Poland and the Czech Republic enraged Russia by backing a U.S. plan to put missile bases in their countries.

Now, as the Obama administration signals a willingness to reverse course ahead of a NATO defense ministers meeting starting Thursday, those two countries are fearful of being left out on a limb with their giant neighbor nursing a grudge.

If Washington scraps the project, the decision will be seen by Eastern Europe _ long under the Soviet yoke _ as a major concession to Moscow and, quite possibly, a tacit acceptance of the view that Russia should have more say in its traditional sphere of influence.

"A lot of people put a stake in this project and they will feel disappointed _ even betrayed" if it fails, said Andrzej Jodkowski, director of the Polish branch of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a U.S.-based group that favors the shield.

While missile defense is not on the agenda of the NATO meeting, it's certain to come up.

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said Wednesday ahead of the alliance's gathering in Krakow that he was waiting "with great interest" on what U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would have to say on the project.

"We Poles are most interested in whether the commitments the U.S. signed with us last year _ the deal about a missile defense installation in Poland _ will be kept," Klich said. "I hope that will happen ... and that the installation will be placed in Poland."

Missile defense already featured prominently at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month where Vice President Joe Biden repeated the Obama administration stance that the system needs to be reliable and not detract from other security priorities _ an implicit signal that Washington was assessing whether or not to go through with the plan.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov responded by reiterating Moscow's threat to deploy missiles on Poland's border if any U.S. system were deployed, but also touted his country's counterproposal to work with the U.S. on a joint defense network of their own.

Despite American assurances that the bases wouldn't target Russia, Moscow sees U.S. military installations so close to its borders as a threat.

And it's clear that Poland and the Czech Republic themselves see the bases as insurance against future Russian aggression. Both countries were Soviet satellite states that developed into enthusiastic pro-Western democracies in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War.

But 45 years of being under Moscow's sway is hard to forget _ especially with Russia showing renewed combativeness with a gas cutoff to Europe and its rapid deployment of troops, guns and tanks during a conflict last summer with Georgia.

Mindful of Russia's growing assertiveness, Poland and the Czech Republic have nurtured a friendship with the U.S. _ the great hope during decades of communism _ and curried favor and support by participating in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the unpopularity of the latter across the continent.

Former President George W. Bush sealed deals in 2008 with Warsaw and Prague that would see 10 missile defense interceptors placed in northern Poland by 2012, with a linked radar base near Prague.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said last week that Poland still stands ready to accept the site, but acknowledged the growing uncertainty of the project's fate. He said that even if it falls through, Poland won't let the Americans back away from their pledge of closer military cooperation.

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it would be unlikely for the U.S. to leave Warsaw and Prague completely in the cold.

Based on talks with members of the new administration and an analysis of its public statements, Kuchins said he expects that even if the U.S. delays or scraps the plan, it would take steps to ensure that Prague and Warsaw "save face."

Such steps could include following through on promises the U.S. made in exchange for the two countries accepting the planned sites. The U.S. pledged greater scientific exchange with the Czech Republic, and agreed to help modernize the Polish military and beef up its security with a Patriot missile battery.

"I would be surprised if the Obama administration simply walked away from the agreements reached in the past year with Poland and the Czech Republic," Kuchins said. "In international relations, credibility and trust are important."

Vanessa Gera has covered eastern Europe since 2001.

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