Russia's Putin makes warm overtures to Obama

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States will quickly feel a change in attitude from Moscow if President-elect Barack Obama transforms Washington’s policies toward Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Thursday.

“Usually... when there is a change of power in any country, and even more so in a superpower such as the United States, some changes occur,” said Putin.

“We very much hope that these changes will be positive. We are now seeing these positive signals,” said Putin during a televised question and answer session with the Russian public.

In contrast with a long string of past criticisms of Washington’s foreign policy, Putin made no warnings to the United States and steered clear of his often harsh rhetoric.

Instead, Putin said he perceived a more conciliatory tone toward Russia from aides to the U.S. President-elect and saw the significance in NATO’s decision this week not to offer a path to membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

“We hear that one should build relations with Russia, taking into account its interests. If these are not just words, if they get transformed into a practical policy, then of course our reaction will be adequate and our American partners will feel this at once,” said Putin.

“Already at the expert level, we hear from people close to the President-elect -- from his circle, his aides -- we hear that there should be no rush in this matter, that one should not spoil relations with Russia,” Putin said.

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That contrasts with the criticism Putin made of Washington’s approach to Russia’s war against U.S.-ally Georgia in August.

The war sent ties with Washington to the lowest level since the end of the Cold War and Putin accused some in the U.S. administration of provoking the crisis to help the Republicans win the presidency.

As prime minister, Putin is now mostly formally responsible for economic issues, while his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev has responsibility for setting foreign policy.

But Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008, regularly meets foreign heads of state and makes sometimes strong statements about foreign and defense matters.

The positive tone toward Obama has not been matched by any shift in Russia’s opposition to U.S. plans to locate elements of its missile shield system in Europe, though Putin said he hoped the new President would cancel the proposals.

“We already hear that one should yet again rethink the expediency of deploying the Third Position Region of the missile defense system in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic,” he said.

Putin has always said he has a good personal relationship with the outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, despite frequent policy clashes.

Bush’s critics have frequently taunted him for saying that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul during one of their first meetings as leaders.

Reporting by Conor Sweeney, Maria Kisyelova and Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Matthew Tostevin