Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk made the announcement in Warsaw. His statement capped a half-year of at times rocky, roller-coaster negotiations between Poland and the United States. Poland held out for a huge boost in military aid and the deployment of Patriot anti-ballistic missile systems to protect its territory in the event of any Russian threat. It didn't get everything it wanted, but it got a lot.
The breakthrough was an important achievement for U.S. President George W. Bush, especially coming so quickly as it did after the United States was caught entirely by surprise when the Russian army rolled into the former Soviet republic of Georgia and smashed the Georgian armed forces that the United States has been building up for years. The Russian ground forces swatted the Georgians aside as easily as swatting a fly.
As we have noted in previous columns, Tusk and his Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski had appeared comfortable running out the clock on the negotiations with the Bush administration. But the suddenness and ease with which the Russian army rolled into Georgia -- a key Polish ally because of the crucial oil pipeline from the Caspian basin that crosses Georgian territory -- seem to have concentrated their minds wonderfully.
Russia has been furious about the Bush administration's plans to have Boeing build a base in Polish territory to house 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors capable of shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles -- ICBMs. The GBIs are meant to protect the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the cities of Western Europe from one or a handful of ICBMs that might be fired by Iran or some other so-called "rogue" state with nuclear warheads.
Only 10 GBIs cannot possibly have any significant strategic effect against Russia's mighty Strategic Missile Forces, which currently deploy around 4,700 nuclear warheads. That is especially the case as so many of the launching systems for the revived Russian strategic "triad" -- its land-, sea- and air-launched ballistic missile systems -- could not be touched by the Polish-based GBIs. ICBMs launched from nuclear submarines or supersonic cruise missiles fired from Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan -- NATO designation Blackjack -- Mach 2 bombers would be launched thousands of miles away from where the GBIs are to be deployed.
However, Russian leaders have reacted with fury to the U.S. plans to base the defensive GBIs in Poland, with a supporting base housing advanced radar tracking arrays in the Czech Republic. They have piled on the pressure, so far unsuccessfully, to try to force the Czech and Polish governments to not go ahead with allowing the United States to build the bases.
The construction of the Polish BMD base and the consequent deployment of the 10 GBIs there are still not a done deal. The main remaining threat to the program now comes from the Democrats who control both houses of the U.S. Congress. This year, they cut one-third of the appropriations submitted by the Pentagon to build the bases.
Also, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the Democratic presidential front-runner, and some of his most influential military advisers appear skeptical of the value of building the bases. If Obama wins the presidency in November, the Polish GBI deployment could still be scrapped.
Even if Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican standard-bearer, wins the presidential race, he will still probably face an uphill struggle with the two Democrat-controlled houses of Congress to get the BMD base built. But McCain is a strong supporter of the BMD base and certainly would be forceful in trying to push it through.
At the end of the day, however, winning an agreement from Poland to build the base remains a major strategic victory for the Bush administration and one that was snatched from the jaws of defeat at the 11th hour, or in U.S. baseball parlance, at the bottom of the ninth (inning). And it also goes down for Russia as a major price it had to pay to offset its rapid and politically significant military victory in Georgia.
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