Dmitry Medvedev: missile system deal vital to avoid fresh arms race

President Dmitry Medvedev has warned that a new arms race will erupt within the next decade unless Russia and the West forge an agreement to co-operate on building a missile defence system.

• Dmitry Medvedev made his annual address at the Kremlin's St George Hall Picture: Getty

In his annual state of the nation address yesterday, Mr Medvedev called for more co-operation with the United States and the European Union, holding out the prospect of closer ties two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War.

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He said tension would ratchet up fast, forcing Russia to bolster its military arsenal, if Western offers of co-operation on a system to defend against missile threats failed to produce a concrete agreement.

The warning appeared to reflect wariness in the Kremlin over uncertainty about US Senate ratification of New START, the nuclear arms limitation pact Mr Medvedev signed with US president Barack Obama in April, the centrepiece of the push for better ties.

Mr Medvedev said yesterday: "In the coming decade we face the following alternatives: Either we reach agreement on missile defence and create a full-fledged joint mechanism of co-operation, or … a new round of the arms race will begin, and we will have to take a decision about the deployment of new offensive weapons. It is clear that this scenario would be very grave."

The remarks, in a 72-minute speech to members of parliament and ministers, raised the stakes in sensitive discussions with the US and Nato on missile defence. The issue has divided Moscow and the West since the 1980s.

Mr Medvedev agreed to Nato's offer of missile defence co-operation at a summit with the alliance that was hailed as a fresh start, but the plans are sketchy and Russia has warned it wants an equal voice in evaluating threats and responses.

Mr Medvedev has pursued warmer ties with the West, particularly Washington, since he was steered into the presidency by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

He has embraced Mr Obama's efforts to "reset" a relationship that hit post-Cold War lows during Russia's war with Georgia in August 2008, months after he took office.

After the address, Kremlin aide Arkady Dvorkovich told journalists the collapse of the New START pact "would mean nothing good and we are counting on ratification going through".

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Mr Obama wants the treaty ratified before the Democrats' majority decreases when the new Senate, elected last month, convenes early next year.

Mr Medvedev's comments also seemed aimed to assuage hard-liners and assure Russians steeped in decades of anti-Western rhetoric that Moscow will not open itself up to a threat.

When Mr Medvedev said Russia might have to deploy more weapons, applause broke out after a brief pause, before he went on to say that would be "very grave".

Russia has emphasised it could withdraw from New START if a US missile defence system becomes a threat to its security.

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said: "Russia wants a legally binding agreement on missile defence because it sees potential threats." But he said Russia "does not have the capabilities" to hold its own in an arms race in the foreseeable future.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said Mr Medvedev's message was that if Russia is shut out of meaningful missile defence co-operation, it "will try to take measures to counter that by modernising its nuclear arsenal".

The Kremlin's pursuit of better ties with the West has been accompanied by calls for a stronger say across a broad section of the globe, including Europe, America and the former Soviet Union.

"I see significant potential in broadening co-operation with the European Union and the United States," Mr Medvedev said, though he underscored that Moscow wants concrete benefits such as help with its bid to join the World Trade Organisation.