East Europe tries to protect itself from Russia

Sunday, August 17, 2008

WARSAW, Poland -- Poland strikes a deal on a U.S. missile defense base. Ukraine tries to limit the Russian navy's movement in its waters. The Czech Republic's leader warns his nation is in danger of being sucked back into Moscow's orbit.

Russia's attack on Georgia has sparked fears across the young democracies of Eastern Europe that Moscow is once again hungry for conquest -- and they are scrambling to protect themselves by tightening security alliances with Western powers.

On Friday, Moscow sent a new jolt through the region when a top Russian general was quoted as saying that the missile defense deal signed the previous day by Washington and Warsaw exposes Poland to an attack.

"Poland, by deploying [the system] is exposing itself to a strike -- 100 percent," Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said, according to Interfax News Agency.

Around the region, memories are being revived of the darkest days of Soviet oppression.

In Prague, where Czechs on Wednesday will mark the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion that crushed a reform movement, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek expressed fears of history repeating itself.

"The Russian tanks on the streets of Georgian towns remind us ... of the invasion in 1968," Topolanek wrote in Mlada Fronta Dnes daily, the country's biggest newspaper.

"But it is not just history. It is still, even now, a relevant question whether we will or will not belong to the sphere of Russian influence."

He appealed to his political opponents to support his unpopular plan to host a U.S. missile defense shield.

Since fighting broke out more than a week ago between Russia and Georgia, the crisis has dominated headlines and sparked pro-Georgia rallies across Eastern Europe.

Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and the leaders of four ex-Soviet republics journeyed together to Tbilisi last week to show solidarity with Georgia. At a demonstration there, Kaczynski declared that the Russians had again "shown the face that we have known for centuries."

Poland was carved in two by Germany and the Soviet Union when they were allies at the beginning of World War II. After the war, Poland and the other east European countries became Soviet satellites for some 40 years.

Fears have grown in recent years as Russia has used its vast energy reserves to exert control over its neighbors, as when it cut off gas to Ukraine the winter after the pro-democracy Orange Revolution of 2004 put the country on a pro-Western course.

"I am scared of those things that are happening in Georgia now," said Juste Viaciulyte, a 23-year-old student among thousands of people who rallied Thursday in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, to protest Russia's actions in Georgia.

He noted that the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad borders his country "and is beefed up with Russian soldiers, missiles and tanks. It would take just several hours for them to ignite a similar nightmare here in Lithuania if something turned really wrong."

Of all the Eastern democracies, the most vulnerable is probably Ukraine, a nation wedged between Russia and NATO states -- and which itself is seeking to join the Western security alliance.

Eugeniusz Smolar, director of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, said that countries like Poland and the Czech Republic are safer because they already belong to NATO and the EU.

"But not so with Ukraine; with Ukraine there is fear," Smolar said. "It's very unstable politically, there is a strong pro-Russian political element, plus there's strong activity of Russian intelligence."

Ukraine is strategically important to Russia because its pipelines carry Russian oil and gas westward, and its port of Sevastopol is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

The port is leased to Russia through 2017, after which Ukraine wants the navy out. And in a strong show of support to Georgia on Wednesday, Ukraine ordered limits on the movement of the Russian ships since they were deployed to Georgia's Black Sea coast as part of Russia's military onslaught.

Above all, Ukraine, with its huge Russian-speaking population in its east and south, has immense emotional resonance for Russians -- and Moscow has been humiliated by Ukraine's push to join NATO.

Feeling vulnerable, Ukraine's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, is appealing to the West to uphold Georgia's territorial integrity -- a message made in a phone call with President Bush on Thursday.

He also stressed the importance of the "Euro-Atlantic partnership," another sign that Ukraine is putting its hope in NATO membership. The Georgia crisis has raised Ukrainian fears that its NATO bid will be shelved for fear of Russia's response.

And there are signs Eastern European countries feel that their NATO membership isn't sufficient protection.

As part of the preliminary missile defense deal that Poland struck with the United States on Thursday, it secured from Washington a commitment of swifter help than that offered by NATO.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said NATO would be too slow in coming to Poland's defense if threatened and that the bloc would take "days, weeks to start that machinery."

"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.

On Saturday, Poland's president, Kaczynski, criticized the way France and Germany have handled the Russia-Georgia crisis, accusing them of being too soft on Moscow due to their commercial ties with Russia.

Kaczynski also said that European Union policy was being decided by the two EU giants without taking into consideration the views of new EU members such as Poland that once fell under Moscow's control.

"Saying that the Union will have a common policy toward Russia is laughable," Kaczynski said in an interview published by the daily Rzeczpospolita and also posted on his official Web site.

Anxiety in the Baltic states runs deep in part because, like Ukraine, they have large Russian minorities.

There is fear that Moscow could repeat there what it did in South Ossetia, the breakaway republic where fighting began: Hand out passports to ethnic Russians. Moscow justified its attack on Georgia as necessary to protect its citizens.

The big question hanging over the efforts to shore up military ties with Western powers is whether they protect them or merely fuel tensions.

Strolling through Kiev's Independence Square, the heart of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Oleksandr Pylypchuk, a 43-year-old doctor, said he worries that the country's new Western course could be crushed by Russia.

"I remember this square was covered with the orange flags of democracy," he said. "I'm afraid it could become the red of blood."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: