- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

Russian leaders are offering an olive branch to the incoming Obama administration in hopes that it will scrap a planned missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev told French journalists that he had spoken by phone with President-elect Barack Obama and that they hoped to meet as soon as possible.

“I hope … we’ll be able to find a way out of these [difficult] situations, which we haven’t been able to do with our current colleagues,” Mr. Medvedev said in the interview, which was broadcast Thursday.

Within hours of Mr. Obama’s election last week, the Russian president threatened to base short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

An Obama transition official confirmed that the two spoke Saturday morning.

“They both expressed a desire to meet early in the new administration and the president-elect underscored the need to collaborate on the financial crisis, nuclear proliferation, including in Iran and North Korea, and in fighting terrorism,” the official said.

“The issue of missile defense did not come up in the phone call,” the official said, talking on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Mr. Medvedev suggested in Thursday’s interview that Russia would change course if the U.S. abandoned plans for a European missile defense.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he was perplexed by the Russian threat.

“Quite frankly, I’m not clear what the missiles would be for in Kaliningrad. After all, the only real emerging threat on Russia’s periphery is in Iran and I don’t think the Iskander [Russian] missile has the range to get there from Kaliningrad,” Mr. Gates said Thursday in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

“Why they would threaten to point missiles at European nations seems quite puzzling to me,” added Mr. Gates, who was in Europe to attend a NATO meeting.

The Russian threat was the latest move in a protracted dispute over U.S. plans to base 10 interceptors in Poland and a missile guidance radar in the Czech Republic. The U.S. insists missile defenses are needed to protect Europe from Iran.

Undersecretary of State William Burns and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow earlier this week, agreed to hold the next round of security and missile-defense talks in December, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

The two also discussed “the global economic crisis and the need for coordinated action during this weekend´s summit meeting of G-20 leaders in Washington,” Mr. Wood said.

Russia has been hard hit by the crisis and the accompanying plunge in oil prices. Its stock market fell more than 12 percent on Thursday.

Toby Gati, a Russia analyst and former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, said the Russians perceive a chance to improve relations.

“Whenever there’s a new president, there’s always a new opportunity,” she said.

“The Russians were surprised by the impact of the financial crisis. They thought their hard currency reserves of half a trillion dollars were a Maginot line,” she said. “They didn’t realize that they can’t be aggressive in foreign policy and make nice in economic affairs. Interdependence creates interdependence.”

Mr. Medvedev is to attend the weekend financial summit in Washington.

Russia has called for a major overhaul of the global financial system that would give emerging economies a bigger voice in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions.

Ms. Gati said the Obama administration should make a decision on missile defense based on U.S. interests, not on how the Russians will react.

Mr. Obama said during the campaign that he supports missile defense when the technology proves reliable.

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