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Medvedev Says He Seeks Fresh Start with Obama

Author: Greg Bruno, Staff writer, CFR.org
November 15, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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WASHINGTON - Eight years of Bush administration policies have led to a "crisis of confidence" in U.S.-Russian relations and in the wider realm of the global economy, Russian President Dmitry A. Medvedev told a Council on Foreign Relations meeting on Saturday.

As Medvedev and leaders of other Group of 20 economic powers met in Washington in an urgent effort to stave off global economic disaster, the Russian president took time out to tell a gathering near CFR's Washington office that he viewed the changing of the guard in the White House as a chance for a fresh start.

"There is no confidence today in the financial world, and this is reflected in other areas as well. I think that there is no trust in Russia-U.S. relations, the trust we need."

Speaking at the historic Washington Club in a meeting moderated by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the Russian leader stopped short of describing his nation's ties with America as hostile. But, he said, President George W. Bush had failed to find ways to prevent disagreements from blossoming into long-term threats to the relationship.

"On many stances we can't find common ground," Medvedev said. "It's a deplorable fact, but that is life."

Relations between the U.S. and Russia, relatively warm in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, have soured gradually in the years since. More recently, decline has accelerated. American unhappiness with the curtailing of civil liberties in Russia during Vladimir Putin's tenure as president, and subsequent disagreements over Russia's ties with Iran, Moscow's dismissive stance toward the independence of some former Soviet republics, and America's determination to create a theater missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, all contributed to the less friendly atmosphere. This summer's brief war between Russia and Georgia, a former republic which has enjoyed particularly close ties with the Bush administration, appeared to confirm the negative trend in U.S.-Russian ties.

Theater Missile Defense

Medvedev on Saturday suggested the election of Barack Obama might provide an opportunity for a fresh start. Yet only hours after Obama's victory was confirmed on November 4, Medvedev gave a televised speech threatening to move short-range missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave surrounded by Polish territory and his country's western-most district. He warned that Russia regarded the U.S. missile shield as a threat to Moscow's own capabilities, and vowed to counteract any American deployment of anti-missile batteries or radars on the territory of former Warsaw Pact countries.

On Saturday, Medvedev softened his tone but not his demand for an end to the U.S. program. "We will not be the first to act in response to the deployment of missile defense in Europe," Medvedev said. "We will do that as a kind of retaliation and only in the case if this program will be continued in an unacceptable manner for us."

He added: "It seems to me that it's better to have a global missile defense, including the Russian Federation, instead of having some fragments which gives more irritants."

The 'Near-Abroad'

Beyond missile defense, Medvedev repeated Russia's previous suggestion that NATO should be replaced, or at least augmented, by a trans-European security pact that would include Russia and other former Soviet republics. Russia has recently made it clear that it regards as unacceptable NATO's tentative talks with Ukraine and Georgia over potential NATO membership, talks which the United States has spearheaded.

But Medvedev did not phrase the issue as an ultimatum on Saturday. Asked if he could envision a time when Moscow might consider membership for itself in NATO, Medvedev said the time for that had passed. But he quickly added: "Never say never."

Medvedev made frequent references to the potential for a new tone in relations once President-elect Obama takes office. For his part, Obama has remained noncommittal on the question of the Central European missile defense system, which Bush administration officials have described as necessary to protect NATO countries and U.S. troops based in Europe from rogue missile launches or any potential threat from Iran.

Obama, while not responding directly to Medvedev's election night sabre rattling, has said he "supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable." Skepticism about the technology behind missile defense has been a frequent refrain among Obama's national security aides during the past several years, and over a decade of Pentagon testing and research efforts has failed to produce a fail safe system to date.

Still, Russia's leaders - in common with leaders in other countries with which the United States has significant disagreements - have cast Obama's victory as an opportunity. On the missile defense issue, Medvedev told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Obama's response "gives us grounds for hope." He repeated that analysis at CFR on Saturday.

A Quid Pro Quo

"We will not do anything until America makes the first step," he said, referring to the short-range missile deployments. "If this step is so unfortunate as it is envisioned today, then we will have to act. But to my mind we have a good opportunity to solve this problem. I'm ready to discuss it. And hopefully a new president and a new administration will have a willingness to discuss this matter."

On Georgia, perhaps the issue which has most tested U.S.-Russian ties since the Soviet Union's demise, Medvedev said Russia would support "conducting an international investigation" of the incident. In the same November 5 "State of the Nation" speech in which he threatened to deploy Russian missiles to Kaliningrad, Medvedev accused the United States of promulgating the war in Georgia, as well as undermining the global economy with its hands-off approach to financial issues.

But Medvedev also highlighted areas of agreement between Washington and Moscow, areas such as countering Iranian nuclear ambitions, stabilizing Afghanistan, and mending the global financial system.

"In my state of the nation address I mentioned that Russia has no anti-Americanism. But there are some difficulties in understanding each other. We would like to overcome this, exactly this, with a new administration."

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