Russia on Friday dropped a threat to place missiles on the borders of the European Union, a military source said, easing tensions after the United States scrapped a controversial missile shield.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hailed the “correct and brave decision” by President Barack Obama to abandon the central Europe project and expressed hope that it would lead to further improvements in US-Russian ties.
The move to halt the threatened deployment of short range Iskander missiles in Russia’s territory of Kaliningrad, announced to Interfax news agency by the military source, was Moscow’s first concrete response to Obama’s decision.
Russia had fiercely opposed the US plan -- promoted by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush -- to place an anti-missile radar facility in the Czech Republic and interceptor rockets in Poland.
“Undoubtedly, Washington’s cancellation of its missile defence facilities will not remain unnoticed,” the military source said.
“The array of measures which were planned in response to the deployment of the missile defence sites in Europe will be frozen, and will possibly be completely cancelled,” the source added.
Freezing the missile deployment in Kaliningrad, squeeezed between EU members Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic, is one of the key measures.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had unveiled the plan to put missiles in Kaliningrad last November, in a speech given the same day that Obama won the US presidential election.
The military source told Interfax that Russia would re-examine other military countermeasures being considered in response to the US missile shield.
Those ideas included a plan to station nuclear-capable Tu-22 strategic bombers in Kaliningrad and to equip Russia’s ballistic missile arsenal with features allowing them to evade US missile defences, the source said.
Russian officials have said throughout the missile-shield dispute that Moscow was planning countermeasures, while remaining vague about the details.
Moscow is pursuing an ambitious, costly plan to replace its Soviet-era long-range missile arsenal, and the military has said that a key part of the plan is adapting the missiles to overcome US defences.
Obama announced on Thursday that the United States was dropping the Bush plan in favour of a system which would initially be sea-based and which would focus on the threat of short- and medium-range missiles from Iran.
The original plan had been envisioned as protecting the United States from long-range Iranian missiles, which Washington now says are a long way from deployment.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski welcomed the Russian announcement on Kaliningrad, telling journalists, “If Russia is dropping its threats of deplying missiles near our borders, that is a good sign for Poland.”
Meanwhile, a Kremlin source said that Russia would be compelled to offer a response to the change in policy by the United States, although the official did not make clear what this could involve.
“We may be now be situated in a more responsible and difficult position. Indeed, we really must respond,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.
Igor Barinov, the deputy head of the Russian lower house’s defence committee, said that Moscow could now accept cutting its nuclear weapons to 1,300 units, considerably lower than previously agreed, Interfax reported.
It was unclear however whether Russia’s cooperation would extend to Iran’s hotly disputed nuclear programme.
So far Moscow has resisted US calls for tougher penalties against Tehran, which the West suspects is trying to develop a nuclear bomb.
Washington is urging Moscow to harden its stance on Iran in exchange for the missile shield decision, the Kommersant daily newspaper reported, citing a senior source in the Russian foreign ministry.
“We are being asked to stop deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Iran and to support a tough resolution being prepared in the United Nations Security Council, which would stipulate sanctions against Tehran,” the source was quoted as saying.