Russia added to the aura of goodwill surrounding Barack Obama's presidency yesterday by declaring that it had abandoned plans to point cruise missiles at Europe from its enclave of Kaliningrad.
"The implementation of [Moscow's] plans has been halted in connection with the fact that the new US administration is not rushing through plans to deploy [missiles in Europe]," an official of the Russian military's general staff was quoted as saying.
The breakthrough follows signs from the Obama administration that it is edging away from George Bush's controversial proposal to site key bases for its anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The shift in tone emerged during last week's Senate confirmation hearing for the US Deputy Defence Secretary, William Lynn. Mr Lynn deliberately backed away from the Bush administration's plan to build a missile defence shield at the Polish air force base near the village of Redzikowo.
A Kremlin source played down the significance of the announcement, saying "it was always stated clearly that this would only be a response to the American missile defence system". Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, shied away from his usual bellicose tone. "Militarisation does not help solve problems," he said. "We are against spending more money on military efforts." Russia's defence budget ballooned during Mr Putin's reign as president but his current government is reeling from the global credit crisis and has to tighten its belt.
Nato described the news about the Kaliningrad missiles as a helpful gesture. "The earlier Russian announcement that they were going to deploy missiles ... and point them at Nato allies was unwelcome," said its spokesman James Appathurai. "If that decision has now been rescinded, it is a good step."
Nato wants to focus on winning the war against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan and avoiding conflict with Iran, and does not want to be sidetracked by mounting tensions with Russia. Mr Obama's team may also wish to thaw the Bush freeze so that it can embrace Russia as a strategic partner. Despite a lingering chill between the West and Russia over Moscow's military adventures in Georgia last summer, the deepening conflict in Afghanistan is of more pressing concern. The US has already asked Russia to allow Nato military supplies bound for Afghanistan to cross its territory, because supply convoys passing through Pakistan have come under increasing attack.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's President, chose the morning of Mr Obama's election victory in November to announce the deployment of missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania. Originally a Prussian and then German town called Königsberg, it was destroyed during the Second World War and occupied by Soviet troops in 1945.
Mr Medvedev's apparent change of heart came two days after he spoke to Mr Obama for the first time. Sources said the missile defence issue was not specifically raised during Monday's chat but the pair did discuss how bilateral relations could be improved. "The presidents agreed that, as they were both new leaders from a post-Cold War generation, they have a unique opportunity to establish a fundamentally different kind of relationship between the two countries," the White House said in a statement.
The news that Russia will not site cruise missiles in Kaliningrad was shrugged off by some experts in Washington and Moscow, who noted there were no firm plans to move the weapons. "We clearly said we would only do it as a response to American moves," said Alexander Privalov, an editor at Expert magazine in Moscow. "Getting rid of this silly scheme will please everyone and upset no one except a few people in Bush's circle. I am sure Obama is looking for a way out of it."
In the past, Mr Bush had argued that a missile defence system was necessary to protect Europe and the US against potential attack by "rogue states", such as Iran and North Korea.
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