Poland was jolted in late February by a remarkable statement. Russian General Nikolai Solovtsov threatened to restore production of his country's intermediate range missiles, and target Poland, if the former Soviet satellite chose to be a location for American missile defense interceptor rockets.
Russia is now a second tier power. As such, with respect to issues that are truly global, it is pragmatically a keen proponent of negotiation and diplomacy - especially through the UN Security Council, where it is a permanent member. But in the part of the world that was the Soviet Union, where Russia remains the supreme military power, the story is dramatically different. Her foreign policy in what Russians revealingly call the 'Near Abroad' is a catalogue of energy blackmail, interference in elections, regular military intervention and threats clumsy in their crudeness.
Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, Poland may have been a victim of this approach less than most of Russia's neighbors. But the February statement was a clear demonstration that Russia continues to define her sphere of influence to include Poland.
If Poles are worried, they may also be unsurprised. For most of the period since Poland's re-emergence as a nation in the aftermath of the First World War, relations with her largest Eastern neighbor have been hostile. Almost immediately, Poland and Russia were engaged in a war in which Russian forces advanced as far as Warsaw before they were repelled. In 1939, Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany united behind the text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in order to conquer and divide up Poland. Poles and Russians were to drive Germany from Poland, but Russian forces sickeningly held back from assisting at key moments to ensure a weakened Poland unable to resist its post-war occupation, which lasted until 1989.
Understandably, this recent history plays a major part in current Polish calculations. Suspicion of Russia has even led to an agreement to a Russian-German gas pipeline passing under the Baltic sea, and so excluding Poland and Ukraine. This is being compared in Warsaw to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. When President Putin continues to defend the original Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and describes the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe as a liberation, Poles see clear continuity between Soviet Russian brutality and post-Soviet Russian apologetics and intimidation. "We know the lessons of our own history," Poland's then-Defense Minister Radek Sikorski said last year: "In the long run, you pay for weakness."
In this spirit of strength, Poland applied to join NATO, but accession has failed to ease all concerns. NATO membership has meant Poland must move towards streamlined, mobile forces able to operate all over the globe - and therefore away from the sort of military more geared to responding to traditional, conventional threats. More profoundly, there is uncertainty about the extent to which America's will to fight for the independence of NATO member states has kept pace with the growth of the alliance: a fear that an expanded NATO is broader but less deep.
Combined with fears that missile defense will only provoke Russia, Poland may now be tempted to backtrack on its previous NATO course, and appease Russian feeling on this issue. This would be to miss a historic opportunity.
The reasoning behind such fears is deeply implausible. It could be argued that the bloody history of the last century, and the threatening statements of Solotsov, are no guide to Russia's current behavior and attitudes. But even if this is the case, it would mean only that missile defense for Poland is superfluous -- at least as regards any Russian threat. A Russia that would be a threat to Poland in the event that she chose to defend herself against nuclear missiles is a Russia that is a threat already, and one worth guarding against. The notion of a missile shield making Poland less safe by somehow creating a Russian threat strains all credulity.
The advantages for Poland's relationship with the United States are, by contrast, clear and real. A missile defence shield would provide protection from nuclear attack - eliminating this Russian strategic advantage over non-nuclear Poland. More important, it would tie Polish and U.S. security closer together, reaffirming America's commitment to Poland by providing a clear, self-interested reason to fight Russian aggression against Poland: preventing its missile defense system falling into Russian hands.
Through diminishing fears of conventional threats, the greater U.S. commitment that would naturally emerge from Polish involvement in missile defense would facilitate the sort of reordering of Poland's military that would allow the country to better contribute to the global commitments of NATO. In strengthening its alliance with the United States, Poland could confidently reject Russian intimidation and efforts to keep the country within its sphere of dominance, instead choosing a twenty-first century role as a steady and increasingly influential partner within the NATO alliance.
Far from increasing the dangers to Poland, participation in a missile defense shield, and an enhanced position with NATO, may gain her greater security and a greater role in the world than she has yet known.
The author lives in Washington and writes regularly on politics and foreign affairs.