern European nations as early as May 2004, the competition for their business among western countries and companies is just beginning, as is the effort to find the right way to keep channels open to Moscow.