U.S. troops and Patriot missile batteries arrived in Poland this week, where they will be stationed in the northern town of Morag, just 64 kilometers from the Russian border. The training mission ties Poland more firmly to NATO, but also re-ignites Russian concerns over missile defense in the region.
Here in Morag, a small town in northern Poland, a handful of American Patriot missile launching platforms point toward the sky, as around a hundred U.S. soldiers reported for duty in a ceremony. It will be the largest-ever deployment of US troops in Poland on a long-term basis.
The soldiers will be rotating through Morag through 2012 as they train the Polish military to use Patriot missile systems. The deployment is part of an agreement negotiated by former President George Bush in 2008.
But the new installation is just 64 kilometers from the border of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. A Russian foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying it Is "unclear" why the location had been chosen, and that the move would promote neither stability nor trust within the region.
This is not the first time Russia has bristled at the deployment of NATO equipment near its borders.
Russian officials had also condemned a defensive missile shield that former president George W. Bush had planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. The United States has insisted the shield was intended to protect against missiles from Iran, but Russia sees it as a threat. That plan was scrapped by President Barack Obama last year in favor of a more pared-down missile defense system.
Many welcomed the move; others accused the United States of trying to placate Russia.
At a press conference in Morag, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said the very presence of American troops on Polish soil boosts Poland's security. He said the greater the American presence in Poland, the easier it will be for the United States and Europe to act on NATO's Article 5, which considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all.
But Klich insisted the American Patriot missiles could not possibly pose a threat to Russia.
He said, you do not have to be an expert to understand that this type of weapons system cannot be changed from defensive to offensive, and that it is no risk to any of Poland's neighbors.
Former Minister of Defense Janusz Onyszkiewicz, now at the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, believes Russia is less upset with the Patriot missiles or with missile defense itself, than with the strategic advantage it represents.
"What the Russians were afraid of - and I think they still are - is that development of missile defense can give the Americans such a technological advantage that the Americans can develop these systems much further than was anticipated. In this situation the only asset of strategic nature which puts Russia on par with the United States - their nuclear capabilities - would be annihilated. They did not want their status reduced, and that is why they were worried about missile defense," Onyszkiewicz said.
For the moment, Poland's six launching platforms will remain empty, unarmed with real missiles. But Lee Feinstein, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, told journalists in Morag the situation will eventually change. "We have a concept of operations. That concept is very basic, and it is a concept of being able to walk before you run. So we are beginning this operation in the configuration that we have today, but in the future the operation will, of course, include live missiles," he said.
Despite the grumbling of nearby Russia, residents of Morag seem pleased to be hosting the American troops and their military equipment.
One local woman thinks hosting the installation will increase the region's security. Plus, she says, it might force Polish authorities to pay more attention to Morag, which would make it a better place to live.