President Barack Obama suggested to Russia’s president that he would accept long-standing Russian demands for curbs on America’s anti-missile defenses, according to a brief conversation overheard by reporters at the nuclear summit in South Korea.
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important … to give me space,” Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as reporters entered the room to hear a joint statement.
“This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility,” Obama told the Russian president, who is soon to replaced by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
Earlier, Obama had accepted Russian demands that U.S. missile-defenses be included in arms-control talks.
Obama’s outreach to Russia’s strongmen is intended to avert a showdown at a U.S.-Russia May summit on nuclear weapons. A Russian diplomatic strike on U.S. missile defenses — located in Europe or in Alaska — would force Obama to either abandon the popular missile-defense system or accept an embarrassing diplomatic failure during a political campaign in which he is portraying himself as a global leader.
Obama discussed those May talks while in Korea, telling an audience at Hankuk University that “going forward, we’ll continue to seek discussions with Russia on a step we have never taken before — reducing not only our strategic nuclear warheads, but also tactical weapons and warheads in reserve.”
“I look forward to discussing this agenda with President Putin when we will meet in May [and] missile defense will be on the agenda, but I believe this should be an area of cooperation, not tension,” he said Sunday night, Eastern time.
Last August, reporters also overheard a conversation between Obama and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy. “You’re sick of [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu], but I have to deal with him every day” Obama told Sarkozy. The embarrassment prompted Democrats to step up their PR campaign to persuade the small but influential community of American Jews that Obama supports Israel.
Although Russia has long operated its own small-scale missile-defense, its Soviet-era and post-Soviet leaders have pushed for curbs on U.S. missile-defenses. That push began in the 1960s, and intensified in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan launched an expensive effort to develop anti-missile defenses.
The U.S. missile-defense network consists of a single battery of missiles in Alaska, which are positioned to destroy a small barrage of incoming rockets from China or North Korea. The nation has other anti-missile defenses on the mobile ground-launchers and on ships, but they can’t stop Russia’s fastest nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles.
Prior to Obama, U.S. presidents have refused Russian demands for curbs on American defenses.
The May talks will build on the New START weapons treaty, which was ratified in December 2010 by the Democratic-led Senate by a vote of 71 to 26.
“When we’re done [implementing the New START treaty], we will have cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s,” Obama told the Hankuk audience.
Shortly after Obama’s conversation was overheard, White House officials released a statement downplaying — but not denying — Obama’s statement.
The U.S. “is committed to implementing our missile defense system, which we’ve repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia,” according to the statement from Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser.
But “given the longstanding difference between the U.S. and Russia on this issue, it will take time and technical work before we can try to reach an agreement… 2012 is an election year in both countries [and] is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough,” said the statement.
“Therefore, President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward.”
However, Obama has repeatedly said he would like to greatly reduce, and even eliminate, the number of nuclear weapons in the world.
“American leadership has been essential to progress in a second area — taking concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama told the Hankuk audience.
“This is our obligation, and it’s one that I take very seriously… I believe the United States has a unique responsibility to act — indeed, we have a moral obligation,” he said, adding “I say this as President of the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons.”