Merkel sharpens tone

on U.S. missile shield

 

By Judy Dempsey

International Herald Tribune

 

BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel, sharpening her government's opposition to Poland's decision to accept part of a U.S. missile shield on its territory, says that the issue should be submitted to NATO and not decided on a bilateral basis with Washington.

 

Merkel is to meet in Hannover on Thursday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose aides have threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if deployment so close to Russia's borders proceeds. On Friday, representing the European Union presidency, she will travel to Poland where she will discuss the plan with Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

 

"We, and I, will say that in Poland we would prefer a solution within NATO and also an open discussion with Russia," she told ZDF public television.

 

Immediately countering Merkel's call for the debate to move to Brussels, a NATO spokesman said Tuesday the alliance would not interfere in negotiations between the United States and Poland or the Czech Republic, which has also agreed to deploy parts of the shield.

 

"NATO must first agree on the threats and, to the extent possible, a common approach," said James Appathurai, the alliance spokesman. "NATO is in no way engaging in these bilateral talks."

 

Poland and the Czech Republic are negotiating with the Bush administration over the terms of deployment. U.S. defense officials say that the proposed shield was designed to guard not against Russian missiles but against any eventual attack from countries such as Iran or North Korea.

 

Under certain conditions, including U.S. help upgrading Poland's air defense system, Warsaw would deploy part of the interceptor system. The Czech Republic would deploy radar to detect incoming missiles. Britain and Denmark are also holding talks with Washington on accepting parts of the grid.

 

NATO diplomats said that the United States was pursuing bilateral agreements because it did not want to become bogged down in protracted debate within the alliance. "We saw what happened during 1999 when the U.S. was trying to get support from the alliance to stop Serbia's policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo," said a senior NATO official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. "Later, we saw how NATO was almost torn apart over the Iraq war when the U.S. sough support. The point is, the U.S. does not want endless delays, nor does Poland or the Czech Republic."

 

Still, Radoslaw Sikorski, who resigned as Polish defense minister last month in a disagreement on the conditions for deployment, said the United States should explain its plans more openly to avoid dividing the 26-member alliance.

 

"The U.S. should explain how and on what timetable it would include the Central European facilities within an ultimate NATO infrastructure," Sikorski said. He added that the United States should "square it with Russia and explain to NATO how it will fit into NATO's overall plan."

 

In Washington, Daniel Fried, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said the United States had tried "mightily and with some success" to discuss the issue with NATO, but added, "we have met with resistance from some of same countries whose politicians say we should do more at NATO."

 

He said he was not criticizing Merkel.

 

"I think it is a first-class idea for NATO to do a lot on this issue," Fried said, "but that doesn't mean you can't do things bilaterally and then do them complementarily."

 

NATO is developing its own theater missile defense system that alliance diplomats said would provide a lower level of protection than the U.S. project.

 

The participation of Poland and the Czech Republic is emerging as a major controversy in Germany.

 

Putin has said he believes a defense system based so close to its borders would be directed against Russia — despite strenuous denials by Warsaw, Prague and Washington.

 

He has won support from Germany's Social Democrats, who are coalition partners with Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats. The Social Democrats have started to appeal to anti- American sentiments, echoing former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's 2002 election campaign in which he attacked U.S. plans to invade Iraq. In a speech in Dresden on Sunday, Schröder said the missile defense project amounted to "a policy of encirclement against Russia."

 

The Christian Democrats say they want the missile debate to involve not only NATO but also EU countries. In that way, they say, European countries would be protected.

 

Ruprecht Polenz, the conservative chairman of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, said that "Russia should be invited to join the defense shield as well and the issue could be discussed in the NATO-Russia council."

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