Russia made clear what problems lie ahead for president-elect Obama last month – just hours after his election victory – by announcing plans to deploy short-range missiles close to the Polish border.
In a move that many will interpret as a provocation towards the U.S. and a further warning to Poland and the Czech Republic, President Dmitry Medvedev made the statement in his first annual state-of-the-nation address.
Mr. Medvedev issued the stark warning in contrast to worldwide optimism following Senator Obama’s win, and reminded the future U.S. president of Russian displeasure regarding continual efforts to install the missile defence shield, which he believes is a threat to his nation’s security.
“From what we have seen in recent years – the creation of a missile defence system, the encirclement of Russia with military bases, the relentless expansion of NATO – we have gotten the clear impression that they are testing our strength,” said Medvedev.
According to the Russian president, Iskander missiles – which are almost impossible to prevent from being launched, and can easily overcome air defence systems – will be deployed to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave lying north-east of Poland near the Baltic Sea, in order to “neutralise, if necessary, a missile defence system.”
Capable of travelling a distance of about 280 kilometres (175 miles), the Iskander missile is able to reach targets in Poland – but not in the Czech Republic. Russian officials, however, have stated that its range could be increased.
Medvedev also warned of using electronic equipment to disable the operation of the U.S. planned missile defence facilities.
In response, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the Russian leader’s outburst “another of a series of similar statements,” adding, “What is disturbing about it is that whereas previously we heard them from [Russian] generals, now we have heard it from the president.”
Prime Minister Donald Tusk was less concerned and dismissed the remarks, telling Polish reporters, “We have been used to the fact that Russia growls every now and then. I would not give too much meaning to this declaration.”
During the televised keynote speech, Mr. Medvedev also accused Washington of meddling prior to the Russo-Georgian war, describing the conflict as, “among other things, the result of the arrogant course of the American administration, which did not tolerate criticism and preferred unilateral decisions.”
However, the speech was not only concerned with hostility towards the U.S., as the Russian leader made clear that the prospect of a new U.S. presidency could usher in an improved relationship with Washington.
“I stress that we have no problem with the American people, no inborn anti-Americanism. And we hope that our partners, the U.S. administration, will make a choice in favour of full-fledged relations with Russia.”
Following the address, the Kremlin announced that Medvedev sent a telegram to Obama saying he was “counting on a constructive dialogue… on the basis of trust and taking each other’s interests into account.”
And days later, Mr. Medvedev toned down his rhetoric towards Obama’s camp even further, presenting a more optimistic view on a post-Bush U.S. administration: “I hope that the new president, the new administration will have a desire to discuss this,” he stated in a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“At least the first signals that we have received indicate that our new partners are thinking about this issue and do not simply plan to rubber stamp the plans.”
Recently, however, Nicolas Sarkozy – emboldened by France’s EU Presidency – dismayed Brussels by entering the fray, calling for both the U.S. and Russia to stop the deployment of missiles in Europe.
At an EU-Russian summit in Nice early last month, the French president, self-appointed mediator of the missile crisis, said “deployment of a missile defence system would bring nothing to security… it would complicate things, and would make them move backward.”
His comments were immediately pounced upon by both the Czech Republic and Poland, with Prime Minister Tusk telling reporters, “President Sarkozy has expressed his own point of view…[but] it will have no impact on the future of the project.”
“The question of the anti-missile shield is governed by an agreement between Poland and the United States. It is above all an American project,” he continued.
“I don’t think that third-party countries, even such good friends as France, can have a particular right to express themselves on this issue.”