A Polish Town Fears Russian Retaliation

APOne of the camouflaged hangars, as seen from the door of another, at the closed base in Redzikowo that is being considered for the missile defense site.
REDZIKOWO, Poland -- Beyond the barbed wire and camouflaged hangars that once housed Soviet-made fighter jets, some see hope for a small airport and a brighter tomorrow. But the future may hold a different twist -- and has many locals fearful of Russian retaliation.

The shuttered air base in northern Poland, which dates back to World War II, is a likely site for 10 interceptors for a planned U.S. missile defense program, which Washington says is necessary to counter potential attacks from so-called rogue states.

Poland's new government is sounding increasingly skeptical about the plan, arguing that it won't boost Polish security -- a sentiment echoed throughout the farm country near the Baltic Sea coast, where residents struggle to see any benefits at all.

Alik Keplicz / AP
County manager Mariusz Chmiel said it would be better not to build the base.
"If they build the missile defense base here, it'll be a magnet and the first place the Russians will shoot their missiles," said Tadeusz Krajnik, a 55-year-old retired air force technician who lives in one of the brightly colored Communist-era apartment blocks next to the base, which has been sitting closed since 1999.

"Let's tell the truth here, it's not aimed against Iran, or against Vietnam or whatever -- it's against Russia."

The United States has been wrestling with such perceptions of its plan to place 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic since opening negotiations with the two countries early last year.

Washington says the system is needed to protect the United States and Europe from emerging threats from states such as Iran. Russia, however, strongly opposes the plan, arguing that such an installation so close to its territory would threaten its security.

Alik Keplicz / AP
Children playing in a courtyard at a former military housing area in Redzikowo. The complex is now home to civilians.
Last year, General Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia's missile forces, warned that Moscow could target future bases in Poland and the Czech Republic with Russian missiles.

Residents in Slupsk, a town of 100,000 just five kilometers down the road, are worried, despite assurances from Polish officials that the region will be the nation's safest if it hosts the base.

"I don't like it; if the base gets built, the Russians will fire at us for sure, so we will, in fact, be the most threatened," said Zenon Kuwalko, a 54-year-old engineer from Slupsk.

But part of the local opposition to the base stems from a wider perception in Poland that the country has been left empty-handed for its staunch support for the United States in recent years.

"We have not received any benefits from our cooperation with the Americans so far -- not one thing," said Leszek Pieniak, 48, who owns the Pod Kogutem restaurant near the base. "Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Poland -- nothing. We don't even have visas. I'll tell my grandchildren that maybe in 20 years they'll have a shot at visa-free travel to the U.S.

Alik Keplicz / AP
Owner Leszek Pieniak pouring beer at his restaurant, located near the base.
"I'm against the base and that's it."

Some local residents say the base -- covering some 400 hectares, with a 2.5-kilometer runway and 28 hangars -- could better serve local interests if it where transformed into a small airport for business and tourism.

"I think that only a civilian airport and the economic development of the region will allow us to overcome unemployment and in the long run create jobs," said Jan Junczyk, 48, a reserve captain in Poland's air force who once flew MiG 23s at the base. "Whereas I think that building the base here will in a sense block off and isolate our region."

Mariusz Chmiel, the county manager for the Slupsk region, which includes Redzikowo, agreed that an airport would help stimulate business and tourism in the area and help cut an unemployment rate that he says hovers above 20 percent.

"From my point of view, it would be better if the base wasn't built here, but I'm aware that if the base is needed for international security, we aren't going to oppose it," Chmiel said.