The State Department said Wednesday a Russian decision to forego deployment of advanced missiles in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad would be a positive development. Russia had announced the move last November because of U.S. plans to put a missile-defense system in Europe to counter an envisaged Iranian threat.
Officials here say while Russian intentions with regard the Kaliningrad missiles are still not entirely clear, a decision by Moscow to shelve the announced deployment would be a positive development as the new U.S. administration settles into office.
Russia's Interfax news agency Wednesday quoted an unnamed Russian defense official as saying Moscow had suspended plans to put short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, because the Obama team is not pushing ahead with plans for the European missile-defense system.
Russian government spokesmen later said they were unaware of any formal decision on the matter, but the initial report was none-the-less seen as a conciliatory gesture which was welcomed by both U.S. and some European officials.
The Bush administration negotiated deals to put interceptor missiles in Poland and a related radar system in the Czech Republic to counter a future missile threat from Iran, but Moscow vigorously opposed the plan as a threat to its strategic missile deterrent.
During the U.S. Presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama did not embrace the Bush program, with aides saying anti-missile technology needed to be proven.
At a news briefing Wednesday, State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood said the new administration is reviewing the missile defense plan and will support it, if it is proven workable.
"In essence, the President is very interested in exploring whether missile defense is possible, and if it's workable, then that's something we will pursue. But of course, it's not a decision that he can make right now. He needs to take some time, talk to the necessary people, review the previous administration's discussions with Russia and others, and then come to a decision. But as I said with regard to the Russian comments - and again, I've only seen the reports - if they're true, it's certainly a positive step," he said.
Wood said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had an introductory phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this week but did not know if the missile issue had come up. President Obama and Russian President Dmiti Medvedev also spoke on Monday.
Other officials said the tone of contacts with Moscow since President Obama took office have been cordial and that they're optimistic of some improvement in a relationship chilled not only by the missile issue, but bitter disputes last year over the Russia-Georgia conflict and Kosovo independence.
Russian officials have spoken of hearing positive signals from the Obama team though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has cautioned against overly-high expectations.