A selection of front pages from the European press, 18 September, 2009 © Presseurop

Russia inspires fear and foreboding

Barack Obama's decision to abandon plans for a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic - promised by George Bush - has not been welcomed in either country. The European press expresses its concern about the influence of Moscow in the region.

Published on 18 September 2009 at 16:17
A selection of front pages from the European press, 18 September, 2009 © Presseurop

Barack Obama has telephoned leaders of both countries to inform them of his decision to shelve a plan for a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which was announced by the Bush administration in early 2007. The news will be well received by Russia and most European countries, because the issue was a source of tension between NATO and Moscow, but very badly received in Eastern Europe.

"Mobile defence shield, but no American base," headlines Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. "There will be no radar: Russia has won!" adds Mladá Fronta DNES in Prague. In Bucharest, Evenimentul Zilei regrets "America's betrayal of Europe for the siren call of Russia." Hospodářské Noviny highlights the symbolic dimension of this "betrayal," which coincides with the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union in 1939 — an event that is often viewed as the first step in a process that swept Poland and the Czech Republic behind the Iron Curtain.

No hysteria, no russophobia

"You don't need to be floating on a paranoid cloud to speak of Russia's hearty appetite for Central Europe," explains *MF DNES*, which cites the deportation of two Russian diplomats last month as evidence of the threat posed by Moscow.Hospodářské Noviny is also convinced that Russia represents a danger for the Czech Republic. "Without being hysterical or phobic about Russia, we have good reasons to be afraid. Russia does not have a well-established tradition of democracy, and its leaders make no bones about the fact that they would like to take Central Europe under its wing," warns the report which quotes ex-president Václav Havel: "Russia does not know where it begins or ends." The Czech Republic has to prepare for "a much more ominous Russian presence without the American missile defence shield," concludes the Prague daily.

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In Warsaw, Polska argues that "the defence shield would have constituted irrefutable proof that Poland had broken free of the Soviet sphere of influence, and a security guarantee worth more than all NATO agreements put together." The dailyfurther ironises about "the consecration of Poland and the Polish people as America's darlings in Europe - an infatuation that fortunately resulted only in short-lived tensions between Warsaw and the other capitals of Europe." But with the abandonment of plans for the shield, the truth is that "Eastern Europe is now a second string priority for Obama."

Diplomatic victory for Moscow

"For the first time in 20 years, the United States has publicly demonstrated that better relations with Russia are more important than those with Eastern Europe," points out Wess Mitchell in the columns of *Gazeta Wyborcza*. For the director of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, "a unilateral concession to Russia is not good either for Russia or our allies." He further notes that the move constitutes the first major diplomatic victory for Russia since the end of the Cold War, which could encourage "more aggressive Russian initiatives in the region." In view of the increasing tension, countries in Eastern Europe are starting to ask for further guarantees from NATO, which could generate friction between members of the alliance."

Poland and the Czech Republic's European partners take a more positive view: "Obama eases the pressure," headlines Le Figaro, which further asserts that the scrapping of the missile defence shield is "excellent news for everyone hoping for less strained transatlantic relations." On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times argues that "President Obama made a sound strategic decision," and notes that "Mr. Bush’s plan was flawed in three fundamental ways: the technology was nowhere near ready," the Iranian threat that was supposed to justify the shield was not an immediate concern, and Russia used the initiative as a pretext for shirking its responsibilities with regard to Iran. But today, adds the American daily, "managing the diplomacy — particularly the disappointment of the Central Europeans...will require a very deft hand".

What's at stake for Nato and Central Europe

To do just that, Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests that there are several possibilities: Washington could comply with "a longstanding request" to provide Poland and the Czech Republic with other missile defence systems, or it could reassure the two countries "by organizing military manoeuvres in the region," and "paying more attention to the threat of Russia as it is perceived by Eastern Europeans" in the development of future NATO strategy. The Munich daily also suggests that "as a larger neighbour, which has good relations with Moscow, Germany could play a significant role. But would a gesture from the Russia soothe the troubled Central Europeans? The Daily Telegraph has revealed that Russia’s first reponse to the US decision has been to freeze plans to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad on the borders of Poland and Lithuania. A gesture which is “entirely logical and perhaps predictable,” remarks the Daily Telegraph, and proof that “the Kremlin is keen to show it is willing to be helpful too".

Prague and Warsaw should also rethink their position on the international stage, warns Respekt. The Prague weekly takes the view that "instead of asking if the Americans have betrayed us as the Allies did in Munich in 1938, the Czech Republic would do well to reflect on the need for a framework that will keep it firmly anchored in the Western sphere of influence. In so doing, "it might realize that the struggle against corruption and the fight for equality before the law are the same for all nations," and the best means for ensuring sustained ties with the West.

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