Russian official: Moscow backing off on missile threat

Iskander plans reportedly suspended because Obama administration not pushing hard to build interceptor site in Poland.

Iskander 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Iskander 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Russian military official said Wednesday that Moscow was backing off a threat to deploy missiles near Poland, according to a report that may have been aimed at testing President Barack Obama's intent to build a European missile shield. The private Interfax news agency cited an unidentified armed forces general staff official as saying Russia has suspended implementation of plans to deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave because the Obama administration is not pushing hard to build an interceptor site next door in Poland. A Kremlin official told The Associated Press that the Interfax report erroneously implied that Russia had been taking action, now suspended, to place missiles in Kaliningrad. The official reiterated that President Dmitry Medvedev has said Russia would only send Iskanders there if the US presses ahead with plans for missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. That policy has not changed, said the Kremlin official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter on record. Defense Ministry officials made similar statements to the state-run ITAR-Tass and RIA-Novosti news agencies. Still, the initial report sounded like a peace offering in one of the prickliest disputes between Russia and the US under former President George W. Bush, and may have been aimed at eliciting a clear signal from Obama about whether he will press ahead with his predecessor's plans. It came hours before Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who upset the West with his increasingly assertive policies and pronouncements in eight years as president, was to speak to a Western audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Obama has not been explicit in public about whether he would proceed with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. More broadly he has said he supports missile defense but wants to ensure that it is proven to be a reliable system that does not detract from other security priorities. US State Department spokesman Robert Wood reiterated that position Wednesday, saying that "we'll support missile defense if it's proven to work." He said the reports from Russia were a "positive development," but that he could not confirm whether they were true and did not know if the United States had been directly contacted by the Russians about the matter. The dispute over the US missile defense plans epitomized the deepening distrust between Russia and the US during the Bush administration. Badly strained relations hit a post-Cold War low after Russia's war with pro-Western Georgia in August. The United States says the planned missile defense system is aimed at preventing missile attacks by "rogue states" such as Iran, but Russian officials claim the true intention is to undermine Russia's defenses. Medvedev's threat to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad in response came in his state of the nation speech hours after Obama was declared the winner of the US presidential race. The chief of Russia's general staff, Nikolai Makarov, also said last month that Russia would only take action to deploy Iskanders in Kaliningrad if the US moves forward on the missile defense sites. Top Russian officials have urged Obama to abandon the plans for Poland and the Czech Republic, suggesting that a potential thaw in ties between Moscow and Washington depends on it. In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said it "would certainly be a good step" if Russia rescinded its threat to place missiles in Kaliningrad. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg echoed widespread Western hopes that Russia would step back from the threat. "I hope that Moscow has come to the conclusion that it harmed itself when it announced this intention" to deploy the missiles, he said.