• DAY ONE: To Russia, With Love
E-mail Jennifer Griffin

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

WARSAW — We left chilly Moscow with the Kremlin at our backs. Boris Yeltsin was being prepared to lie in state before his funeral scheduled for Wednesday. It was the end of one era, yet remnants of the Cold War era were still evident as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made his first trip to the Russian capital in 15 years.

Gates left empty-handed, in terms of altering Russia’s stance regarding a new missile defense system for Europe, that would place 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The system was designed to defend U.S. interests and Europe against ballistic missiles fired by a possible rogue nation in the Middle East — in particular Iran. As Russia’s Defense Minister put it after meeting Gates, “The Russian position with respect to this issue remains unchanged.”

In Warsaw, the sun came out. The smiles on the faces of the Polish officials and soldiers that greeted the defense secretary said it all. This was Moscow lite. You could see the influence of the Soviet era — the city of course had been flattened during World War II and then the communists overran it. But the mood was completely different. The Poles are one of the United States’ greatest allies, especially since 9-11. Poland was one of the first countries to volunteer troops to fight in Iraq. Today, they make up the third largest contingent after U.S. and British soldiers.

And when President Bush asked at a NATO summit in Riga in November for more NATO forces to join the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Poland was among the first and only to volunteer another 1,000 troops — a combat battalion. They currently are deploying to the toughest part of Afghanistan on its eastern border with Pakistan. And, even though these moves are not popular at home, the Polish government continues to help the United States, the country that helped it in its time of need at the end of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan remains a local hero here in Warsaw.

So it makes sense that of all the European nations, the U.S. would ask Poland to host its intended missile defense system. Poland joined NATO — much to the anger of Russia — in 1999. Today, when Secretary Gates arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw to lay a wreath and pay his respects; the Polish military band first played America’s National Anthem and then a light-hearted show-tune from “Oliver” … “Consider yourself at home… consider yourself part of the family.” The warmth and hospitality that the secretary of defense and traveling press corps received in Poland demonstrates how important and strategic this relationship this is for the Poles. It should not, as the former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski recently wrote in an editorial to the Washington Post, be taken for granted.

For the Poles, it sometimes feels that way. Americans need to know how much this nation is sacrificing to support U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Polish government has made clear that it is interested in helping with a military defense system that frankly helps the U.S. more than it helps Poland, since most Poles don’t feel Iranian ballistic missiles would ever be pointed at them. The Poles are even willing to stand up to the Russians and host the missile defense silos, but they want assurances from the United States, as Poland’s defense minister said during a press conference with Robert Gates today. Behind the scenes Polish officials have indicated that they want Patriot missile batteries to protect themselves — not from Iran, but from Russia, should it be angered by Poland’s willingness to host U.S. troops to man the new anti-missile system.

Secretary Gates made it clear during the press conference that he did not think Poland needed such weapons because, as he put it, “I don’t believe Russia is a military threat to Poland.”

But that is not the way the Poles see it.

FUN FACTOID:

Who knew that Poland is run by twins? The president and prime minister are twin brothers!

E-mail Jennifer Griffin

Jennifer Griffin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in October 1999 as a correspondent for the Jerusalem bureau. After more than seven years, Griffin left her foreign posting to tackle the national security beat at the Pentagon. Click over to read her complete bio.

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel . She joined FNC in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.