Poland welcomes US soldiers, Patriot missiles

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MORAG, Poland (AP) — Polish and U.S. officials hailed the arrival in Poland of an American Patriot missile battery, saying Wednesday that the hardware and soldiers close to the Russian border enhance Polish security but pose no threat to Russia.

The Patriot battery arrived Sunday at a base in Morag, a town in northeastern Poland 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Russia’s westernmost point, the Kaliningrad exclave.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the military activity on its doorstep does not promote security or “develop a relationship of trust and predictability in the region.”

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich countered that “we do not share that opinion.”

“You don’t need to be a specialist to know that this kind of defense weapon cannot be turned into an offensive weapon,” Klich told reporters on a tour of the base, set on the edge of Morag — a small town set amid a rolling green landscape dotted by lakes.

“This kind of weapon does not pose any threat to anybody. It serves the enhancement of Poland’s security and the construction of cooperation and trust between Poland and the United States.”

The Patriot launcher battery — both equipment and soldiers — will be rotated in and out of Poland over the next two years from its permanent station in Germany, accompanied each time by 100 to 150 U.S. soldiers.

Warsaw’s aim is to upgrade its air defense system, part of a larger project of military modernization it embarked on when it broke away from Moscow’s influence 20 years ago. Poland has since joined NATO and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For now, the U.S. has brought six mobile launchers for medium- to high-range Patriot missiles to Poland, but not the missiles themselves — similar to having a gun but no ammunition.

The U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, said missiles might arrive later. He, too, stressed that the equipment is only meant for training the Polish military and that Russia is not threatened.

“This is an entirely defensive weapons system and they pose no threat to any country,” Feinstein said.

Klich said the Patriot battery has political and symbolic importance for Poland — “political because it’s tied to Poland’s security. Symbolic because American soldiers for the first time will be stationed on Polish soil for a longer period of time.”

Klich also urged U.S. soldiers to respect Poland’s laws and customs, noting they had arrived in a proud country with a 1,000-year history and democratic traditions going back to the 15th century.