Poland has agreed in principle to allow the US to install a missile defence system on its soil.
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that after meetings with US officials, he is satisfied that the United States will deal with security problems that Poland wanted solved as part of an eventual deal.
The announcement seems to add momentum to a project that the Bush administration has said it hopes to start building this year.
The project has been a major source of tension with Russia and had stalled when the new Polish government sought new demands after taking office in November.
Mr Sikorski did not outline terms of the deal, but in a joint appearance with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after a working lunch, the two suggested that the United States would help with Polish air defences, which Poland has requested in the deal.
“We understand that there is a desire for defence modernisation in Poland, and particularly for air defence modernisation in Poland,” Ms Rice said. “This is something that we support because it will make our ally, Poland, more capable, it will make Poland, as the foreign minister has said, more able to operate with us.”
Mr Sikorski said that negotiators would continue to work on the details of an agreement that would allow the United States to install 10 interceptors as part of a long range European missile defence system.
“We are not at the end of the road as regards negotiations. We are in the middle of the road,” he said. “We have an agreement in principle.”
He sought to address misgivings about the US air defence aid held by Russia, which has already strongly objected to the missile defence plans.
Russia has threatened to retarget nuclear missiles at Poland to counter what it sees as a US attempt to undermine the Russian military deterrent.
“The reinforced Polish air defences are not directed against anybody,” Mr Sikorski said. “They are to enable Poland to be a stronger Nato ally with the United States, to enable Poland to take part in operations, in out-of-area operations, in joint operations.”
But the air defence system that Poland has asked for help in building would seem to be aimed at addressing concerns about Russia’s threats.
Polish officials have previously expressed interest in acquiring from the United States short and mid-range air defences to include Patriot or THAAD missiles.
Yesterday’s development probably will burden further the already strained ties between Poland and Russia.
It is expected to figure in talks between Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two leaders meet in Moscow on February 8.
The United States has dismissed Russian concerns about the proposed long range missile defence system, saying it is intended to protect Western countries from missiles fired from Iran and would be impotent against Russia’s massive arsenal.
“It is true that the United States once had a Strategic Defence Initiative, a programme that was intended to deal with the question of the Russian strategic nuclear threat,” Ms Rice said, referring to a programme, also known as Star Wars, supported by 1980s President Ronald Reagan.
“This is not that programme. This is not the son of that programme. This is not the grandson of that programme.”
The US ambassador to Poland, Victor Ashe, who was present at the lunch with Mr Sikorski and Ms Rice, called the preliminary agreement “a significant step forward” in missile defence negotiations.
“It was a productive meeting, and I think Minister Sikorski and Secretary Rice were pleased with the outcome,” Mr Ashe said. “The talks on missile defence will go forward, as well as the separate discussions on the modernisation of the Polish armed forces.”
If the two sides conclude a deal, it would seem to vindicate Mr Tusk and Mr Sikorski’s strategy of asking more from Washington in exchange for Poland’s support in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the missile defence system.
The previous Polish government of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who opened talks early last year, firmly supported the plan without additional demands.