Russian president warns of new arms race

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned yesterday (30 November) that a new arms race would be sparked within the next decade unless Russia and the West forged an agreement to cooperate on building a missile defence system.

In his annual State of the Nation address, Medvedev called for closer cooperation with the United States and the European Union, holding out the prospect of closer ties two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse ended the Cold War.

But he said tension would ratchet up fast, forcing Russia to bolster its military arsenal, if Western offers of cooperation on a system to defend against missile threats failed to produce a concrete agreement.

"In the coming decade we face the following alternatives: either we reach agreement on missile defence and create a full-fledged joint mechanism of cooperation, or […] a new round of the arms race will begin," Medvedev said.

"And we will have to take a decision about the deployment of new offensive weapons. It is clear that this scenario would be very grave."

The remarks, in a speech of more than an hour to members of parliament and ministers, raised the stakes in sensitive discussions with the United States and NATO on missile defence.

The issue has divided Moscow and the West since the 1980s.

Medvedev agreed to NATO's offer of missile defence cooperation at a summit with the alliance that was hailed as a fresh start, but the plans are sketchy and Russia has warned it wants an equal voice in evaluating threats and responses.

Medvedev has pursued warmer ties with the West and particularly Washington since he was steered into the presidency by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

He has embraced US President Barack Obama's efforts to "reset" a relationship that hit post-Cold War lows during Russia's war with Georgia in August 2008, months after he took office.

The warning on missile defence appeared to reflect wariness in the Kremlin amid uncertainty about US Senate ratification of the strategic arms limitation treaty that Medvedev signed with Obama in April, centrepiece of the push for better ties.

Russia has warned that it could withdraw from the treaty if a US missile defence system develops into a threat to Russia's security.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

President Dmitry Medvedev's lacklustre state of the nation speech on Tuesday increases the odds that Russia's paramount leader Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin in the 2012 presidential election, Reuters writes in an analysis.

Medvedev loaded his 72-minute speech with generalities about child support, demographics and ecology as Prime Minister Putin sat glumly before him in the front row of ornate St George Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace.

In a speech interspersed with polite applause from Russia's assembled elite, Medvedev steered clear of any mention of the 2012 presidential election, but indicated that few political reforms were expected before next year's parliamentary election.

"I did not feel the fervour and ambition of a person who is going for a second term," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Russian academic who studies the Russian elite. "This is not the start of something new but the conclusion."

"There were general, long-term, abstract aims but all the concrete things have to be accomplished by the end of 2011. So I do not have the feeling that he will be the next president," she said.

So who will be president?

"Who? Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," she said.

"There were precious few moments of anything concrete," said Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It looks to me as though Putin will come back in 2012 and Medvedev's speech has not changed the impression I have."

"This speech maintains the impression that Putin is the leader of deeds and Medvedev is the leader of plans," she said.

During his election campaign, US President Barack Obama had been cool on a deal reached by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to put a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor rockets in Poland to shoot down missiles fired by countries like Iran or North Korea. 

Moscow strongly opposes the possible Polish and Czech installations as a threat to its security. After the election of Obama in November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to base medium-range Iskander missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad near the Polish border if the United States persisted. 

In September 2009 Obama announced that the US would rethink the system imagined by his predecessor. On his tour to Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic in October 2009, US Vice-President Joe Biden presented America's revised missile defence plans. Last February, Romania announced that it had accepted an invitation from US President Obama to host an anti-missile shield.

At the NATO summit in Lisbon on 20 November, the leaders of the alliance agreed to develop a missile system to protect the territory of all NATO member states in Europe and North America. It will be capable of intercepting long-range missiles fired from the Middle East.

Russia was invited to be involved in the system, but it remains unclear what role Moscow might play.

The system would be designed to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from Iran or North Korea.

But NATO member Turkey is opposed to identifying Iran, a neighbour and ally, as a possible aggressor.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed hope that formulas would be found to satisfy Russia's concerns and make missile defence cooperation possible.

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