Nuclear Weapons

The Future of US Missile Defense in Poland

12.10.07 | 5 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

[NOTE: The Federation of American Scientists is delighted to have a Scoville Fellow this year, Ms. Katarzyna (Kasia) Bzdak. Kasia comes to FAS from Columbia University has been following the Polish language press since before the recent national elections there and submitted this report on the political status of the US missile defense deployment.]

Although the recent election in Poland promised to bring change in the style of Polish foreign policy, it was not a definitive referendum on the future of US missile defense components on Polish territory. The outgoing ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), lead by former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, supported the deployment of US interceptors in Poland wholeheartedly during its tenure and during the campaign. The victorious Civic Platform (PO), conversely, failed to clearly articulate a position on the missile defense shield, and seemed to hedge its position on what the US would concede to Poland for its participation in the program. Reports in the Polish press directly following the election suggested that certain concessions from the United States—the transfer of short and medium-missile defense systems, relaxed visa restriction, or economic investments—could induce the Civic Platform’s consent. More recent reports in the Polish press, however, suggest that the PO has tempered its enthusiasm for the project, and negotiations with the United States have been postponed pending discussions with Poland’s neighbors, including Russia. Nonetheless, given the dual-executive system codified in Poland’s constitution, President Lech Kaczynski (former PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s twin, biologically and ideologically, and a leader of PiS) will continue to wield substantial power in Polish foreign policy, so the effect of the PO’s potential change of heart remains dubious.

In the course of the election, the PO and its leader, Donald Tusk (now Prime Minister), never ruled out the deployment of missile interceptors in Poland, but instead indicated their intent to drive a harder bargain with US negotiators, repeatedly stressing the importance of close cooperation with the US. While the missile defense system remains unpopular amongst the Polish population, the PO initially suggested that some specific concessions by the United States could help broker a deal. One of the PO’s leaders, Bronislaw Komorowski, was candid about one of these demands, making it clear that Poland would not consider a deal that neglected to provide short and medium-range missiles for Polish territorial defense. Many media outlets and pundits, in Poland and elsewhere, speculated that the transfer of a US Patriot missile defense system might be a precondition to the deployment of long-range interceptors the US wants to deploy in Poland. Two other issues commanded a great deal of attention within Poland: increased economic investments by the US in Poland and a relaxation of visa requirements for Poles seeking to travel to the America. In the debate prior to the election, Mr. Tusk personally harangued the former Prime Minister for acceding to the deployment of Polish troops to Iraq and to the missile defense shield without gaining anything in these two categories. The Civic Platform’s position on missile defense seemed relatively fluid at that point, and US concessions on one or all of those fronts could have apparently resulted in continued support for the deployment.

In the weeks following the election, however, press reports in the Polish media indicated that Prime Minister Tusk and his party began to lose enthusiasm for the deployment. The Civic Platform’s public overtures to Russia are indicative of this shift. The new administration is apparently more concerned with the state of Polish-Russian relations than its predecessor, and has voiced particular apprehension regarding the Russian decision to suspend its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Poland additionally continues to suffer economically from a Russian ban on Polish meat products, which is widely thought to be politically motivated.

The PO has made two significant concessions to Russia in the past few weeks in line with this attempt to mollify Russia: it has declared that Poland will cease blocking Russian negotiations with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (which Poland had veto power over), and more significantly in the realm of the missile defense deployment, it has declared that Poland would consult Russia and other neighbors prior to resuming negotiations with the United States. This is a significant departure from the Kaczynski administration’s policy that held that the missile defense talks were a strictly bilateral issue. The Polish daily Rzeczpospolita reports that the PO’s decision to confer with Russia on missile defense has been influenced by a recent study by physicists at Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which argues that US missile interceptors in Poland could potentially destroy Russian intercontinental ballistics missiles, not just Iranian intermediate range ballistics missiles. The recent publication of the US intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which downplays the risk of Iran attaining nuclear weaponry is the near term, may further decrease the administration’s inclination to permit deployment of the missile defense shield components on Polish soil.

Nonetheless, opponents of the missile defense shield must remain vigilant, as Polish politics complicate the seemingly simple picture. If Prime Minister Tusk and his party reject the deployment of US interceptors after further negotiations (now a distinct possibility), they will still have to contend with the significant influence President Lech Kaczynski will continue to have in Polish foreign and security policy. In Poland’s dual-executive governing system, the President has ultimate authority in Polish foreign relations and national security: President Kaczynski is Supreme Commander of the Polish Armed Forces, and has the authority to agree to or revoke international agreements. If President Kaczynski’s public statements are an accurate indication, he intends to exert this influence to the fullest extent possible in pushing his own vision of Polish foreign and defense policy—which, of course, includes an acceptance of US interceptor missiles in Poland. Therefore, even if Mr. Tusk decides that the deployment of missile defense components is not in Poland’s interest, he will not be able to single-handedly commandeer Polish foreign policy. Given these complexities, the future of US missile defense components on Polish territory remains unclear, although on balance, the election of the Civic Platform has reduced the probability of the deployment taking place, at least in the short term.