U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk met Oct. 21, and Biden affirmed Washington's political and military support for Warsaw. Biden's comments come during escalating tensions between the United States and Russia over Moscow's periphery and Iran. In order to see where this confrontation will lead, it is important to see if rhetoric from Moscow and Washington translates into concrete deals on the ground.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in the first leg of his three-country tour of Central Europe, met with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Oct. 21. Biden reassured the Polish leadership that the security relationship between Poland and the United States would remain strong in the face of a resurgent Russia, stating, "We have no agreements with Russia at central Europe's expense, and we will not sign any such agreements." Biden also attempted to soothe the Poles' fears by using the Cold War-era adage, "Nothing about you without you" — referring to Washington's recent decision to reconsider basing its ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Biden's comments come as tensions between the United States and Russia have been escalating over two critical and interrelated issues: Russia's near abroad and Iran. While Moscow has refused to back down from its support of the Iranians, Washington has been launching a massive PR campaign to make sure countries ranging from Poland to Georgia to Ukraine know that they have U.S. support. Biden has made several trips, issuing statements that simultaneously declare military and political support for these countries and provoke Russia. But because Biden is a high-profile U.S. official and a leading figure in this campaign, he has been careful to balance his pointed statements with conciliatory remarks that call for increased cooperation between the United States and Russia. During his meeting with Tusk, Biden was careful not to talk up U.S. considerations of placing Patriot missiles — another contentious point to Russia — on Polish territory. However, to Moscow, these remarks (or lack thereof) fall on deaf ears, and what Russia really hears are Biden's statements ranging from Russia's economy is doomed in the long run to statements saying that the United States will not trade away its support of Poland. Biden's trip comes at the same time as another high-profile figure, U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Alexander Vershbow, is paying a visit to Georgia to strengthen military and security ties between the two countries. Vershbow has been tasked with concentrating exclusively on Georgia and Ukraine over the next few months, and any emboldened rhetoric (not to mention actual military deals) on these countries would be extremely irksome to Russia. In response, Moscow has been issuing statements of its own. On the same day that Biden made his comments about supporting Poland, a Russian official stated it was "unlikely that Russia would terminate the contract" to send S-300 air defense systems to Iran. While the official said the S-300 systems had not yet been delivered, he said they were stored at the Russian Defense Ministry depots and could be delivered very quickly. Such a move would be unacceptable to the United States — and Israel — as negotiations over Iran's nuclear program have been slowgoing and military options are very much still on the table. Poland has been holding its own consultations with Israel, with the Polish foreign minister recently visiting Tel Aviv to hold talks with the country's political and defense leadership. This comes on the heels of the Israeli defense minister's visit to Poland, and the Israeli president is also scheduled to pay a visit to the country for Auschwitz liberation day in January 2010. Israel is deeply concerned with the prospect of a nuclear Iran and, due to Moscow's ties to the Iranians, has pledged to offer military and intelligence assistance to Poland. As such, Israel is sending a clear message to Russia that it has its own levers to use in Moscow's backyard. Ultimately, this comes back to the bigger powers. While neither the Americans nor the Russians have moved definitively on their respective threats to each other, the rhetoric has certainly been increasing. To gauge where this confrontation will lead, it is now important to watch whether (and how) this rhetoric — be it from Biden or from the Russian side — translates into concrete deals on the ground.