Czechs and Poles were mixed in their reaction to the US decision to cancel a missile defence shield based in their countries today.
Nato’s new chief hailed the move as “a positive step” and a Russian analyst said Mr Obama’s decision would increase the chances that Russia will cooperate more closely with the United States in the heated dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.
But ex-leaders in the Czech Republic and Poland were annoyed at Mr Obama’s reversal, saying it reinforced a growing impression that Washington no longer views the region as indispensable to US and European security interests.
Yet many ordinary citizens who had been sceptical of the shield’s benefits expressed relief that the system would not be built on their soil.
“It is a big victory for the Czech Republic. We are happy that we will be able to continue to live in our beautiful country without the presence of foreign soldiers,” said Jan Tamas, an activist who had organised numerous protests.
Jiri Paroubek, chairman of the Social Democrats and a major missile defence opponent, also called it “excellent news.”
The two countries’ governments had endorsed the plan to put 10 interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The Bush administration had pitched the system as a strategic defence to counter a perceived threat from Iran.
But the US plan had deeply angered Russia, which expressed outrage that missiles would be stationed so close to its borders.
Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said that Mr Obama assured him that the “strategic cooperation” between the Czech Republic and the US would continue, and that Washington considers the Czechs among its closest allies.
In Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Mr Obama told him that US plans to alter the missile defence project will not hurt Poland’s security.
Mr Fischer said after a review of the missile defence system, the US now considers the threat of an attack using short- and mid-range missiles greater than one using long-range rockets.
“That’s what the Americans assessed as the most serious threat” and Mr Obama’s decision was based on that, he told reporters.
Scrapping missile defence comes as a huge setback to many Polish and Czech leaders, who viewed it as a way to strengthen their military ties with the US as a form of defence against a resurgent Russia.
Fears of Moscow run especially deep in Poland, highlighted by a key anniversary today. Exactly 70 years ago – on September 17, 1939 – Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union at the start of the Second World War.
Today’s decision is another sign that “the Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before,” said Mirek Topolanek, a former Czech prime minister whose government signed treaties with the United States to set up the shield.
“It’s not good,” said former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.
“I can see what kind of policy the Obama administration is pursuing towards this part of Europe,” Mr Walesa said. “The way we are being approached needs to change.”
Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout said “we were assured” that the US was taking steps that should “improve security of Nato members, including the Czech Republic.”
In Brussels, Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said: “It is my clear impression that the American plan on missile defence will involve Nato .... to a higher degree in the future.
“This is a positive step in the direction of an inclusive and transparent process, which I also think is in the interest of ... the Nato alliance.”
Russia was livid over the prospect of having US interceptor rockets in countries so close by, and the Obama administration has sought to improve strained ties with the Kremlin. Mr Obama is scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev next week as the two attend the UN General Assembly in New York.