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Russia's Putin Hails U.S. Shield Move, Calls For More

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) -- Russian leader Vladimir Putin has welcomed a decision by the United States to scrap plans for a missile-defense shield but called on President Barack Obama to make further gestures to improve ties.

Putin, Russia's most powerful politician who now serves as prime minister, said Washington's decision to scrap the antimissile plans of George W. Bush's administration was a correct and brave decision.

Moscow had argued that the missile-defense system was a serious threat to its security because the U.S. equipment could be used to neutralize Russia's vast nuclear deterrent. The issue was a key sticking point in U.S.-Russia relations.

Putin told an investment forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi he now expected further steps from Washington including the complete removal of all trade restrictions and full U.S. backing for a joint bid by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"The latest decisions by President Obama to cancel plans to build the third positioning region of the missile-defense system in Europe inspires hope and I do anticipate that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others," Putin said.

Putin said those decisions should include "the complete removal of all restrictions on cooperation with Russia" and the transfer of high technology, as well as U.S. support for the joint bid by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to join the WTO.

Muscle Flexing

Obama's reversal on deploying an antimissile shield in Eastern Europe has been welcomed by the Kremlin, which had repeatedly threatened to deploy missiles in a Russian enclave next to Poland if the United States refused to drop the plans.

But Washington's move has alarmed some countries in the former Soviet bloc. They feel the strong U.S. commitment to their security shown by the Bush administration is waning and that the Kremlin might start flexing its muscles as a result.

"A section of Russian decision-makers will try to use this initiative to say, 'Look, Russia has demonstrated that it could behave as a strong and brave power -- look at the result so we should press on like this where we need progress, with the U.S. and NATO,'" said Tatiana Parkhalina, an analyst from the Center for European Security in Moscow.

Analysts said Obama is betting on boosting cooperation with Moscow on Iran after reaching understandings with the Kremlin on nuclear arms cuts and support for U.S.-led forces fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

A senior Kremlin source has said that Obama's decision opened the door for greater cooperation on arms reduction and on nuclear nonproliferation.

"This [President Obama's decision] makes Russia attentively weigh new opportunities for cooperation," the Kremlin source said.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified military official as saying Moscow was shelving its threat to station short-range Iskander missiles and long-range nuclear-capable bombers in a Russian enclave near Poland.

Medvedev had always said this plan would only go ahead if the missile shield were deployed. But questions remain about Russia's desire to work as a close partner of the United States to boost security around the world.

Moscow has been reluctant so far to endorse tough sanctions against Iran and reports continue to surface of possible deals to sell an advanced air-defense system and other weapons to Tehran, although some sources say talks have been frozen.

Another recent Kremlin move which caused concern overseas was a deal to sell $2 billion of weapons -- including missiles and tanks -- to Venezuela's radical anti-U.S. leader Hugo Chavez at a time when tensions with neighboring Colombia are rising.