WASHINGTON — Russian President Dmitri Medvedev put the onus on President-elect Barack Obama on Saturday to fix what Medvedev called a "crisis of confidence" in U.S.-Russian relations, saying Moscow would wait to see how Obama proceeds with a U.S. missile defense system before deciding whether to retaliate.
Medvedev, in remarks following a 20-nation financial summit here, offered both an olive branch and a challenge to Obama, who takes office in two months with relations with Russia their tensest since the Cold War.
On the one hand, the Russian said he anticipated a new approach from Obama, who has promised a less confrontational foreign policy than President George W. Bush's.
"We have great aspirations for the new administration," Medvedev said, speaking through a translator. He expressed "moderate optimism" that ties can be improved.
On the other hand, Medvedev said Obama should pull back from Bush's determination to place anti-missile interceptors and radars in the Czech Republic and Poland, a step Russia heatedly opposes. Otherwise, Moscow will be forced to react.
"We will not do anything until America makes the first step," Medvedev said during an appearance at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. "If that step is so unfortunate as the it is envisioned today (by Bush), we will have to act."
In a speech the morning after Obama won the presidential election, Medvedev threatened to deploy Iskander offensive missiles in Russia's Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, facing Poland, if the U.S. missile defense plan goes forward.
The threat prompted alarm among U.S. and European leaders, and in the 10 days since, the Kremlin has moved to significantly cool down its rhetoric, without dropping the threat entirely.
Obama supports missile defense, according to his presidential transition website, but it is unclear whether he will make it the priority that Bush has.
The United States says the not-yet-deployed system is designed to stop missiles coming from countries such as Iran. But Russians suspect that it is also targeted against them, and represents a further military intrusion by the West towards its borders.
"Hopefully, a new president and a new administration will have a willingness to discuss the matter," said Medvedev. The two men talked by phone in the days following Obama's election, and Medvedev said the "first signals" he got were that "our partners really think about this problem, and not rubber-stamp the problem."
In his speech — Medvedev's first in Washington since he became Russia's president in May — he emphasized that Russia wants a bigger say in Europe's security.
He repeated a proposal he made in France last week for a new pan-European security organization, noting that Russia is a member of neither the European Union or the NATO military alliance.
"It's in our best interest to have our voice heard in Europe," he said. "We want to have a platform where we could discuss all sorts of issues."
Without giving any new proposals, Medvedev also reiterated that Russia sees negotiations, not the use of force, as the only path to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"The only efficient way to respond is a peaceful way," he said, adding that anything else will create "problems for the Middle East and for the entire world."
Relations between Moscow and Washington, already souring, tumbled to a new low in August, when Russia, responding to what it said were provocations from Georgia, invaded that country and formally recognized the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
But Medvedev's blunt remarks on missile defense on Nov. 5, the day after the U.S. election, took many by surprise.
According to U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss private diplomacy, the Kremlin quickly realized it had set the wrong tone with the President-elect, and asked to arrange a conversation between the two men.
Medvedev said Saturday that his state of the nation speech in Moscow had already been postponed twice.
"I absolutely forget about the important political event that had to take place that day" in the United States, he said. "There is nothing personal here."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008