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Russia Offers Obama Olive Branch On Missiles


Analysts say Russia's threat to deploy Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad were largely symbolic in any case.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia has halted plans to deploy missiles near the Polish border, a Russian news agency has quoted the military as saying, in the clearest sign yet Moscow is seeking better ties with the new U.S. administration.

Moscow had threatened to deploy the missiles to counter a missile shield proposed by former President George W. Bush for Eastern Europe. President Barack Obama has not reversed Bush's decision but has said he would consider it on its merits.

Analysts said if confirmed the Russian move -- which follows a phone conversation this week between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- could open the way for renewed dialogue on other issues that divide their countries.

"The earlier Russian announcement that they were going to deploy missiles...and point them at NATO allies was unwelcome. If that decision has now been rescinded, it is a good step," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

The U.S. envoy to NATO had earlier said that, if confirmed, the Russian move would be a "positive step."

Medvedev said a day after Obama's election victory he was ordering the deployment of Iskander missile systems to Russia's western outpost of Kaliningrad, which borders European Union members Poland and Lithuania.

"The implementation of these plans has been halted in connection with the fact that the new U.S. administration is not rushing through plans to deploy" elements of its missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, Interfax quoted an unnamed official in the Russian military's General Staff as saying.

It was not clear though if the report represented a firm shift in policy. There was no confirmation from the Russian military that the Iskander deployment was being suspended and a Kremlin official said he could not offer immediate comment.

The threat of deploying the Iskander missiles was largely symbolic because, military analysts said, Russia does not have enough operational missile systems to station in Kaliningrad.

The missile issue is likely to be on the agenda if, as expected, Medvedev and Obama meet on April 2 on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in London.

"It [the suspension of missile deployment] is a signal to Obama of Moscow's goodwill," Yevgeny Volk, an analyst in Moscow with the Heritage Foundation think tank, told Reuters.

"In response they want a decision not to deploy the missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe."

Obama also faces a series of other challenges in dealing with Russia, including bridging differences over Iran, NATO expansion, and strategic arms control.

Some observers believe the Kremlin may be softening its assertive foreign-policy style because the economic slowdown -- which has seen the ruble lose about a quarter of its value since July -- has dented its confidence.