Obama asks Russia for ‘space’ on missiles
By Christian Oliver in Seoul: Barack Obama has pleaded with Russia’s president to give him “space” to deal with the issue of missile defence, saying in private comments during his visit to South Korea that he would have more “flexibility”after the 2012 election.
The comments were captured on microphone to Dmitry Medvedev after the US president had said in a speech he would revitalise talks on nuclear arms reduction with Russia, ahead of a nuclear security summit in Seoul.
In recent months, Moscow has reacted testily to US criticisms of its elections and has threatened to deploy cruise missiles in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad if Nato pushes ahead with plans for a European missile shield.
Nato argues it wants to build anti-missile defence batteries in Europe to defend against a ballistic threat from Iran, but Russia retorts that Washington is seeking to snuff out its firepower.
In response to Mr Obama’s request, Mr Medvedev replied that he would “transmit this information to Vladimir”.
In Mr Obama’s speech, delivered to university students, he said he looked forward to meeting Vladimir Putin, after he resumes the presidency in May, to discuss reducing the two countries’ nuclear warheads to the levels of the 1950s. The two men are due to meet at a gathering of the Group of Eight leading economies in the US in May.
Rebuilding ties with Russia may trigger political opposition in Washington during an election year. Republicans argue the president is not moving quickly enough to modernise America’s defence systems to compensate for a proposed reduction of warheads.
In 2010 Mr Obama agreed a fresh version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – the so-called New Start – to reduce the US and Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 each, with inspections of each other’s progress. Russia started the process with 2,600 and the US with 2,250.
But relations became frosty last year and Russia’s ambassador to Nato said Moscow could pull out of the deal if the US presses ahead with its European missile shield.
Mr Obama also stressed his New Start should not fall off the agenda.
“The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited to today’s threats,” he said. “We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need.”
Appearing to soothe the waters, Mr Medvedev said he agreed the two countries could push harder to resolve the “difficult problem” of missile defence. “I believe we still have time. Time hasn’t run out,” he told Mr Obama in Seoul, before inviting him to his home town of Saint Petersburg.
Mr Obama’s attempt to rebuild ties with Mr Putin comes as he seeks support for increasing pressure and sanctions against the atomic programmes of Iran and North Korea.
“Time is short. Iran’s leaders must understand that they too face a choice. Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency this moment demands,” he said.