SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Friday hailed as “correct and brave” a decision by the United States to roll back a missile shield plan but called on President Barack Obama to make further gestures to Moscow.
Putin, Russia’s prime minister and most powerful politician, said he now wanted the removal of all remaining trade restrictions and full U.S. backing for a joint bid by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to join the World Trade Organisation.
Obama’s decision to scrap George W. Bush’s missile shield plans has been welcomed by Russia, whose leaders repeatedly threatened to deploy missiles in a Russian enclave next to Poland if the United States refused to drop the plans.
But former Soviet bloc countries have been alarmed by the U.S. move. Some worry that Washington is showing weakness by giving in to the Kremlin and say Moscow will take advantage by seeking to expand its influence in its former realm.
“The latest decisions by President Obama to cancel plans to build the third positioning region of the missile defence system in Europe inspires hope and I do anticipate that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others,” Putin said.
Speaking to an investor conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin said he expected those decisions to include “the complete removal of all restrictions on cooperation with Russia” and support for Russia’s joint WTO bid.
Putin had led Moscow’s verbal assault on Bush’s missile plans which Russian generals said could have been used to neutralise Russia’s vast nuclear deterrent. They brushed aside U.S. assurances that the scheme was not targeted at Russia.
The missile plans were held up by the Kremlin as a major issue that had soured relations with the White House and hindered cooperation between the two Cold War foes.
Analysts said Obama’s shift on the shield was a bet aimed at 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 official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Obama’s reversal had opened the door for greater cooperation on cutting arms and nuclear non-proliferation.
“We now have a chance to progress in areas where hitherto we could not,” said the Kremlin source said, who accepted that Obama’s move had put the onus on Moscow to respond though he gave no details about what could be offered on Iran.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who will meet Obama on Sept 23 in New York, said in an interview published on Friday that Russia would listen more attentively to a range of U.S. concerns, though there would be no “primitive compromises”.
Moscow has been reluctant so far to endorse tough sanctions against Iran, which has rattled Israel by seeking major arms deals with Russian state weapons suppliers.
The Kremlin source said on Friday that Russia had not supplied any S-300 air defence missile systems to Iran, though he admitted a contract to supply the systems did exist.
Obama’s move on missile defence, coming after NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was put on the back burner, has alarmed former Soviet bloc nations, who feel the strong U.S. commitment to them shown by the Bush administration is waning.
“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 Centre for European Security in Moscow.
Russia’s NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin said Moscow would not deploy missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave next to Poland. Medvedev had always said this plan would only go ahead if the missile shield were deployed.
Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified military official as saying previously unannounced plans to station long-range nuclear-capable bombers in Kaliningrad had also been shelved.
Reporting by Toni Vorobyova and Gleb Bryanski on Sochi, Oleg Shchedrov and Conor Sweeney in Moscow, editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Stott