At the edge of a Polish forest, where some of Putin’s darkest fears lurk

REDZIKOWO, Poland – Tomasz Czescik, a Polish archaeologist and television journalist, walks his dog every morning in a forest near his home here on NATO’s eastern flank, wandering along a green chain-link fence topped with barbed wire .

He’s enjoying the fresh air and the morning calm – until loudspeakers on the other side of the fence, adorned with “Keep Out” signs in Polish, English, German and Russian, start playing.” The Star-Spangled Banner” at high volume.

“I don’t know anyone who’s been there before,” Mr. Czescik said, pointing through the fence to a cluster of mist-shrouded buildings in the distance.

The fence is the outer perimeter, guarded by Polish soldiers, of a highly sensitive US military installation, due to be operational this year, which Washington says will help defend Europe and the United States against fired ballistic missiles by rogue states like Iran.

But for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the military base in Poland and another in Romania are proof of what he sees as the threat posed by NATO’s eastward expansion – and part of it. his justification for his military encirclement of Ukraine. The Pentagon describes both sites as defensive and unrelated to Russia, but the Kremlin believes they could be used to shoot down Russian rockets or fire offensive cruise missiles into Moscow.

On Wednesday, Russia announced further troop withdrawals and Ukraine signaled its willingness to give up its ambitions to join NATO, a crucial issue in the current conflict with Moscow. But tensions escalated later in the day when a US official said Russian claims of a reduced troop presence were ‘false’ and there was new evidence that Moscow was ‘mobilizing for war’ .

As he threatens Ukraine, Mr Putin has demanded that NATO reduce its military footprint in Eastern and Central Europe, which Washington and European leaders have adamantly refused to do. Mr Putin has railed against US missiles near the Russian border since the Romanian site was commissioned in 2016, but the Polish facility, located near the village of Redzikowo, is only about 100 miles from Russian territory and barely 800 miles from Moscow itself.

“Are we deploying missiles near the US border? No we are not. It is the United States that has come to us with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep,” Putin said. said in December during its annual press conference.

The Polish base, the heart of which is a system known as Aegis on the ground, contains sophisticated radars capable of tracking hostile missiles and guiding interceptor rockets to knock them out of the sky. It is also equipped with missile launchers known as the MK 41, which the Russians fear could be easily repurposed to fire offensive missiles like the Tomahawk.

For the villagers of Redzikowo, the idea that they live at the forefront of security concerns often voiced by Mr Putin has already caused concern among some local residents.

Ryszard Kwiatkowski, a civil engineer who works in construction, said a client who had booked an apartment in a new block his company is building recently called for his planned purchase to be canceled due to fears Russia could hit the Redzikowo Missile Defense Facility and send property values ​​through the ground.

Nobody really thinks that’s likely – it would put Russia in direct conflict with NATO, of which Poland has been a member since 1999. But the assumptions of a unified and peaceful Europe that took root with the end of the war Cold collapse as Russian troops mass on the border with Ukraine and the United States sends thousands more troops to Poland.

Mr Kwiatkowski, who took part in protests against the US facility at Redzikowo when it was announced in 2016, said Russia stoked unease by exaggerating the threat posed by NATO. But, he added, the two sides have created “a self-propelled fear machine” fueled by nervous uncertainty about what the other is doing.

Thomas Graham, who served as senior director for Russia on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said Moscow never believed Washington’s assurances that its missile defense system was aimed at Iran, not Russia. The issue, he added, had become a potent symbol for the Kremlin of a post-Cold War order that it sees as dangerously one-sided and is now trying to overhaul with military threats.

“The current crisis is really much broader than Ukraine,” Graham said. “Ukraine is a leverage point, but it’s more about Poland, Romania and the Baltics. The Russians believe it is time to revise the post-Cold War settlement in Europe in their favor.

