Leading article: Cracks in the missile shield

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Confusion surrounds the precise status of Russia's plans to deploy new short-range missiles in Kaliningrad. On the one hand, an unnamed military official told the Interfax news agency that Moscow's plans were on hold, given "that the new US administration is not rushing through plans" to station anti-missile installations in Eastern Europe. On the other, there has been no official confirmation from either the Kremlin or the Russian defence ministry.

What is clear, though, is that a sudden element of uncertainty has intruded into what was presented last November as a cast-iron plan – and that the change reflects signals received from Washington. Even if Russia was merely floating the idea to see how it might be received, that is still a vast improvement on the generally hostile stance Moscow was taking before.

All in all, both sides appear to be making an effort to stop the rot in relations that set in during George Bush's last year. US plans to station parts of its anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland were one source of contention. Another was the US project to fast-track Georgia into Nato. Neither policy looms large in the Obama administration's plans.

In one respect, Russia's threat to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad always looked like a gambit. It was a direct response to US missile plans – something that was there to be bargained away at the right price.

But there are very practical reasons, too, why the Kremlin might want improved relations with Washington now. While Russia was not uniquely to blame for last summer's Georgia war or the recent gas dispute with Ukraine, negative stereotyping meant that Moscow took much of the international flak. Yet Mr Medvedev has never hidden his desire for Russia to be seen as a respected player on the world stage.

Russia has also suffered more than many countries from the global financial crisis. Any leader concerned about possible discontent at home needs to minimise difficulties abroad. With Mr Obama trying to set a more multilateral tone for US foreign policy, a thaw would make good sense for Washington as well as Moscow. The reverberations further afield could only be beneficial.