US backs away from missile shield plan

US backs away from missile shield plan

Moscow: Washington is backing away from plans for an anti-missile shield in eastern Europe, the Czech Prime Minister said, in a move that may ease Russian-US ties but fuel fears in former Soviet bloc countries of resurgent Kremlin influence.

Poland said President Barack Obama would announce a final decision on the project, a major source of tension between Washington and Moscow, later on Thursday.

The missile shield, involving interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar complex in the Czech republic, was promoted by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush to defend against any missile launches from “rogue" states such as Iran and North Korea.

“Today, shortly after midnight, Barack Obama telephoned me to announce that his government is backing away from the intention of building a missile defence radar on Czech territory," Czech prime minister Jan Fischer told reporters.

“The Czech Republic acknowledges the decision."

The Obama administration seeks to “reset" battered ties with Russia so that the two former Cold War foes can cooperate on Iran, on fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and on reducing their vast arsenals of nuclear weapons.

But eastern European states, especially Poland and the Baltic states, saw the missile plan as a symbol of U.S. commitment to the defence of eastern Europe against any encroachment by former Soviet masters in Moscow. Rumours of a possible cancellation have stirred some concern.

“We have been hearing such things for a while now via different papers, from some conferences and so on," said Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau which advises President Lech Kaczynski.

“This would be very bad. Without the shield we would de facto be losing a strategic alliance with Washington," he said.

For Poland, the timing of the report is particularly sensitive. Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland following a pact between Moscow and Nazi Germany, an event seen by Poles as “a stab in the back".

“I hope this is just a coincidence," said Waszczykowski.

The Wall Street Journal said Obama had made the decision because Iran’s long-range missile programme “has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated."