Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised the New START nuclear arms pact with the US on Wednesday, but made protectionist remarks that may complicate talks on joining the WTO.
In his first comments on New START since the US Senate approved it last week, Putin lauded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for forging the treaty with US President Barack Obama — a signal of approval for the agreement from Russia’s paramount leader.
Putin told reporters the pact was an “unconditional success for President Medvedev in foreign policy.” The Russian parliament, which is dominated by Putin’s United Russia party, is now set to ratify the treaty.
The treaty is the main product of Obama’s effort to “reset” long-strained ties between Washington and Moscow, a drive that Medvedev has embraced enthusiastically. Russia’s entry into the WTO is seen as the next major step of the “reset” policy.
Putin, whose focus as prime minister is on domestic issues, has rarely commented on the New START and at one point during year-long negotiations made remarks that cast doubt on the chances of agreement.
On Wednesday, he suggested the treaty would bolster international security but also help Russia to develop its economy by improving the investment climate.
“I would like to congratulate Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] on the completion of work on START,” Putin said at a government meeting attended by the president.
“For us it is important because it creates favorable external conditions for realization of social and economic initiatives inside this country,” he added.
Signed by Medvedev and Obama in April, the pact commits the US and Russia to reducing their arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear weapons and establishes monitoring rules officials say will improve trust between the Cold War foes.
At the meeting on Wednesday, Medvedev lamented a lack of progress in attracting investment, saying “there is very little improvement” in the investment climate. “We need to work on it.”
Putin said questions remain over Russia’s campaign for membership of the WTO, which has been helped by Obama’s public backing and is also expected to boost foreign investment.
“There is no final result yet, but we have agreed the main parameters with our main partners,” Putin said.
Russia “can be expected” to join the WTO next year he told reporters, in line with predictions by other officials.
The government has raised a number of export duties as part of Putin’s new economic policy aimed at reviving Russia’s industrial might. Putin indicated that Russia could implement protectionist measures even after WTO accession.
Putin said he was especially concerned with the post-accession future of the auto industry which has seen massive state support and foreign investment. He said levels of protection in the US, Western Europe and China were higher than in Russia.
“If we see that our car industry is not treated on equal terms we will find such protection mechanisms,” Putin said. He later specified that the measures would be applicable under the WTO rules and will relate to technical regulation.
Putin’s remarks were likely to raise concerns among WTO members over Russia’s behavior in the global trade body and complicate talks currently under way in Geneva.