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Obama Says He Will Have "More Flexibility" on Missile Defense After Election

President Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday he would have more room to maneuver on a possible missile defense compromise after the U.S. election in November, but that Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin should give him "space" on the issue in the interim, ABC News reported (see GSN, March 23).

The two heads of state talked for about 90 minutes on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul (see related GSN story, today). Their conversation was picked up by microphones by journalists in the room. Obama told Medvedev that disagreements on missile defense could be resolved "but it's important for him [Putin] to give me space."

Medvedev replied:  "I understand your message about space. Space for you..."

"This is my last election. After my election I [will] have more flexibility," Obama continued.

"I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir [Putin]," who is to reassume the presidency in May, the Russian leader stated.

The Kremlin and the Obama administration have for more than a year engaged in talks on potential antimissile cooperation in Europe. A deal has proved out of reach largely because Moscow distrusts verbal assurances from Washington that U.S. interceptors planned for deployment around the continent would not be aimed at Russian long-range nuclear missiles.

Russia has threatened a new arms buildup if it does not receive a deal on missile defense from Washington.

U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, addressing Obama's comments, said "there is a lot of rhetoric around this issue -- there always is -- in both countries."

Republican lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration's consideration of providing classified information on U.S. antimissile technology to Moscow as a means of mollifying Russian concerns (see GSN, March 14).

"We're about to have a presidential and congressional elections -- this is not the kind of year in which we're going to resolve incredibly complicated issue[s] like this," an anonymous high-ranking Obama official told ABC News. "So there's an advantage to pulling back and letting the technical experts work on this as the president has been saying" (Jake Tapper, ABC News, March 26).

Following his meeting with Obama, Medvedev told journalists there was still time to reach an accord on European missile defense, ITAR-Tass reported.

“We agreed that at present the time is for special technical experts to work,” Medvedev said. He added that "the dialogue on this issue is not only possible, but is necessary."

He continued: “We still have time to agree and come to a well-balanced solution, bearing in mind good experience that we with [Obama] have accumulated while preparing the [New] Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.  And I hope that this experience will be used to find a solution to this rather uneasy problem" (ITAR-Tass I, March 26).

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul posted a Twitter message on Sunday that reaffirmed the administration's insistence that "our missiles planned for basing in Europe will not be aimed at Russia and have no capability against Russian missiles," according to ITAR-Tass (ITAR-Tass II, March 26).

Under the Obama administration's "phased adaptive approach" for European missile defense, increasingly advanced Standard Missile 3 interceptors are to be deployed over the next eight years at bases in Poland and Romania and on missile destroyers home ported in Spain. The Obama plan forms the core of a broader NATO initiative to augment and link up individual nations' antimissile capabilities. Brussels and Washington insist their antimissile activities in Europe are focused on subverting a potential ballistic missile attack from the Middle East, particularly Iran.

Russia, however, continues to be concerned that later incarnations of the SM-3 interceptor will pose a threat to its long-range nuclear deterrent. The White House has said it expects between 2018 and 2020 to field SM-3 missiles that could defeat medium- and intermediate-range missiles, as well as ICBMs.

If no compromise is reached on the matter, Medvedev previously warned Russia would enhance its long-range radar systems and develop new strategic missiles capable of defeating any U.S.-NATO antimissile architecture.

One-time U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said he thinks "the Russians, with high confidence and low cost, could penetrate any ballistic missile defense" the United States could create, Reuters reported.

"It is a major, major tragedy that Russian concerns about U.S. ballistic missile defense have had such a corrosive effect on U.S.-Russian relations," Perry said to attendees of a security conference in Moscow (Anishchuk/Gutterman, Reuters, March 23).

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told attendees that the planned U.S.-NATO antimissile system has an "openly anti-Russian vector," according to the Moscow Times.

"Missile defense isn't the best way to ensure security. Those who are smart know that the defensive arms race is no better than the offensive arms race. Strengthening of the shield entails strengthening of the sword," the Kremlin's point man for antimissile talks with Europe said (Moscow Times, March 25).

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Friday said U.S. worries about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear ballistic missile strike on Europe would be better addressed through diplomacy than through the creation of a missile shield, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"It is better to resolve these problems by negotiations with political means, and not to attempt to cover oneself from a threat under some umbrella even based on the cutting-edge technology," Ryabkov said at a scientific forum.

"I do not believe that Iran, under such severe sanctions and attention focused by all world intelligence services, can secretly create any nuclear weapons and use them," the deputy foreign policy chief said (see related GSN story, today; Xinhua News Agency/People's Daily Online, March 24).

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