Wojciech Lorenz: Patriots Come to Morag

WARSAW—The Polish Ministry of Defense has decided to allow American forces to place a Patriot missile battery in Morag, barely 75 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that borders Poland. For months, unofficial reports had claimed that missiles would be stationed in Wesola, some 150 miles to the southwest—near Warsaw, and thus further from Russian territory.

The Defense Ministry alleges that the decision has nothing to do with Russia. They say that the military base in Morag is simply better prepared to host an American installation than any other base within reasonable distance of the Polish capital. Though a host of commentators are up in arms about the decision—seeing in it signs of a new Polish aggressiveness—these worries are misplaced.

Whether one battery of Patriots would add anything to the Polish air-defense system is questionable, but if so, the proposed location is probably the best place for these defensive weapons.

Yet, to be fair, it is difficult not to see the strategic importance of—and dangers inherent in—this decision. Russia has short-range missiles called Toczka in Kaliningrad, which can be armed with nuclear warheads. The Kremlin has also warned Warsaw that should it accept a U.S. missile defense system, it will be forced to move batteries of more dangerous Iskander missiles to the enclave.

As is to be expected, Moscow has reacted aggressively to any idea of new, advanced military installations being placed in Poland. The Kremlin’s initial reaction to the new location was a prompt (though unofficial) report, suggesting that it would move to strengthen its Baltic Fleet, which consists of some 100 ships. During the Cold War, this fleet was an advanced fist of Soviet power directed toward the West. Clearly, though, decisions of this caliber are not made easily or quickly. So is this just reflexive rhetoric from Moscow, or the beginnings of a new arms race?

Even before the proposed battery of Patriot missiles in Morag (only long-outdated Polish anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems are now deployed there), Russia has held fast to its theoretical "right" to attack, all but unopposed, this NATO member state. It’s as if the Cold War were still in effect. Maintaining this status quo is part posturing, part antiquated sense of security for the Kremlin—Poland continues to embody a buffer zone between the Russian bear and the well-equipped NATO main forces in Western Europe.

But nervous legislators in Warsaw should not allow Russian warnings to prevent the installation of new Patriot batteries. This eventuality would not produce a more harmonious relationship and in no sense enhances Poles’ sense of security.

From the very beginning of the negotiations concerning the placement of the U.S. missile defense system in Poland, our authorities set conditions about strengthening Poland’s air-defense network. Indeed, Polish negotiators received guarantees that one battery of Patriots would be placed in Poland even if the broader project was not developed.
Sure enough, President Barack Obama decided to scrap plans for the permanent missile defense base in Poland. (His administration still plans to develop a mobile-launch system, similar to one currently deployed on ships.)
The current Polish administration is not trying to poke the Russian bear—it is merely trying to find a balance between the strategic interests of the United States, which is trying to mend fences with Kremlin, and the need to care for the interests and security of Poland.
For those who say that this is a provocative move towards Russia: I say, show me how.
Wojciech Lorenz, a former editor with the BBC World Service, is a journalist with the Policy daily Rzeczpospolita.
For a more detailed study of the deployment of Western missile defenses in Poland, see Wojciech Lorenz’s article "Poland: Straddling the Nuclear Frontier" in the fall 2009 issue of World Policy Journal.

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