By Brianna Keilar, CNN White House Correspondent
In a private conversation about the planned U.S.-led NATO missile defense system in Europe, President Barack Obama asked outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for space on the issue.
“This is my last election,” Obama told Medvedev. “After my election I have more flexibility.”
“I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Medvedev said, referring to incoming President Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders talked Monday during a formal one-on-one meeting ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. In video they are seen seated, almost huddled, facing each other, each man with his elbows on his knees, leaning in closely over a small table, as they speak intently. Part of the exchange was caught on camera at the end of the 90-minute meeting as reporters and cameras entered the room for a quick photo opportunity of Obama and Medvedev.
It’s a prickly issue between the two countries. NATO and U.S. leaders insist the project is designed to protect against a potential Iranian strike and would not be used against Russia. But Russia bristles at having a missile defense system so close to its border, arguing it violates Russian sovereignty.
“The United States is committed to implementing our missile defense system, which we’ve repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in a statement. “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.”
Rhodes acknowledged the difficulty of finding a solution when politics are at play. “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.”