SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama voiced doubt on Tuesday on the prospects for progress with Moscow on missile defense until after the November U.S. election as he staunchly defended remarks caught on camera the day before with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Obama was overheard assuring Medvedev on Monday that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with contentious arms-control issues after the November 6 presidential ballot, drawing sharp criticism back home from his Republican foes.
Speaking on the sidelines of a global nuclear security summit in Seoul, Obama sought to put the controversy to rest but made clear that his earlier comments reflected a political reality that “everybody understands”.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia,” Obama told reporters with Medvedev at his side.
U.S. plans for an anti-missile shield have bedeviled relations between Washington and Moscow despite Obama’s “reset” in ties between the former Cold War foes. Obama’s Republican opponents have accused him of being too open to concessions to Russia on the issue.
In Monday’s talks, Obama urged Moscow to give him “space” until after the U.S. election and Medvedev said he would relay the message to incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin, who takes over at the Kremlin in May.
The unusual exchange came as Obama and Medvedev huddled together on the eve of the summit, unaware their words were being picked up by microphones as reporters were led into the room.
It was a rare public admission by a U.S. president on the world stage of electoral pressures he faced at home, and threatened to detract from his message at the summit on the need to do more to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Obama, responding to a reporter’s question on Tuesday during a break in the summit, said progress on complex arms control issues required dealings with the Pentagon and Congress to build bipartisan support and that 2012 was not a good year to get that done.
“The current environment is not conducive to these kinds of thoughtful consultations,” Obama said. “I think we’ll do better in 2013.”
The Democratic president has faced stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress to his legislative agenda on everything from job creation to taxes. Republicans have already made clear they have no interest in cooperating on further arms reduction deals with Russia.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seized on Obama’s earlier comment, calling it “alarming and troubling.”
“This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people,” Romney said in a campaign speech in San Diego.
But Obama pushed back, insisting he was not trying to “hide the ball” and had no hidden agenda with Russia over the planned missile shield. Obama, in a speech on Monday, vowed to pursue more arms-control deals with Moscow as part of his broader nuclear disarmament agenda.
As he was leaning toward Medvedev in Seoul on Monday, Obama was overheard asking for time - “particularly with missile defense” - until he is in a better position politically to resolve such issues.
“I understand your message about space,” replied Medvedev.
“This is my last election ... After my election I have more flexibility,” Obama said, expressing confidence that he would win a second term.
“I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” said Medvedev, Putin’s protégé and long considered number two in Moscow’s power structure.
Medvedev played down the remarks at a separate news conference in Seoul on Tuesday. “There’s a good period to resolve political issues. The best period is when all political forces are stable, regardless of who does what,” he said.
“So this is what we talked about. We have never concealed anything and President Obama could say this publicly or non-publicly.”
The United States and NATO have offered Russia a role in the project to create an anti-ballistic shield which includes participation by Romania, Poland, Turkey and Spain.
But Moscow says it fears the system could weaken Russia by gaining the capability to shoot down the nuclear missiles it relies on as a deterrent.
It wants a legally binding pledge from the United States that Russia’s nuclear forces would not be targeted by the system and joint control of how it is used.
Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk and Alister Bull in Seoul, Steve Holland in San Diego, Editing by Nick Macfie