Medvedev Sees 'New Framework' for U.S.-Russia Ties Under Obama

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday that there is "no trust" in U.S.-Russia relations at the moment, but he expressed hope that the ties between Moscow and Washington could be repaired in Barack Obama's administration.

In his first public appearance as president in the U.S. capital, the Russian leader said that, on many issues, "we can't find common ground. It is a deplorable fact, but that is life. And I think we can create in principle a new framework . . . a partnership between the U.S. and Russia."

Medvedev, 43, sought to strike a mostly conciliatory tone in meeting more than an hour with members of the Council on Foreign Relations. He seemed to back away from what was widely seen here as a brusque warning to Obama, just after the U.S. election, to not proceed with U.S. plans for a missile defense program in Europe. In that address, Medvedev said Russia would deploy short-range missiles near Poland if the United States continued with its plans, which the outgoing Bush administration has championed.

Yesterday, in contrast, Medvedev emphasized that he is hopeful about working out a compromise with the new administration, though he also said Russia reserves the option of taking retaliatory steps if a deal cannot be reached. Russian officials have refused to accept repeated U.S. assurances that the missile defense program is intended for states such as Iran, not the Russian Federation.

"We will not do anything until America makes the first step," Medvedev said. "If the step is so unfortunate as it is envisaged today, we will have to act. But to my mind we have good opportunities to solve this problem . . . to agree either on a global system of protection against rogue states . . . or to find ways out in terms of programs existing already.

"I am ready to discuss it, and hopefully a new president and new administration will have a willingness to discuss this matter," he went on. "At least the first signals we got demonstrate that our partners really think about this problem and not just rubber-stamp this problem."

It was not clear what "signals" Medvedev was referring to. A senior Obama adviser said missile defense did not come up in a brief congratulatory telephone call that the Russian president placed to Obama recently. During the campaign, Obama made his support of missile defense clear, although he conditioned deployment of such a system on proof that it can work -- proof that he said would not come until 2010, at the earliest.

Medvedev, in Washington to attend the global economic summit, seemed to enjoy the sparring with an audience of foreign policy elites that included former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who led the questioning. At times, he displayed a dry sense of humor, such as when he was asked if he could foresee Russia ever joining NATO. That alliance's plans for expansion into areas of former Soviet dominance have contributed in recent years to U.S.-Russia tensions.

"There is a good phrase -- never say never," Medvedev replied. He made clear, though, that such a move would not come soon.

At other moments, Medvedev displayed the harsh rhetoric more associated with Soviet-style diplomacy, saying Russia will never revisit its decision to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He also said Russia will not negotiate with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili after what he branded Saakashvili's "criminal" decision to try to retake those areas by force.

While there was no discussion of Russia's authoritarianism and crackdown on internal dissent in recent years, Medvedev did address a domestic issue when he spoke of his desire to more forcefully clean up corruption in his government. "Business people have to pay bribes. Bureaucrats accept bribes, and this has repercussions for the business climate," he said, promising "to act" to deal with it.

The Russian president also showed an American politician's propensity not to let certain matters drop, for fear of leaving the wrong impression. After Medvedev described Russia's position on missile defense, Albright said she appreciated the explanation, saying it appeared to be more balanced than Medvedev's Nov. 5 speech, which she said contained "elements of anti-Americanism."

The questioning moved on to a different subject, but when it came his time to answer, Medvedev indicated that he did not like Albright's assertion. "In my state of the nation address, I mentioned that Russia has no anti-Americanism, but there are some difficulties in understanding each other," he said. "We would like to overcome this with the new administration."

He said his Nov. 5 speech was not "blackmail" aimed at pressuring Obama. He explained that he had planned to give a major state of the nation speech for some time and that he had twice canceled scheduled addresses because he was unhappy with the drafts. When the speech was finally to his satisfaction, he did not recognize that the new date for delivering it was the day after the U.S. election. "There was nothing personal," he said.

Indeed, Medvedev voiced enthusiasm for working with the new administration, saying he looks forward to meeting Obama soon after the inauguration. He added that he thinks there is "a great opportunity to restore relations to the fullest extent."

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