'I don't think this is a new Cold War . . . we shouldn't overstate the depth of the difficulties'
Russia's threats over a deal to base an American missile shield in Poland "border on the bizarre", Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said yesterday.
She was speaking shortly after signing a deal with Warsaw to install a silo of 10 interceptor missiles on Poland's Baltic Coast, just over 100 miles from Russian territory.
The deal, also signed by Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, would allow for a deployment by 2012.
Russia has already promised to target the new installation, warning Poland that agreeing to the deal exposed it "100 per cent" to Russian military strikes, possibly with nuclear missiles.
However, after signing the agreement, Dr Rice said such Russian threats "border on the bizarre" and promised that the US would "guarantee" Poland's territory.
"I don't think this is a new Cold War," she said. "It is a difficult time, but I think we shouldn't overstate the depth of the difficulties."
Moscow has accused America of using the shield to build a ring of steel around Russia and undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent. However, Dr Rice insisted that was not the case.
"This is a system that is defensive and is not aimed at anyone," she said.
"This is an agreement that will establish a missile defence site that will help us to deal with long-range missile threats from countries like Iran or North Korea."
Russian suspicions of a new Western-led arms race were exacerbated by the timing of the deal, which was struck last week during the conflict in Georgia.
President Dmitry Medvedev said it was nothing but "fairy tales" to suggest the shield was directed only against "rogue states".
Mr Sikorski has insisted that the timing of the deal was "pure coincidence".
He said Russia would be invited to inspect the base to ensure that Moscow was not its target.
The war in the Caucasus has had a dramatic effect on public opinion in Poland, previously sceptical about the benefits of the shield.
Latest surveys show that 58pc are now in favour, almost twice the number who supported it six months ago.
Under the terms of the deal, which is likely to be ratified by a comprehensive majority in the Polish parliament, a US Patriot missile battery will be relocated to Poland by 2009.
"The presence of the Patriot battery which will defend our territory and the US installation is a practical dimension of this watershed agreement," Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said. (©Daily Telegraph, London)