- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

MOSCOW — Gingerly stepping into touchy Russian politics, President Obama said new charges against two Russian businessmen are “odd,” though he hastened to say he supports Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s efforts to boost the rule of law.

In an interview with Novaya Gezeta, a reformist Russian newspaper, Mr. Obama also said his administration has not yet decided what to do about building a missile defense site in Eastern Europe, but said the United States will not build one designed to stop a Russian attack, calling that sentiment “a legacy of the Cold War.”

Asked about urging Russian authorities to apprehend the killer of Anna Politkovskaya, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta who clashed with the Russian government and was shot dead in 2006, Mr. Obama demurred.

He was also circumspect about the new trials for Mikhail Khodokrovsky and Platon Lebedev, two Russian businessmen already serving sentences for tax evasion convictions. Fresh charges have now been brought.

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“Without knowing the details, it does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now, years after these two individuals have been in prison and as they become eligible for parole,” Mr. Obama said in a transcript of the interview provided by the White House.

“Nonetheless, I think it is improper for outsiders to interfere in the legal processes of Russia. Instead, I would just affirm my support for President Medvedev’s courageous initiative to strengthen the rule of law in Russia, which of course includes making sure that all those accused of crimes have the right to a fair trial and that the courts are not used for political purposes,” Mr. Obama said.

In an interview over the weekend with Italian journalists Mr. Medvedev said Khodorkovsky was convicted in Russian courts and must admit guilt as part of any pardon process.

The American president arrived in Moscow on Monday afternoon and immediately laid a wreath at Russia’s own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a grave and eternal flame marking the site of a soldier who died defending Moscow during World War II.

He was expected to spend most of the afternoon in meetings with Mr. Medvedev, and American officials said they expect the two leaders to announce the framework for a nuclear arms reduction agreement. They hope the final treaty can be signed later this year.