Czechs say they are overlooked in U.S. foreign policy plans
Amid ongoing criticism from Central European officials that the United States overlooks the region in its foreign policy, the Polish Defense Ministry confirmed Jan. 21 that it will deploy U.S. surface-to-air missiles just 60 kilometers from the Russian border.
After the Obama administration scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans – which called for missiles in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic – charges of neglect grew louder, but the latest move, along with a series of diplomatic maneuvers, sheds light on a U.S. policy clearly focused on Poland, Central Europe’s largest country, which shares a border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said a still undisclosed number of Patriot missiles will be deployed at a military base near the northern town of Morag by April. The location of the missiles came as a surprise as they were earlier slated for deployment closer to the capital, Warsaw. Klich denies the missiles were moved to Morag for strategic reasons, though U.S. troops to be stationed with the missiles could stoke tensions with Russia.
“The placement of the missiles is a surprise, but I would also argue that this is quite normal,” says Petr Kratochvíl, a Russia expert with the Prague Institute for International Relations. “This is a direct reaction to Russian steps.”
Kratochvíl pointed to Russian military exercises in November 2009 near the Baltic state borders and talk of deploying offensive Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad as motivating factors for moving the Patriot missiles.
The Obama administration promised missiles to Poland in October 2009 after it stepped back from the Bush administration’s more ambitious missile-defense plan. The Czech Republic, which was also affected by the policy shift, has been promised increased cooperation in scientific and technical research, including a U.S. Navy facility. But, as the seat of U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic has gone unfilled for more than a year, Kratochvíl says there is a clear sign that U.S. priorities have shifted elsewhere on the globe and that Poland is now considered a more reliable regional partner.
“The absence of an ambassador here is not an accident, but a sign the special relationship with the region from the Bush administration no longer holds,” he said.
In Poland, Lee Feinstein was appointed ambassador in July 2009 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in September. An international lawyer and former adviser to Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell, Feinstein was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Jan. 20, Virginia-based publisher and Democratic Party fundraiser Theodore Sedgwick was appointed ambassador to Slovakia. The position had been vacant for a year. Sedgwick donated $28,000 to Democratic candidates in 2008 and raised more than $200,000 for the Obama campaign.
Billionaire cable TV magnate Marc Nathanson, a former ally of U.S. President Bill Clinton and a Democratic Party fundraiser, was rumored to be up for the ambassador’s post in Prague, but his name has since faded, reportedly because of business conflicts of interest.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Prague said they have no news on the appointment of a new ambassador.
“The absence of a U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic is of course an internal matter for the United States,” said Jan Vidím, a Civic Democratic Party (ODS) deputy and chairman of the Chamber of Deputy’s Defense Committee. “But it cannot be viewed differently than the Obama administration’s general policy. The Czech Republic is not a priority.”
More consistent pro-U.S. attitudes across the Polish political spectrum make it an attractive ally for the Americans, Kratochvíl said.
“In the Czech Republic, the right-wing is close to the U.S., but the left, which is likely to win the next elections, is quite pro-Russian,” he continued. “In Poland, both the left and the right are critical of Russia and place a priority on trans-Atlantic ties.”
Russia and the United States are still negotiating a successor agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired in December 2009. Near the close of 2009, rumors circulated that the two sides were close to clinching a deal and that the eventual agreement would be signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague, the site of Obama’s March 2009 speech urging a world free of nuclear weapons.
– Petr Cibulka Jr. contributed to this report.