WASHINGTON – U.S. outrage over Russia's invasion of Georgia could prompt Congress to speed up plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe.
As missile defense proponents push congressional Democrats to drop funding restrictions, however, they appear to be bolstering an argument made repeatedly by Moscow and rejected by Washington: that the true target of the system is Russia.
Russia has long been angered by U.S. plans to deploy 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. Russia says interceptors will target Russian missiles; the United States denies this, saying the system is aimed at countering threats from Iran and North Korea.
After agreeing with the Czech Republic in April, the Bush administration faced hurdles to deploying the system. Negotiations with Poland had bogged down, and the Democratic-led Congress probably would require more testing for the interceptors before they could be deployed.
After Russian troops entered Georgia this month, Polish and U.S. negotiators quickly resolved their differences. The two countries signed an agreement Wednesday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carefully avoided suggestions that the agreement was made possible by Russia's behavior.
"The timing, of course, is simply the timing of when the agreement was completed," she said.
Advocates of the system were less hesitant about linking missile defense plans to Russia.
"Russian aggression played on the Polish public very strong and was a factor in making this happen this quickly," said Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, an advocacy group. Ellison spoke in a telephone interview from the northern Polish town of Redzikowo, where the interceptors would be based.
Republican lawmakers, pointing to the Russian invasion, are pushing Democrats to drop the testing requirements, which could add years of delay to plans.
"As Russian ballistic missiles rain down on Georgia, we should honor our commitment to allies in Poland and the Czech Republic," Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said in a statement. Kirk said he would introduce legislation to boost money for the program.
Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, tend to be strong advocates of missile defense plans. Democrats, including their candidate, Barack Obama, have been more skeptical.
Democrats control both chambers of Congress but in an election year do not want to appear weak on national security. McCain took a tough stance immediately after Russia sent troops into Georgia. Obama's initial response was more measured and drew sharp criticism from Republicans.
But Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., one of the authors of the restrictions, said Democrats will not bend on testing.
"The events in Georgia have nothing to do with the interceptors the U.S. is considering deploying in Poland, and Congress believes that this system is untested and fails to defend against current and emerging threats," she said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press.
"Congress will not be funding an untested system, period," Tauscher said.