WASHINGTON – The Czech Republic on Wednesday rejected its proposed role in the U.S. plan for a European missile shield and said it would instead rely on a NATO continental missile defense mission adopted by the alliance in November.
Defense Minister Alexander Vondra told visiting Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn in Prague that his country no longer wanted to participate in the “shared early warning” system offered by the White House. That bilateral plan, proposed in 2009, would have placed two computer terminals in the Czech Republic that tracked incoming missiles in real-time. Short and medium range ground based interceptor missiles are planned for Poland and Romania.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said when NATO formally adopted missile defense of the continent as a new mission for the alliance, it made bilateral agreements with the United States "less attractive." The Czech Republic, the official explained, could get the same warning from NATO without the cost of the original bilateral commitment.
“We will seek other opportunities for the Czech Republic to participate in the Alliance system in the future; but this does not change anything about our support for NATO missile defense,” Vondra said, according to an unofficial transcript of a Czech Defense Ministry statement provided by the Pentagon.
“It's simply an issue that was overtaken by further developments,” Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn said.
Officials from both countries rejected reports that portrayed the Czechs as rejecting the U.S. missile defense plan entirely.
“The decision not to locate the shared early warning system was a mutual one, decided jointly by both sides after thorough considerations and negotiations,” said Czech Defense Ministry spokesman Jiri Stabl, in an email.
“They’ve been talking about this for a long time," said the senior U.S. defense official, adding that the decision was not unexpected although the announcement had not been planned. "We saw the value (of the original agreement) diminish too."
In 2008, President George W. Bush issued a plan to locate a radar facility in the Czech Republic. Obama changed the plan to provide only an early warning system. Obama also rejected deploying more ground-based interceptors in the region in favor of medium- and short-range missiles intended to rebuff a “salvo” from Iran, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was more likely than outdated Cold War-era visions of a Russian strike.
Gates defended the administration's plan in a Senate appearance Wednesday, saying Bush's plan to place long-range interceptor missiles in Poland "was not going to happen." Once the CIA’s Soviet expert, he has called on Russia to join the radar net and protect the entire continent by turning its radar around 180-degrees toward Iran.
Russian responses have fluctuated from tepid openness at the time of the Lisbon conference to stronger warnings that U.S. advances are hurting the effort to east tensions between Moscow and Washington.
In May, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the U.S. plan was designed to check Russia, and Russia protested U.S. plans to station 200 sailors at a Romanian air base for the shield.
"We were told it (the U.S. plan) was against some southern enemy and yet they were putting it in the middle of Europe," said an official at the NATO mission to NATO who requested anonymity. He explained that the location made the Russians "not sure if it (the plan) was really against Iran."