Medvedev’s challenge to Obama

Russia’s president Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday became the first world leader to throw down a gauntlet to US president-elect Barack Obama, declaring that the Kremlin would station missiles in the tiny Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Poland, in response to US plans for an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe.

Mr Medvedev, speaking in his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, also proposed extending the presidential term to six years from the current four, a step which had been proposed under former president, now prime minister Vladimir Putin, who had rejected it.

Taken together the Russian proposals seem to be a provocative test for the incoming US leader, who inherits a tense relationship with Russia following the brief war with Georgia in August.

Mr Medvedev said the deployment of Iskander cruise missiles on Poland’s border was intended “to neutralise – if necessary – the anti-missile system” which the US plans to deploy in Poland and the Czech Republic. It signals that the Kremlin will not deviate from the tough line it took against the departing US administration of George W. Bush.

“I think the decision was made to take a tough stand with the United States, giving no concessions to the newly elected president,” said Dmitri Trenin, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, the think-tank.

“This [the missile deployment] had been rumoured for some time” said Mr Trenin “I think this is a message to Washington and Warsaw that they’ll be safer and better off if they call off their plans for ballistic missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic.”

However, he added that Mr Medvedev did appear to be holding out an olive branch to Mr Obama with the line: “We hope that our partners – the new US administration– will make a choice in favour of fully-fledged relations with Russia.”

Meanwhile, the increase in the presidential term is likely to raise fears among western countries that Russia is continuing its drift towards a more authoritarian political system. Larissa Bricheva, Kremlin spokesperson, told Interfax news agency that lengthening the presidential term would not require a nationwide referendum as is usually required for changing the constitution, but that it would not apply to the sitting president, only to his successors.

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