Despite the scrapping of US eastern European missile defense plans, Vice President Biden's trip to eastern Europe presents fresh alternatives and confirms its security concerns are still a US priority.
US Vice President Joe Biden kicks off a trip on Tuesday that will take him to Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania and is meant to reiterate US commitment to eastern European defense. Critics questioned the US's intentions towards eastern Europe after President Obama shelved a Bush-era plan to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic following criticism from Russia.
Critics have said Biden is on a damage control mission to amend relations which were somewhat damaged after the US withdrawal from the missile defense plan. The White House has strongly rejected the assertion.
Biden will meet with heads of state and policymakers on a broad range of issues, particularly security concerns, and will also meet with citizens to discuss expanding trade and investment, strengthening democracy and furthering cooperation between the US and eastern Europe.
Polish and Czech leaders have affirmed ties with the US remain solid and have generally downplayed their anger over President Obama's decision to scrap the missile defence plan and seek less contentious alternatives.
The Director of the Institute of International Relations Prague, Petr Drulak, told Deutsche Welle, "It's expected that on this trip Vice President Biden will bring some cookies to sweeten the bitter experience eastern European leaders had when President Obama scrapped the missile defense plan. Policymakers in Poland and the Czech Republic felt disappointed and deserted when this happened, as they had invested a lot of political commitment into it and laboured to rally public support."
The US is well prepared for an inevitable resurgence of the debate over missile defense during Biden's trip and has already produced less controversial alternatives. Biden is to present a new offer for a different anti-missile shield in eastern Europe.
President Obama has commissioned a simpler system that will counter Iran's alleged ballistic missile program. The new missile shield would be mobile and would contain both surface and ground systems, as well as a stationary system in Poland based on SM-3 interceptor missiles.
The new alternatives have put Russian anxieties permanently to rest. A White House spokesman said that the US is confident the host nations will recognize the new missile defense plans meet their security concerns.
US accused of giving in to Russia
The missile shield system had been a bone of contention between Washington and Moscow since it was first proposed by former US President George W. Bush. The plan also caused considerable irritation between eastern and western European countries, which were unable to agree on the tenability of the system.
The initial US blueprint included a radar station in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptors in Poland directed at ballistic missiles from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran.
Russian officials attacked this plan, saying the project critically jeopardized its security. One of the major contentions from the Russian perspective was that the radar installation to be based in the Czech Republic would have been able to collect information about all movements in Russian airspace up to the Urals mountains.
President Dmitri Medvedev, in his first state of the nation speech in November 2008, declared Russia would deploy short-range Iskander missiles to Russia's western enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania to "neutralize, if necessary, a missile defense system."
After months of consideration and review, in a move highly criticized as conceding to Russia and favoring US diplomatic interests at the expense of eastern European concerns, President Obama decided to abandon the missile defense plan.
Poland's chief of national security, Aleksander Szczyglo, called it a failure in long-term thinking in the US administration regarding this part of Europe. He said the proposed missile shield had not only a "military dimension", but also a "political and strategic" one.
Joe Biden will have to use his trip, at least partly, to demonstrate to eastern Europe that any new plan will be as sensitive to the region's political and strategic interests as the old.