U.S. President Barack Obama says the current volatile political environment is not conducive to sensitive negotiations between the United States and Russia on missile defense and arms control.
Mr. Obama, in South Korea for a nuclear security summit, said Tuesday that the time is not right because the U.S. is in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and Russia just held a presidential vote and is transferring power. He spoke to clarify his earlier private remarks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, inadvertently picked up by a live microphone.
Mr. Obama had told the Russian president that this year is his last election and that he would have more flexibility after the election. Mr. Medvedev said he would pass that information to Vladimir Putin, Russia's president-elect.
Some Republican senators questioned the president's remarks. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told VOA the remarks indicate that Mr. Obama's reelection is having a lot of sway on foreign policy, which he said was “unnerving.”
Johnny Isakson of Georgia said that in view of Mr. Obama's remarks, the administration should reinforce its position on missile defense.
But Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said Mr. Obama's remarks to President Medvedev was a friendly overture in regard to a sensitive issue that has yet to be resolved.
“I believe he was making a personal overture to President Medvedev. I think he was asking for a little space. This is a difficult question. I went to Geneva during the START treaty, and was present for the day and had an opportunity to meet and interface with the Russian team. Missile defense is an extraordinarily sensitive issue. The belief of the Russians that this missile defense is just limited to protection from Iran, has never been established in their minds. I want to see relationships with Russia improve. I happen to believe they are extraordinarily important at this time when there is so much asymmetric warfare, and when powers like North Korea, like Iran are striving to become a nuclear power. So, Russia is very important in all of this. And I think the president [Obama] and his team recognize that. And I would like to see much better, stronger relations with Russia.”
Russia has fiercely opposed U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe despite U.S. assurances that the system would not undermine Russia's security.
Republicans, who will seek to regain the White House in November, have said they do not want any concessions made to Russia in arms talks.
Mr. Obama said Monday that both the United States and Russia can continue to make progress in cutting stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
He called the START agreement ratified in 2010 the most comprehensive arms treaty in 20 years. Mr. Obama said he plans to pursue another round of cuts with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In another development, Mr. Medvedev criticized U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called Russia the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States.
CNN says Romney commented in response to Mr. Obama's private remarks on missile defense to Mr. Medvedev that were unintentionally captured by an open microphone.
Mr. Medvedev said Romney's comments reminded him of Hollywood's portrayal of Russia as a U.S. foe. He suggested U.S. presidential contenders should “use their head” when phrasing their positions and remember that it is now 2012 — not the mid-1970s.
Also in Seoul, Mr. Obama, Mr. Medvedev and Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, hailed the nearly completed clean-up of an old Soviet nuclear test site.
The three presidents issued a joint statement calling the clean-up efforts a successful example of “trilateral cooperation.” They said it also shows a “commitment to nuclear security and non-proliferation.”
Kazakh, Russian and U.S. experts worked together to clean up and seal off the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union carried out hundreds of nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War.