The United States is opening formal negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic about basing elements of a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system in those countries. State Department officials say the system is intended to defend against missiles fired by so-called rogue states and not aimed against Russia and its large nuclear arsenal. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The United States had been discussing the issue with Poland and the Czech Republic for some time, but it is now ready to begin formal negotiations with the two NATO partners about hosting elements of a U.S. anti-missile system.
Officials here say the decision to open talks was conveyed to the two governments last Friday. They say if the program goes forward, a number of interceptor missiles would be based in Poland while a sophisticated missile-defense radar would be situated in the neighboring Czech Republic.
The Bush administration says the system would be aimed at protecting both Europe and the continental United States from single missile firings or small salvos of ballistic missiles launched by so-called rogue nations, by implication countries like Iran and North Korea which have both missile and weapons of mass destruction programs.
Russia has been a persistent critic of the proposed European installations. On Monday, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Popovkin, chief of the Space Forces branch of the Russian military, told reporters in Moscow the placement of the U.S. facilities in the two former Warsaw Pact states would create a clear threat to Russia.
However, in a VOA interview Tuesday, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Mark Pekala insisted the limited anti-missile capability being contemplated would not threaten Russia, and could in no way neutralize its large nuclear deterrent forces.
"It's absolutely not a threat to Russia," he said. "The missiles themselves are, of course, not offensive, and the missiles are defensive, but couldn't be deployed in an order of magnitude that would have any threat to the Russian deterrent force. There's really no mathematical way, no physical way, that this system could threaten the Russian deterrent."
Deputy Assistant Secretary Pekala said the United States has been in consultation with Moscow for some time and will continue to do so, he said, to make the point as clearly as possible that the system is not directed against Russia.
The State Department has given no time-line for the process though officials of the Czech Republic have been quoted as saying the aim is to have the system in place by 2010.
Officials here say the United States would underwrite the program, and acknowledge that Poland has asked Washington to partially fund a force modernization program and to also place short-range Patriot anti-ballistic missiles in that country as part of a prospective deal.
Both Poland and the Czech Republic have forged close security ties with the United States since their accession to NATO in 1999.
Warsaw has been part of the U.S. led coalition in Iraq from the outset, and has sent more than 2,000 troops there. The Czech Republic has small troop contingents in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
To conclude agreements, the two governments will have to overcome public skepticism about the program. Opinion surveys in Poland indicate that a majority of Poles oppose their country's participation, concerned about, among other things, the impact on relations with Moscow.