- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

MOSCOW

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 Obama’s intent to build a European missile shield.

The private Interfax news agency cited an unidentified armed forces general staff official as saying that 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 said 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 send Iskanders to Kaliningrad only if the U.S. presses ahead with plans for missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.

That policy has not changed, the Kremlin official said on the 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 what was one of the prickliest disputes between Russia and the U.S. under President George W. Bush. It may have been aimed at eliciting a clear signal from Mr. Obama about whether he will press ahead with his predecessor’s plans - and encouraging him to abandon them.

Interfax issued its report hours before Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who upset the West with his increasingly assertive policies and pronouncements in eight years as president, spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Mr. Putin refrained from directly blaming the U.S. for the global financial crisis, as he has in the past.

Mr. Obama has not been explicit in public about whether he would proceed with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Speaking more broadly, he has said he supports missile defense but wants to ensure that the system is proved reliable and does not detract from other security priorities.

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 represented a “positive development,” but that he could not confirm whether they were true and did not know whether Russia had contacted the United States directly about the matter.

The dispute over the U.S. missile defense plans epitomized the deepening distrust between Russia and the U.S. during the Bush administration.

The United States has insisted that the planned missile defense system is aimed at preventing missile attacks by “rogue states” such as Iran, but officials in Moscow say the true intention is to undermine Russia’s defenses.

Mr. Medvedev responded with a threat to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad in his state of the nation speech hours after Mr. Obama was declared the winner of the U.S. presidential race.

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