Last updated: March 26, 2012 8:09 pm

Obama makes missile plea to Russia

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Barack Obama has pleaded with Russia’s president for “space” to deal with the issue of missile defence, saying he would have greater “flexibility” after the 2012 US election.

The private comments to Dmitry Medvedev were made during a visit to South Korea and captured on microphone. The US president had said in a speech he would revitalise talks on nuclear arms reduction with Russia before 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 goes ahead with 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 a speech to university students, Mr Obama 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.

US officials are quietly optimistic that they will be able to forge a good working relationship with Mr Putin, though his rhetoric that is often sharply critical of the US.

Mr Obama’s recorded comments are likely to provide political ammunition to his Republican opponents, who argue that if he wins a second term the president will be free to pursue a “radical” agenda.

Scepticism of Russia is pronounced among Republicans and many are likely to object to any attempts to speed up reductions in the nuclear arsenal or concessions on missile defence.

Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, described the comments as “alarming and troubling”.

The White House tried to minimise the political fallout from the conversation, releasing a statement about the political obstacles to reaching an agreement on missile defence this year.

“Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough,” said Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser.

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.

Congressional Republicans argue that Mr Obama has not moved quickly enough to modernise America’s defence systems to compensate for the proposed reduction of warheads. At the same time, relations with Moscow have become more difficult over the past year, with Russia’s ambassador to Nato saying Moscow could pull out of the deal if the US presses ahead with its European missile shield.

Mr Obama said 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 agreed the two countries could push harder to resolve the “difficult problem” of missile defence. “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 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.

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