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Former Soviet bloc gets jitters

Poland, Ukraine, Moldova and the Czechs worry they could be next after the invasion of Georgia.

August 19, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — Signing a missile-defense deal with its good friend the United States has earned Poland nothing less than the threat of nuclear attack from Russia -- a threat that might not sound so empty these days, given Moscow's bloody battle with Georgia.

That conflict has plunged Europe into crisis, sending waves of jitters through Poland and other eastern nations, once-occupied parts of a Soviet empire that some fear Russia may want to reconstruct. Moscow's actions have also succeeded in driving deeper the wedge between Europe's East and West.

"Slowly, the Iron Curtain is being rebuilt," said Jacek Palasinski, veteran foreign affairs commentator for the Polish television network TVN24. "Europe will be divided again -- the lines are different, pushed farther east, but the division is the same. And dangerous."

Ukraine and Moldova are worried that they could be Russia's next targets. The Czech Republic, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of a Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reform movement, is fretting about history repeating itself. Many Eastern European nations, Poland chief among them, are eager to find safe haven, and have turned to Washington for guidance and reassurance and partnership.

But the fact that the distracted and overly stretched Bush administration took little concrete action to protect Georgia from Russia's wrath must also give pause to nations that would throw their lot completely with the U.S. Is the strategic alliance that many Eastern European countries have been building with the U.S. since the fall of communism nearly two decades ago still worth the risks?

"What other options have you got?" said Zbigniew Lewicki, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw. "You cannot conduct foreign policy based on fear of Russia. We've been through this before. Ukraine knows it, the Baltic republics know it.

"I don't think Russia is an immediate threat to us in the military sense. But they are a nasty neighbor," he added. "An alliance with the United States is a long-term investment."

Poland, a member of both NATO and the European Union, views the U.S. as its most reliable ally, far more trustworthy than Western European nations including France or Germany, which Polish President Lech Kaczynski accused over the weekend of being too timid on Russia.

With fighting escalating in Georgia last week, Poland and the U.S. signed a long-stalled agreement in which Poland accepted a U.S. missile interceptor base to be located on its territory. Washington maintains that the base is part of a system aimed at blocking "rogue" attacks by the likes of Iran, but Russia angrily insists that the weapons are directed at it and has vowed to punish Poland.

The Cold War-era rhetoric hit a high late last week when a leading Russian general went so far as to suggest that Russia could retaliate with nuclear weapons.

"Poland, by deploying [the interceptors], is exposing itself to a strike -- 100%," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff. Russian military doctrine permits the use of nuclear weapons "against the allies of countries having nuclear weapons if they in some way help them," he said.

Negotiations over the U.S.-Poland deal had meandered for 18 months, and it is no coincidence that they came to a quick conclusion against the backdrop of bloodshed in Georgia (despite official denials to the contrary). The agreement allows Washington to assert its ability to have influence and presence in the region, and strengthens security measures for Warsaw. The bloodshed in Georgia quieted most domestic Polish opposition to the missile program, which had been persistent; a new poll Monday showed support had grown significantly.

Also key to reaching an accord was Poland's decision to change its key negotiator in early August, appointing a diplomat considered a loyalist of Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He replaced a negotiator who had been named by Tusk's predecessor, the twin brother of President Kaczynski, who was prime minister until his right-wing party was dumped in elections 10 months ago.

The Poles then carried a new proposal to the Americans that included giving Poland an allotment of Patriot missiles as well as stating a "mutual commitment" to coming to each other's aid in case of attack and on a timetable more expedient than provided by the sometimes unwieldy North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Ever mistrustful of Russian ambitions, Poles are of mixed minds about whether to panic at the invasion of Georgia and over how enthusiastic their allegiance to the U.S. should be. "We Poles have the right to feel threatened," Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told the Dziennik newspaper Monday.

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