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Obama "Stating the Obvious" on Missile Defense Flexibility, Official Says

President Obama was not suggesting any sort of secret agreement in March by telling his Russian counterpart he would have more "flexibility" to address a lingering missile defense dispute after the November U.S. elections, The Hill quoted a senior State Department official as saying last week (see GSN, May 24).

Russia has said it worries a U.S.-NATO missile shield now being developed in Europe could ultimately be used to counter its long-range nuclear missiles. More than a year of talks have failed to resolve the issue; the Western military bloc says the system is intended to counter a potential ballistic missile strike from the Middle East, but has rejected Moscow's demand for a legally binding agreement on the usage of land- and sea-based missile interceptors to be deployed at several spots around the continent.

Obama met with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. president was caught on a live microphone telling Medvedev that "this is my last election. After my election I [will] have more flexibility" (see GSN, March 26).

A number of Republican lawmakers have said Obama's comments indicate his administration is pursuing a back-door compromise on the matter. Acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, though, on Thursday said he was "really stating the obvious."

“He was stating that during this 2012 election year -- it's an election year both in the Russian Federation and in the United States of America -- it's not going to be a year for breakthroughs,”Gottemoeller told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear arms control treaty. “And so he was saying this will be a year that we get the technical experts together, we'll have some discussions about what cooperation may be possible (in the future).”

Obama raised the missile defense issue last week during talks with newly returned Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, according to Gottemoeller (see GSN, June 19). She said the president offered a "clear and unequivocal" statement that “in pursuing this cooperation (on missile defense) we will not in any way allow Russia to have a veto on U.S. or NATO missile defense plans" (Julian Pecquet, The Hill, June 21).

Putin aide Yuri Ushakov on Friday said high-level talks on the matter could be restarted after the November elections, ITAR-Tass reported.

"It will be possible to resume authentic and detailed political discussions of missile defense only after the presidential election in the United States," according to the official, who added that technical-level discussions would continue in the meantime (ITAR-Tass, June 22).

Meanwhile, the outgoing head of Russia's United Shipbuilding Corp. said the firm in 2016 would begin building six destroyers with missile defense capabilities, Vzglyad reported on Friday.

"The matter is about construction of a series of six destroyers of a new model with elements of antimissile and space defense at them," Roman Trotsenko said without elaborating on the type of defenses involved. Other news organizations reported that Trotsenko is due to step down from the company on July 1 (Vzglyad, June 22).

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