In a meeting with Mr Putin on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov stressed that Russia wants to see “radical changes in the field of European security”, far-reaching changes that will beyond just Ukraine to include a withdrawal of NATO troops now in Eastern Europe, limits on the deployment of offensive weapons and restrictions on intermediate-range missiles.

Tomasz Smura, research director at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, a research group in Warsaw, said: “This is a huge problem for Russia.”

But the closure of the Redzikowo site, as Moscow wishes, he added, is a “red line” that the United States and Poland will not cross, although NATO, in response to a list of requests made by Moscow in December, recently offered to discuss an unspecified “transparency mechanism” in hopes of allaying Russian concerns over the Polish and Romanian sites.

But Moscow wants more than that.

Missile defense has long been seen by Russia as a dangerous US attempt to degrade the main guarantor of its great power status – a vast nuclear arsenal. The possibility that the United States could shoot down Russian ballistic missiles undermines the deterrent doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which posits that neither of the two largest nuclear powers would ever risk a nuclear war, because it would mean both would be wiped out.

During the Cold War, Russia and the United States both worked to develop missile defenses, but agreed in 1972 to abandon their rocket shield programs in order to preserve their mutual vulnerability and, they hoped, the peace.

It operated for nearly 30 years. But, at the end of Mr. Putin’s second year as president in December 2001, President George W. Bush infuriated the new Russian leader by withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and ordering the Pentagon to build a system to ward off the possible threat. missiles from Iran.

The United States’ withdrawal from what had been a cornerstone of superpower relations for decades has since been repeatedly cited by the Kremlin as the start of its disenchantment with the United States and the conviction of Mr. Putin that Russian interests are being unnecessarily undermined.

“We tried for a long time to persuade our partners not to do this,” Putin told the Kremlin this month. “Nevertheless, the United States did what it did – withdrew from the treaty. Now anti-ballistic missile launchers are deployed in Romania and being installed in Poland.

If Ukraine moves closer to NATO, Mr. Putin thundered, “it will be full of weapons. Modern offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory as in Poland and Romania.

The Aegis Ashore site in Romania has operated for five years without incident, but Russia sees the Polish missile defense facility, previously bogged down by construction and other issues, as a more serious threat.

The weapons system was installed last summer at the facility, which is expected to begin operations this year, Rear Admiral Tom Druggan, program director, said in November. “It’s specifically not focused on threats coming from Russia, despite what they say,” he said.

However, US assurances that only Iran should be worried were undermined under the Trump administration when the president said US missile defense systems “would detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States at any time.” where, anytime, anywhere”.

Washington has also struggled to convince Mr. Putin that its two missile defense sites in Eastern Europe also do not have an offensive capability that could easily be turned against Russian targets.

Responding to Russian complaints, NATO said last month that interceptor missiles deployed at Aegis Ashore sites “cannot undermine Russian strategic deterrence capabilities” and “cannot be used for offensive purposes”. He added that the interceptors contained no explosives and could not hit ground targets, only airborne objects.

“Furthermore, the site lacks the software, hardware and infrastructure needed to launch offensive missiles,” NATO said.

Some independent experts believe, however, that while requiring software overhaul and other modifications, the MK 41 launchers installed in Poland and Romania can fire not only defensive interceptors but also offensive missiles. Matt Korda, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said that “without visual inspections, there is no way to determine whether or not this Tomahawk-specific hardware and software has been installed at Aegis Ashore sites in Europe”.

So far, only NATO soldiers have been allowed to approach the launchers or their control units. The US Navy, which operates the Aegis Ashore site in Poland, did not respond to a visit request from The New York Times.

Beata Jurys, the elected leader of Redzikowo, said she had never been inside the facility, housed on the grounds of a former Polish Air Force base and a closed civilian airport, and does not follow the technical arguments about the missiles that can be fired from behind the fence near his house.

But regardless of who is telling the truth, Ms. Jurys said, the finger pointing from Moscow and Washington has made the village a potential target in the event of war.

“If something happens, we’ll be the first to know, unfortunately,” she said.

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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