WARSAW, Poland — Poland and the United States struck a deal Thursday that will strengthen military ties and put an American missile interceptor base in Poland, a plan that has infuriated Moscow and sparked fears in Europe of a new arms race.
"We have crossed the Rubicon," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said, referring to U.S. consent to Poland's demands after more than 18 months of negotiations.
Washington says the planned system, which is not yet operational, is needed to protect the U.S. and Europe from possible attacks by missile-armed "rogue states" like Iran. The Kremlin, however, feels it is aimed at Russia's missile force and warns it will worsen tensions.
U.S. officials also said the timing of the deal was not meant to antagonize Russian leaders when relations already are strained over the recent fighting between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetia region.
In an interview on news channel TVN24, Tusk said the United States agreed to help augment Poland's defenses with Patriot missiles in exchange for placing 10 missile defense interceptors in the eastern European country.
He said the deal also includes a "mutual commitment" between the two nations to come to each other's assistance "in case of trouble."
That clause appeared to be a direct reference to Russia, which has threatened to aim its nuclear-armed missiles at Poland — a former Soviet satellite — if it hosts the U.S. site.
Poland has all along been guided by fears of a newly resurgent Russia, an anxiety that has intensified with Russia's offensive in Georgia, a former Soviet republic. The incursion, along with the bombing of military posts and airfields inside Georgia, has underlined a palpable fear in the region of Russia's renewed vigor and confidence.
In past days, Polish leaders said the war justified Poland's demands that it get additional security guarantees from Washington in exchange for allowing the anti-missile base on its soil.
Talking about the "mutual commitment" part of the agreement, Tusk said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be too slow in coming to Poland's defense if threatened and that the bloc would take "days, weeks to start that machinery."
"Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later — it is no good when assistance comes to dead people. Poland wants to be in alliances where assistance comes in the very first hours of — knock on wood — any possible conflict," Tusk said.
He said that armed with Patriot missiles, Poles "will be able to effectively protect our territory."
But after the deal was announced, both American and Polish officials sought to play down any connection to the Georgian war.
"This is not linked to the situation in Georgia," the chief U.S. negotiator, John Rood, said the pact was initialed. "We had made these arrangements for this round of negotiations before the conflict in Georgia, and so we just merely continued with the schedule we had."
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also said the timing was not meant to tweak Russia. "We believe that missile defense is a substantial contribution to NATO's collective security," she said.
In initial reaction from Russia, the parliamentary foreign affairs committee chairman, Konstantin Kosachev, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying the agreement will spark "a real rise in tensions in Russian-American relations." He repeated the view that defense shield really targets Russia's arsenal.
The Pentagon has stressed that the 10 interceptors planned for Poland are not designed to counter Russia's huge missile arsenal, but rather to defend against emerging threats from countries such as Iran. Pentagon leaders have pushed to move as quickly as possible to implement the agreement, in light of the recent series of missile tests by Iran.
According to a senior defense official, the U.S. will base one Patriot missile battery in Poland along with about 100 U.S. military personnel to support it. The associated costs would be shared to some degree by both countries, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement has not yet been formally signed. The Patriot will come from a battalion currently in Germany.
After Tusk announced the deal, it went through an initial signing ceremony late Thursday in Warsaw, but still needs approval from Poland's government and parliament and a final signing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a yet unspecified date.
At the signing, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said the deal would strengthen the U.S., Poland and NATO.
Earlier this year, NATO endorsed the U.S. plan to expand its global missile defense shield with the planned site in Poland and a linked radar tracking base in the Czech Republic.
"Only evil people should be afraid of our agreement," Sikorski told reporters after Rood and his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Kremer, initialed the agreement at the Foreign Ministry.
The U.S. has also reached an agreement with the Czech Republic's government to place the radar component of the missile defense shield in that country. That deal still needs approval from Czech parliament.