WASHINGTON - The Dmitry Medvedev that made his first appearance in the U.S. capital
as Russia's president was not the same man Russians usually see at home.
He was confident, even charming, in reaching out Saturday in a spirit
of cooperation to the incoming administration of Barack Obama.
He showed none of the bluster and tough talk that he has adopted in
recent months in an awkward imitation of Vladimir Putin, his
predecessor and mentor who still leads the country as prime minister.
Putin's choice of Medvedev to succeed him earlier this year was seen as
an effort to re-brand Russia, to improve its relations with the West
and Western investors.
But the August war with Georgia, a former Soviet republic that has
allied itself with Washington, led to a change in course. Medvedev
quickly began to sound like Putin in casting the West as the aggressor.
The Nov. 4 election of Obama seemed to offer an opportunity for Russia
and the United States to make a fresh start. But instead of welcoming
Obama's election, Medvedev issued a challenge.
In a Nov. 5 speech, he warned that Russia would move short-range
missiles to NATO's borders to "neutralize" a planned U.S. missile
defense system in Eastern Europe if necessary.
Medvedev has since backed off slightly. He stressed Saturday that
Russia would not act unless the United States took the first step and
expressed hope that the new U.S. administration will be open to
Medvedev said there is a lack of trust between Russia and the United States, but it is "in our power" to create a partnership.
He called for talks with Obama as soon as possible after he becomes
president Jan. 20 and suggested that missile defense would be a good
place to start.
"I hope that the new president, the new administration will have a
desire to discuss this," Medvedev told members of the Council on
Foreign Relations. "At least the first signals that we have received
indicate that our new partners are thinking about the problems and do
not simply plan to rubber stamp the plans."
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The Russian president, who was in Washington for the global financial
summit, gave a short speech and then settled into an armchair next to
former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to continue the discussion
with her. The choice of Albright carried additional significance since
she acted as a surrogate for Obama at the summit.
The planned missile defense system was championed by the Bush
administration as necessary to protect Europe from Iran. Russia,
however, sees it as a Cold War-style project that could weaken its
Obama has not been explicit about his intentions, saying it would be
prudent to "explore the possibility" but expressing some skepticism
about the technical capability of U.S. missile defenses.
Andrew Pierre, a diplomatic scholar at Georgetown University, said
Medvedev could find a receptive audience in the new administration.
"What his task is going to be is to persuade the new American
administration that Russians have legitimate concerns," Pierre said.
He said for most of the U.S. foreign policy community, missile defense is not the most important issue in relations with Russia.
"It certainly isn't worth the political result that it leads to, given
that for us it's tangential but for the Russians it's core. It's on
their borders," Pierre said.
Medvedev said his Nov. 5 speech - his first state of the nation address
- was not "blackmail" intended to pressure the new president-elect.
He had postponed the address twice, which he said Saturday was because
he was unhappy with the material that had been prepared. When he
finally set the date, he said he forgot about the U.S. election. "It
was nothing personal," he said.