Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney also criticized the Medvedev exchange, calling it “alarming” and “troubling.” He said the president already had agreed to give up too many U.S. nuclear weapons and scotched a missile-defense system in Poland in unsuccessful efforts to appease Moscow.
“Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage, and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia, is very, very troubling, very alarming. This is a president who was telling us one thing and doing something else and is planning on doing something even more frightening,” Mr. Romney said in an interview on CNN.
Primary rival Newt Gingrich also questioned Mr. Obama’s motives, telling CNN that “I’m curious, how many other countries has the president promised that he’d have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn’t have to answer to the American people?”
The Romney campaign website immediately put up a theme page, suggesting a pattern of Mr. Obama saying he would do things on matters such as environmental regulation and spending in a politically unaccountable second term that he couldn’t try now.
White House rebuttal
The Obama campaign quickly put out a statement calling Mr. Romney a flip-flopper. “Gov. Romney has been all over the map on the key foreign policy challenges,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said, and accused the former Massachusetts governor of engaging in “empty rhetoric.”
Within an hour of the first reporting of the exchange, however, Mr. Rhodes issued a statement via email that the U.S. “is committed to implementing our missile defense system, which we’ve repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia.”
“However, 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,” Mr. Rhodes said.
“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.
“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,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Mr. Medvedev told reporters that he believes missile defense talks between the two countries “could be more active.”
“I believe we still have time; time hasn’t run out,” Mr. Medvedev said. “And now we need to discuss and cooperate on various aspects on European missile defense. Now, in my view, time has come for discussions between technical aspects and, of course, we remain at our own positions, both the United States and Russian Federation.”
When he knew he was speaking for the microphones, Mr. Obama said only, ‘“We’ve got more work to do between our two countries. Dmitry identified some areas of continued friction — missile defense being an example. And what we’ve agreed to is to make sure that our teams, at a technical level, are in discussions about how some of these issues can be resolved.”
The U.S. and its NATO allies are pursuing a missile defense shield, while Russia objects that it would compromise its security. Mr. Rhodes said the U.S. has continuously told the Kremlin that the shield is not being developed as a defense against Russia, and that the two nations should move forward on a broad range of nuclear weapons issues rather than become mired over the shield issue.