Leading article: Threat – or opportunity?

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The Independent Online

The western world was briefly jolted out of its US election euphoria this week by less cheerful news from Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev had used his state of the nation address to the Russian parliament on Wednesday – his first state of the nation address – to announce that Russia would station short-range Iskander missiles in its western most outpost of Kaliningrad. This sounded alarming. It looked like a challenge to the US President elect, Barack Obama.

This may be a correct reading, at least in part, but it is no reason for panic. For a start, Mr Medvedev had other, rather more friendly things to say. He had already sent his congratulations to Mr Obama, along with his hopes for co-operation and improved relations. He reiterated these sentiments in his state of the nation address. He also offered a footnote to the missile announcement. Russia, he said, would not be "drawn into an arms race", but would continue to ensure the security of its citizens.

Here was a clue. The intended recipients of the message were not only the just-elected US President and his team, but the many Russians who see the stationing of US anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic as a hostile act. However much the outgoing US administration insists that they are defensive, and that their targets are Iran and North Korea, Russians are not convinced. Mr Medvedev, a new President himself, needs to be mindful of the concerns of his own people.

But of course, he also wanted to set down a marker for future relations with Washington. The missiles Russia intends to deploy are short-range: they will make the Baltic States and central Europe feel very uncomfortable. There is an echo here of the old Soviet attempts to split the Europeans from the United States. That same old-fashioned thinking, though, contains hints of an old-fashioned remedy.

Presidents Medvedev and Obama could usher in a new, more trustful era, by mutually agreeing to sign away the missile facilities they have not yet installed. What might appear a threatening move by Moscow could in fact contain the kernel of a new beginning. And if neither side has yet thought of that – perhaps they should.

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