Russia threatens to aim missiles at Czech Republic, Poland if US installs defence shield

Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

On Monday, when Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek met with Polish counterpart Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warsaw as part of a two-day official visit, it was no surprise that a proposed US missile defence system in Europe topped the leaders' discussion list. The US has asked the Czech Republic and Poland to respectively host radar and rocket bases on their territory as part of an anti-missile shield designed to prevent potential missile attacks by Iran or North Korea. On Monday, both Mr Topolanek and Mr Kaczynski made it clear that they were in favour of opening talks with Washington, with the Czech Republic expected to formally reply to the US request in two weeks time.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek had this to say on the matter at a joint-press conference on Monday:

"We discussed possible to steps to take in negotiations in great detail, as well as Russia's stance, and NATO's position. We think it is in our common interest to negotiate the best terms possible and build anti-missile defence bases in our countries."

Nikolay Solovtsov,  photo: CTK
But not all has been hunky dory regarding the US plans: in recent weeks Russia has markedly stepped up criticism, clearly unhappy with the idea of new bases on its doorstep. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that any such move would provoke Russian reaction, and on Monday Nikolay Solovtsov - the general in charge of Russia's strategic missile defence force - indicated the type of measures his country might take. He said, for instance, that any US bases in Poland and the Czech Republic will be added to his country's target list, and has even threatened that Russia might withdraw from the Cold War-era INF treaty banning medium-range missiles. His words provoked strong reaction from NATO and others.

But is there substance to Russia's warning? A little earlier I spoke with Oldrich Bures, a specialist in international relations at Palacky University in Olomouc and asked him how he saw recent developments.

"I think that the response has been strong but strong only in terms of the rhetoric: otherwise it has been following what has been going on in the last few months, along the trend in Russian foreign policy where Russia has become more self-assertive, due - I would argue - to the solving of many domestic concerns. The country has repaid most of its foreign debt and Mr Putin has also consolidated his political power domestically. He is now more able to say whatever he wants. He has neither internal nor external constraints on what he's about to say. The other reason why I think he is trying to be more assertive is because there will be presidential elections soon and parliamentary elections to the Duma. So I would see it more oriented towards a domestic audience."

In other words talking tough to gain political kudos at home.

"Scoring political points at home. There is certainly a feeling in Russian foreign policy, if you read the Russian press, that Russia gave 'too much' in the 1990s and even the early years of Mr Putin's presidency. They feel that now it's time that Russia be treated more seriously and for the West, or at least for the US to follow up on promises that they made in the past."

The Czech Republic and Poland (as well as the US) now face the task of persuading Russia that the defence bases would be against potential rogue attacks by states like Iran or eventually North Korea and not Russia at all. Do you think they will face difficulties in that respect?

"Yes. I think that they will face difficulties because the whole anti-ballistic missile system is, at least militarily speaking, quite a questionable enterprise. There are still questions whether it will really work the way it is supposed to once it is available. In terms of missiles from North Korea or Iran it's also a question whether they would even reach Europe. On the other hand, it's equally the case that Russia really has nothing to fear, because its strategic nuclear forces are already capable of doing whatever damage they want to the Czech Republic, Poland, or even the United States. They have the means to destroy whatever they want to destroy and this won't change much."

Although a consultation meeting has been scheduled with the Russian ambassador in Prague, the Czech Republic's official stance on the radar base has been unwavering and Czech officials have said they will not bow to Russian intimidation.

Earlier we asked people on the streets of the Czech capital how they saw the situation.

Man, mid-20s: "I think Russia isn't dangerous for Western European countries at all, not in the current political situation."

University student: "A radar base in our country couldn't be the cause of any possible danger on the part of Russia."

Man, mid-30s: "I think that Russia is dangerous for the Czech Republic. It's not a problem that has to do with the radar base as such, it rather has to do with Russia, because Russia is dangerous for Europe."

Woman, 27 years old: "Russia is just complicated. I mean to say that the radar base issue is none of their business. It's none of their business to tell us whether we should have a radar base here or not."