It's not easy to be the Polish government these days. Warsaw has said it wants to take the heat out of its difficult relationship with Russia, while at the same time aiming for closer military cooperation with the United States.
Over the weekend, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich called for a special military treaty before negotiations on the U.S. missile shield get to the nitty-gritty on Tuesday in Washington.
"Special military agreements link the United States with certain allies like Italy or Turkey," Klich told the Polish newspaper Dziennik. "The signature of such an accord with Poland seems justified in our view given services rendered to the Americans over recent years."
The reaction by the United States, he said, will be an indicator if Washington really considers Poland as its partner in central Europe. At the moment the United States treats Poland more "like a distant cousin."
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the past weeks has also called for greater security guarantees for Poland, and according to observers, eyes a Patriot missile air defense system similar to one already deployed in neighboring Germany.
Tusk and his Czech counterpart, Mirek Topolanek, last week at a joint news conference said they were "not in a rush" to strike a deal with Washington on the missile defense system. Both leaders know they have quite a bargaining chip in their hands.
Washington by 2012 wants to install 10 interceptor missile sites in Poland and a radar unit in the Czech Republic to ward off potential attacks by so-called rogue states, namely Iran. However, public opposition against the system is fierce in both countries, with Poles and Czechs fearing they would be a terror target if their governments agreed to harbor U.S. missiles.
That's why Warsaw and Prague are in no rush to give the Americans the green light. They fear that in case of a Democratic victory in the U.S. presidential elections, the system may not be built, but still hand political damage to the governments that have signed on to it. After all, teaming up with the United States in security matters has proved disastrous for several European governments in the past.
A Democratic victory likely won't change the plans significantly, Alexander Bitter, a German military expert, wrote in a recent study published by the German Institute for International and Security affairs, a Berlin-based think tank.
The Russians have also protested heavily against the system, which they say is a tool of NATO's military eastward expansion, a direct threat against Russia and the start of a new arms race in Europe. Washington has denied that, but has since failed to convince Moscow that the system poses no threat but is aimed at protecting U.S. allies in Europe from nuclear attacks.
The new Polish government, frustrated by the diplomatic progress between Washington and Moscow on the issue, has since started to talk to the Kremlin directly, a move the previous government of conservative Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski refused to make. So far, however, the talks have been fruitless.
After meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak, Polish top diplomat Radek Sikorsk said the discussions with Moscow merely tested the waters.
"I came away with the impression that our neighbor is happy that we are finally talking, but fundamental differences in views remain," he said, according to Deutsche Welle.
While some experts question the technical feasibility of missile defense systems, others say they work well in warding off nuclear attacks while at the same time helping to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
If defense systems exist in strategic locations, a dictator or a leader of a rogue state may then question to finance a multibillion-dollar nuclear weapons program that leads to political isolation and has been rendered militarily useless.
The next weeks will likely bring some developments on the issue, with NATO to discuss missile defense at its summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April 2008. There, talks will circle around the question of whether to join the U.S. efforts in Poland and the Czech Republic.
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