Dominic Swire in Prague -
On the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin was comparing the US' plans to build missile defence bases in Europe to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg was thanking the Russian leader for effectively promoting pro-Americanism in Europe through his recent antics.
"I want to thank Putin for helping the pro-US feeling in Europe and helping us realise what a wonderful thing the United States is," Schwarzenberg said on October 26 at a conference in Prague discussing Europe's relationship with the US.
Schwarzenberg, a member of ruling Euro-sceptic and pro-US Civic Democrats (ODS), played down the current tide of anti-Americanism sweeping across Central Europe following the invasion of Iraq and more recently the US decision to locate a missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland. Schwarzenberg argued the feeling of anti-Americanism in "New" Europe could never be as strong as in Western Europe because of the country's help throughout the last century, especially during the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union, which he described as, "the star moment for the US in history; liberating one-third of the world without the use of weapons."
Almost at the same time as Schwarzenberg was speaking in Prague, Putin was comparing the US' plans for a missile defence system in Europe to the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War. Speaking at the EU-Russia summit in Portugal, Putin said: "Similar actions by the Soviet Union, when it deployed missiles in Cuba, provoked the Cuban crisis. For us, technologically, the situation is very similar. On our borders such threats to our country are being created."
The US' missile defence plans include building a facility to house 10 long-range ground-based missile interceptors in Poland, and a mid-course radar system in the Czech Republic. The plan is intended to protect the US from potential missiles launched from Iran or other states in the Middle East. In a statement earlier this year, the US government stressed that the project was purely for defensive purposes. "[The missiles] carry no explosive warheads of any type, relying instead on their kinetic energy alone to collide with and destroy incoming warheads. Silos constructed for deployment of defensive interceptors are substantially smaller than those used for offensive missiles. Any conversion would require extensive modifications, thus precluding the possibility of converting the interceptor silos for use by offensive missile," the statement read. Yet this assurance has not stopped the proposed bases developing into a highly contentious issue in the Czech Republic and Poland, with many protests held in both countries. Surveys in Poland have consistently shown that the majority of the public is against the planned missile base.
Roman Kuzniar, professor of international relations at the University of Warsaw, told bne on the sidelines of the Prague conference that the proposed missile base was "totally negative" for Poland and warned that the move could be the start of a new arms race. Although ostensibly a defensive project, Kuzniar said that, "If one country has this feeling of immunity that it can beat anybody and nobody can retaliate, then it is more likely to initiate more wars."
"Poland doesn't need this," he added. "It is nothing to do with Poland's defence."
Anger about the US project is also strong in the Czech Republic with a "No-to-base bus" currently touring the country. However, the pro-radar lobby is also strong, with the hugely popular former president Vaclav Havel adding his name to a 100,000-strong petition in favour of the project in August this year.
"Some people say [the Czech Republic] will be more visible on the map of terror, but I think this is complete nonsense," Thomas Weiss from the Institute of International Relations in Prague told bne. "The radar won't change anything. We are already members of Nato and we are already present in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Weiss says there are many advantages to the project, such as showing that the Czech Republic is not a free-rider, happy for the US to pay for its security without contributing anything. The radar site will also help regional development, and it will be very cheap as the Americans will be footing the bill.
With regard to the risk of jeopardizing relations with Russia, Weiss doesn't believe Moscow is really concerned about the capability of the radar. "It's very much just a power game," he said. "Russia is just showing its global influence in the run up to elections. Europeans are kind of stupid for playing along."
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