Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Russia welcomes Barack Obama with deployment of nuclear-capable missiles

The Kremlin gave Barack Obama a glacial welcome to the world stage when Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, ordered the deployment of nuclear-capable missiles on Nato's borders for the first time since the Cold War.

Russian president Dimitry Medvedev - Russia welcomes Barack Obama with deployment of nuclear-capable missiles
Mr Medvedev said he was ordering the deployment in retaliation to a missile defence shield that the United States wants to build in central Europe Photo: AP

In what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to rattle the president-elect, Mr Medvedev said that short-range Iskander surface-to-surface missiles would be stationed in Russia's baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders EU states Poland and Lithuania.

Delivering his most aggressively anti-American speech yet, Mr Medvedev said he was ordering the deployment in retaliation to a missile defence shield that the United States wants to build in central Europe by 2011.

In comments likely to unnerve the Obama camp, the Russian leader even hinted that he was prepared to use the missiles to destroy the shield, which is to be erected in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"I have approved a new configuration for the military forces of our country," Mr Medvedev said in his first ever annual address to the two houses of the Russian parliament. "To neutralise – if necessary – the anti-missile system, an Iskander missile system will be deployed in the Kaliningrad region."

Although the Iskander is normally equipped with conventional warheads, it can be modified to carry a nuclear payload.

Russia has been threatening to move Iskander missiles to Kalinigrad since April last year, but until now no specific order had been given.

Mr Medvedev's speech had been postponed twice and commentators in Moscow say it is no accident that the Kremlin decided it should be delivered on the day the United States presidential election results were announced.

They suggested that Russia was deliberately attempting to test Mr Obama's mettle. Some analysts say that Kremlin hardliners are worried that the Democrat could seek to restore the notion of the United States as a "soft power" prepared to seek international consensus in its foreign policy.

For Kremlin hawks, such a policy could undermine their attempts to project the US as a threat to Russian sovereignty, thus undermining the justification for the authoritarian policies of Vladimir Putin, the country's powerful prime minister.

For much of his speech, President Medvedev, who was shoehorned into office by Mr Putin, sounded as abrasive as his predecessor at his most vituperative.

Seeking to cast Washington as the architect of the global financial crisis, he lashed out at the "erroneous, egotistical and sometimes even dangerous decisions of some members of the global community" – the traditional euphemism for the United States.

He also blamed the United States for August's war in the Caucasus, which saw Russia invade Georgia and destroy much of its infrastructure after the escalation of a conflict in a Moscow-backed breakaway region of the country.

The US, Mr Medvedev said, pursued a foreign policy that was "selfish, cannot stand criticism and prefers unilateral decisions." "The conflict in the Caucasus was used as a pretext for sending Nato warships to the Black Sea and then for foisting America's anti-missile systems on Europe," he told legislators.

The US sent naval vessels to the Black Sea after the August conflict ended to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia. The ships have since left the area.

Breaking with tradition, Mr Medvedev failed to congratulate senator Obama on his victory. But he did urge the president-elect to take steps to improve US-Russia relations, which he said were badly damaged.

Ordinary Russians were sneering about the entire election, which was characterized in the frequently chauvinistic popular media as a contest between a senile grandfather and a black man of dubious credentials and intellect. American voters were portrayed as "popcorn and hamburger eating idiots" by one newspaper.

Several tabloids incorrectly reported that the main message of Mr Obama's final campaign speech was a call on young African Americans not to let their underpants show above the waistline of the jeans.

Many also questioned the US belief in democracy, claiming that it had plunged the world into turmoil.

"Russia does not need this Western operetta show," the Tvoi Dyen tabloid wrote. "We realised back in 1612, there is so much more important than difference of opinion."

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