To Defend NATO, U.S. Sets Up Missile Defense Systems In Eastern Europe
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn now to a challenge the White House is managing abroad, and that is how to keep NATO allies feeling safe without provoking Russia. The United States is setting up two naval bases at military sites that once essentially belonged to the Soviet Union. They were part of the Soviet military alliance against NATO. The U.S. is putting missile defense systems there, and Moscow does not like this one bit.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. is trying to reassure the Russians, so far without success, that the defense systems are not a threat. Robert Work, deputy defense secretary, spoke at today's ceremony in Poland launching the new bases.
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ROBERT WORK: I'd like to say clearly and straightforwardly that this NATO ballistic missile defense system is defensive in nature. It is fully compliant with existing arms control regimes. It is not directed at Russia and will not have the capability to undermine Russia's strategic deterrent.
GREENE: And let's go to the ground now in this region of the world. We have two correspondents in Eastern Europe. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in northern Poland, and our colleague, Corey Flintoff, is on the Russian side of the border in Kaliningrad. Good morning to you both.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: Soraya, let me begin with you. You're in northern Poland. I mean, tell me, why there, and what exactly is happening?
FLINTOFF: Well, I'm close to the Baltic Coast. I'm about a three-hour drive from where - from where Corey is. And I'm outside a base, Redzikowo base, which is - has a long history. It's - it was used by the Nazis, it was used by the Soviets, it eventually became a Polish base, and now it's going to be used by the Americans. They're building a Navy facility here that's supposed to go online in the next couple of years, which is going to be helping operate this missile defense shield that you were talking about.
GREENE: And you said go online in a couple of years, but parts of this shield, I mean, in other spots are actually coming online as we speak, right?
NELSON: Absolutely. Yesterday, in fact, a naval facility which is very similar to the one that's going to be built here, it went online in Romania, in rural Romania, in a farming community called Deveselu. And that is now already certified as operational. U.S. and NATO officials were there yesterday. They are coming here today to do the groundbreaking for what is going to be a similar base in a couple of years.
GREENE: And what exactly are the threats that these bases are supposed to protect NATO against?
NELSON: Well, this whole thing is part of what's called the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. It cost about $800 million. It's been 10 years in the making. And U.S. officials say it's going to track and take out any ballistic missiles fired at Europe. They cite Iran and North Korea as examples. And this encounter, or this sort of counterattack, if you will, will happen in space. They say it has nothing to do - they being the officials here, NATO and the U.S. officials - they say it has nothing to do with the $3.4 billion that Washington is spending this year to try and reassure jittery NATO allies who are near Russia, you know, that they're going to provide deterrents and keep Moscow from moving on them. And the U.S. officials also say that this particular system, this Aegis System, isn't technically able to take out Russian missiles. But they're also a little bit vague about whether it could be adjusted to take - or to address any sort of Russian nuclear threat.
GREENE: All right. Soraya, stay with us. Let me turn now to Corey, who's across the border in Russia. And Corey, I mean, if this missile defense system is supposed to be used against threats from places like Iran and North Korea, I guess that's not putting the fears of Russians to rest at this point.
FLINTOFF: No, 'cause the Kremlin says, you know, that there - these are - if these are, as Soraya said, aimed at primarily Iran, the Kremlin says there's no longer any justification for this system because the U.S. and Russia and other major powers just reached a deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. You know, the Russians also say that although this system may not be capable of hitting Russia now, it can easily be upgraded with more powerful missiles and more powerful equipment. So the Russians are saying this system is really designed to neutralize their missile capability and gain a strategic advantage over them.
GREENE: And how exactly is Russia responding? I know you're in a sort of a weird part of Russia, in Eastern Europe, where Russia's already sort of beefing up its military?
FLINTOFF: Yeah, Kaliningrad's in an odd situation. It's a piece of territory that the Soviet Army captured from Germany during World War II, but it's not physically connected to the rest of Russia. It has borders with Poland and Lithuania, which are both NATO countries. It also has a very large naval base here as the headquarters of Russia's Baltic Fleet. So military defense is a very important issue here. But people are really concerned when Russia and NATO get into a confrontational relationship.
GREENE: Let's talk about people with you both - people on the ground. I mean, Soraya, you were in Romania yesterday for the ceremony to turn on this missile defense system. I mean, are people in countries like Romania and Poland happy about this? Are they nervous about provoking Russia?
NELSON: Well, in Romania I really was hard-pressed to find anyone who was against this. They're very concerned about what Russian intentions are for the Black Sea since Crimea is only a few hundred miles away from where they are. They're also worried about Russian activities in neighboring Moldova. And so there was no one that I could find who was actually against the base. It's a little bit different here in Poland. There actually is quite bit of interaction between the people who live here along the border with the Russian enclave, with Kaliningrad, and so they're - and also Russians come across the border and shop in Polish stores - and so they're a little bit nervous about that aspect of it. They're a little bit nervous about being sort of in the middle of the battlefield, if you will, if there were, you know, ever such a thing between the U.S. and Russia. And so there - it isn't quite as unanimous here as I found in Romania.
GREENE: And Corey, what about speaking to Russians across the border in Kaliningrad?
FLINTOFF: You know, most of people I've talked to so far say they're not worried about it, and some of it say that it's because they trust that President Putin will take whatever steps are needed to make sure that Russia's safe. A few of the younger people I spoke with though said that they don't feel any particular danger from NATO and that they don't believe that NATO is out to start a war.
GREENE: All right. That's the voice of NPR's Corey Flintoff talking to us from the Russian port city of Kaliningrad, and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's across the border in Poland. Thank you both.
NELSON: You're welcome David.
FLINTOFF: Thank you David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.