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Disinfo strikes Poland's missile defense system

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The completion of Poland’s anti-missile defense system has been postponed. Russia is taking advantage of this delay to spread the message that the defense system would not protect U.S. allies from a potential Russian attack. Western countries must counter this propaganda.

On 22 March, the Polish defense ministry – in a statement later confirmed by the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency in Congressional testimony – announced that an anti-missile defense base in Redzikowo, Poland, slated to come online in April 2018, would be delayed until at least 2020. Polish authorities insist that the postponement stems from construction delays and not from worsening Polish-American relations, but Gazeta Wyborcza notes that a similar base in Romania was completed in a year. The Polish base will cost about $300 million and will station 150 to 200 soldiers supporting SM-3 missile interceptors that are capable of shooting down incoming missiles threatening NATO members.

Gazeta Wyborcza also suggests the reason for the delay might be the Polish Defense Ministry’s continued negotiations with the U.S. to buy two batteries of Patriot missiles to protect the planned base. However, that deal was signed on 29 March.

The base project has been criticized by Russia, which is concerned that neutralization of its offensive missile capabilities could upset the balance of power in the region. This past February, the Polish-language version of the Russian media outlet Sputnik quoted Russian Vice Prime Minister Dmitrij Rogozin arguing that Russia’s new missiles would “maul” the Redzikowo-based anti-missile defense system. On 1 March, Vladimir Putin told Russians that their country possesses sophisticated arms capable of tipping the scale in Russia’s favor in any potential confrontation with the West. Russia’s claim that the missile defense system will be vulnerable to Russia’s new missiles was later repeated by Professor Andrzej Zapałowski in Polish-language pro-Kremlin media. also reprinted a report from arguing that the purchase of Patriot missiles should be limited solely to those needed to protect Warsaw.

News of the delay is being used by pro-Kremlin media to promote the idea that the American base will not guarantee Polish security. By connecting this narrative to past Sputnik reports about the concerns of the local population around Redzikowo, the Kremlin is engaged in “card-stacking.” This popular propaganda technique emphasizes only the facts and arguments that support one’s position while ignoring or suppressing countervailing facts. The Kremlin typically uses this technique to guide audiences to a conclusion that fits its preferred, pre-fabricated narrative. Here, the delay in completing the missile defense base is a fact, but the idea that Russian missiles are capable of overcoming the American missile defense system is no more than the unsupported opinion of Russian authorities.

Poland and the U.S. can counter this propaganda by systematically presenting information on the usefulness of the defense system for resisting a potential attack, noting that the main goal of the defense system is not to counter Russian aggression but to resist attacks from Iran and North Korea. To get the message across, they can use local and state media, as well as NATO media resources, to influence the community around the Redzikowo base.

Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated the number of troops stationed at each base. That figure has since been corrected.