Missile issue a sticking point for Obama, MedvedevDEAUVILLE, France — It is no simple thing to push the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.
By: By Nancy Benac, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
DEAUVILLE, France — It is no simple thing to push the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.
Trying to move beyond years of inherited mistrust, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed progress Thursday but achieved no breakthrough on a U.S. missile defense plan that Moscow is concerned could threaten its security.
The two leaders went out of their way to stress — four times over — that their relationship was good But Medvedev also acknowledged: “It does not mean that we'll have common views and coinciding views on all the issues. It's impossible.”
And a White House aide acknowledged that on the missile defense question, for years the single most confrontational issue in the U.S.-Russian relationship, both sides still were trying to overcome “old thinking,” and the Russians, in short, “don't believe us.”
The two sides have long been in negotiations over U.S. intentions to station missile interceptors in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia believes the plan could threaten its own missile arsenal despite U.S. assurances to the contrary.
Medvedev expressed confidence the matter would be resolved, though not anytime soon — perhaps in the year 2020, he suggested.
Obama, for his part, said the two sides would keep working to find “an approach and configuration that is consistent with the security needs of both countries, that maintains the strategic balance and deals with potential threats that we both share.”
Obama and Medvedev met for 90 minutes on the sidelines of a two-day summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations, the two leaders touching on a range of issues including the unrest sweeping the Mideast and North Africa, and Russia's efforts to gain entrance to the World Trade Organization. The G-8 nations, in their sessions, are devoting considerable attention to how best to support the democratic stirrings of the Arab Spring.
In his meeting with Medvedev, Obama pointed to U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues and said the two countries had successfully “reset” relations during his administration. But the missile dispute offered fresh evidence that the reshaping requires overcoming long traditions of mistrust.
“This is a very hard issue,” said Michael McFaul, Obama's top adviser on Russia. “There's a lot of old thinking in both of our governments, frankly. This is a new challenge to think about how to do this cooperatively.”
McFaul said that although U.S. officials have gone out of their way to demonstrate that the missiles will not be a threat to Russia, “they don't believe us.”
While the two leaders appeared stern when they spoke with reporters at the end of their meeting, White House aides insisted they had a warm, free-flowing exchange and even joked together.
Because of that rapport, “they can push, frankly, their own governments who have habits, I think, of mistrust,” said Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser.
The president also met on the sidelines of the G-8 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, their first meeting since the devastating earthquake and tsunami last March that triggered a nuclear crisis. The two leaders discussed Japan's efforts to recover, and Obama expressed confidence that Japan “will emerge from these difficult times stronger than ever.”
Medvedev's pessimistic near-term read on the possibility of cooperation on missile defense is a disappointment for the Obama administration, which has been pushing for a breakthrough that could remove a major hurdle for new arms control talks.
The administration had hoped that its move in 2009 to replace a Bush administration plan to install long-range missile interceptors in Eastern Europe had removed a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations and that the issue could be effectively neutralized by limited cooperation on the issue.
Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the Russian “reset” effort was showing great momentum last year, “now it's kind of in a bit of lull.”
One reason, he said, may be political uncertainty within Russia, which will hold presidential elections next year. It is not clear whether Medvedev will run or cede the stage to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has been more skeptical on U.S. missile defense cooperation.
“There is no domestic political payoff for a Russian politician in what could be seen as compromising or making concessions to the West, particularly the United States,” Kuchins said.
Obama, too, faces some domestic opposition.
Republicans have raised concerns that Russia sees cooperation as a way to limit or even compromise U.S. missile defenses. A pending bill in the House would even restrict some data exchange on missile defense with Russia.
The Obama plan, aimed at countering threats from Iran and North Korea, appeared to be less threatening to Russia than the Bush administration plan. But in a sign that missile defense may continue to dog U.S.-Russian ties, U.S. officials say that Medvedev raised objections to the final phase of that plan, arguing that the U.S. system could be used to intercept Russian intercontinental missiles.
The Obama administration argues that the interceptors would be incapable of catching Russian missiles and insufficient against Russia's vast arsenal. It is the same argument the Bush administration used to answer Russian objections to its plans.
Obama began his six-day tour of Europe with stops in Ireland and England. He travels Friday to Poland, then returns home on Saturday.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Deauville and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.