- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Saturday that Russia will not carry out its threats to deploy new missiles facing Europe and that the advent of a new U.S. administration provides “great opportunities” to overcome other differences between the United States and his country.

In Washington to attend a meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies, Mr. Medvedev suggested that the global financial crisis had a potential silver lining.

“I believe we have great opportunities to restore relations to the fullest extent, and we can build them on a new foundation,” the Russian leader told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Medvedev stunned President-elect Barack Obama by delivering a harsh speech in Moscow the day after the U.S. elections. The Russian threatened to put missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad if the United States carries out plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.

On Saturday, he said he meant “nothing personal” by the timing of the speech. “I absolutely forgot about the important political event taking place that day,” he said.

The Bush administration has said that the missile defenses are intended for Iran, but Russia objects to their deployment so close to its borders and says they are aimed at Russian targets.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday also seemed to back down from comments critical of the planned missile-defense system.

“Ultimately, it could be a complement against a missile threat coming from elsewhere, for example, Iran,” Mr. Sarkozy said Saturday after meetings with other leaders at the global financial summit.

Mr. Sarkozy said on Friday after a European Union-Russia summit in Nice, France, that the system would not make Europe safer.

Mr. Obama has a different view of missile defense than the outgoing U.S. administration and has suggested that he will not deploy radar in Europe until the technology is proven to work.

“This is code word for a breathing space,” said Clifford Kupchan, a Russia specialist at the Eurasia Foundation who attended the Medvedev event.

“We really do not want to deploy anything,” Mr. Medvedev said.

The Russian leader, who took office only six months ago and who is seen as subordinate to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, fielded questions from former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the audience for nearly an hour, touching on everything from missile defense to the situation in Georgia.

On the latter, Mr. Medvedev was firm: Russia will not rescind its recognition of two Georgian breakaway enclaves — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — and will not deal with the leader of Georgia, whom Russia accuses of aggression in South Ossetia.

“This is a red line, and we can’t step over it,” he said.

“We are ready to build a new relationship, but not with the present regime, because they committed a crime,” he said.

Georgia accuses Russia of invading it without provocation; Russia says the Georgians attacked South Ossetia first.

The Russian leader said he would welcome an international inquiry into who started the conflict, which has forced thousands of ethnic Georgians from their homes.

He repeated a call for a new security organization grouping Russia, the European countries, Canada and the United States. Had such a group been in existence this summer, he suggested, the war in the Caucasus might never have taken place.

Mr. Medvedev spoke with Mr. Obama on the telephone a week ago and met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit with Mrs. Albright, whom Mr. Obama designated to talk with the Russian leader.

The two men agreed in their phone conversation to see each other soon. “This meeting should take place soon… without any delays or preconditions,” Mr. Medvedev said Saturday.

The financial crisis is harshly affecting Russia, with the Russian stock market and the ruble tanking, and appears to be a motivation for Mr. Medvedev’s more conciliatory tone.

“This [crisis] is an issue he [Mr. Obama] will have to address on his first day in the White House, and we wish him great success,” the Russian said.

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