The Czech Republic and, more surprisingly, Slovakia, have announced plans to participate in the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system in Europe by hosting parts of the network on their soil. Poland has already signed up as a site for deploying part of the planned system.
Slovakia’s decision marks a step toward closer ties with the U.S. and NATO by a nation that has sometimes been non-committal about its readiness to distance itself from Russia even in the post-cold war. The end of Soviet occupation in 1989 came at a time when both the Czech Republic and Slovakia were a single country, Czechoslovakia, which subsequently separated peacefully into two countries. Anti-Soviet feeling remained stronger in Prague, the Czech capital, than in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. But now both countries seem to be on steadier footing with both the West and Moscow.
The Czech Republic, along with Poland, were the pioneers in joining the original U.S. anti-missile plan under the Bush administration. Washington said the system was designed to defend against nuclear-tripped missiles from Iran or other sources in the Middle East. But Russia objected strongly that the defensive network could neutralize Russia’s missile capabilities. The Obama administration came forward last year with a revised system that seems to have eased Moscow’s concerns, making the deployment less controversial for public opinion in Europe.
This time around, the U.S. will spread out their missile defense systems among six possible participant countries including Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
This time there has been no vehement outcry in Moscow – a development that fits with a larger overall pattern of more U.S.-Russian cooperation on some subjects, alongside continued but quieter friction on others.
Most strategists continue to maintain that Moscow’s objections to the initial U.S. plan were largely a political assertion of Russian influence, not a real strategic worry – given the strength and location of Russia’s nuclear-capable missiles. Washington has said it is open to cooperation with Moscow on missile defense, including collaboration with joint detection sites.
In the redesigned Obama missile shield, the European-based components have become less important because ship borne radar and interceptors have been added. As part of the package, the European allies have received other forms of reinforced U.S. security assistance for their own national defense. Poland, for example, will host mobile interceptors that are now only one “spear-tip” in the new missile shield. In addition, Warsaw has been promised U.S.-made Patriot batteries for training (with an associated U.S. military contingent of troops), designed to intercept short-range missiles to help bolster Polish defenses. This move – giving Poland missile coverage of the sort given to Israel during the Iraq wars -- was widely seen as an effort to allay Polish fears of abandonment – historically a highly sensitive issue for Warsaw.