MOSCOW — Russia's leaders expressed hope Thursday that relations with the United States will improve after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, suggesting the Kremlin would respond quickly to new overtures from Washington.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Moscow welcomed what he described as positive signals from Washington. He indicated that Moscow is encouraged by what it sees as Obama's skepticism about U.S. missile defense sites in Europe _ a system Moscow sees as a threat.
"If it's not just words, if they are transformed into practical policy, we will respond accordingly, and our American partners will immediately feel that," Putin said during a nationally broadcast, live question-and-answer session.
Putin's protege and successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, issued a similar statement in an interview with Indian Broadcasting Corp. Doordarshan that was posted on the Kremlin Web site Thursday.
Both leaders have expressed hope that Obama's administration would scrap the missile plan. President George W. Bush's administration has insisted it poses no threat to Russia and is meant to protect Europe from possible attacks from the Middle East.
The day after Obama's election victory, Medvedev had warned that Russia would respond to the U.S. plans for missile defense sites in Europe by deploying short-range missiles to its westernmost region of Kaliningrad, near Poland.
But Medvedev and Putin quickly softened their posture, saying Russia would only make the move if the United States goes ahead with placing components of the proposed missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellites.
Obama has not been explicit about his intentions, saying it would be prudent to "explore the possibility" of the sites. He said this year that the system would require much more vigorous testing to ensure it would work and justify the billions of dollars it would cost.
Putin said Thursday that Russia was encouraged by the incoming U.S. administration's approach to the missile shield and statements about the need to respect Russia's interests.
"We are hearing that it's necessary to once again consider the rationale for missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic," Putin said. "We are hearing that it's necessary to take Russia's interests into account while developing ties with it."
NATO foreign ministers Wednesday affirmed their support for the U.S. sites in Europe despite Russia's opposition, saying they will make a "substantial contribution" to protecting allies from the threat of long-range ballistic missiles.
Poland welcomed NATO's statement. Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said Thursday that Warsaw is negotiating a missile defense deal with Washington with the knowledge that "allies in NATO accept our bilateral agreement" and that the system will serve other NATO members.
Putin did not mention NATO's statement on the missile defense, but he praised the alliance for its decision this week not to grant Ukraine and Georgia a roadmap to joining the alliance. Russia has fiercely opposed NATO's plans to incorporate the former Soviet republics on its borders.
The U.S. and the European Union had criticized Russia for disproportionate use of force during the war and for recognizing Georgia's breakaway regions as independent states afterward.
Medvedev dismissed suggestions that the current chill in Russia-U.S. relations could lead to a new Cold War, and said he expects the new U.S. administration "to take a constructive, reasonable stance, to show a willingness to compromise on the most difficult issues."
Medvedev said there was no ideological ground for a new Cold War. "Today we share the same values. We need only to ensure that these values are understood in the same way."