For Obama and Medvedev, some Cold War-style frost over missile defense

President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev have a friendship reputed to be so warm that they can go out for hamburgers together, and joke about mutual acquaintances (even if they refuse to say who they are).

The two 40-something lawyers like to point out that they came of age in the Cold War, and then moved beyond it.

But on Thursday, they were reminded of the difficulty of those old battles.

The subject in their one-on-one meeting here at the Group of 8 industrial nations summit was the missile defense system U.S. officials want to build in Europe — and the unabated Russian concern about it.


Russia furiously opposed a missile system proposed by former President George W. Bush, involving large, land-based sites in eastern Europe. Obama scaled back that program, and reached a deal with NATO allies last year to jointly develop a new system, with Russian participation.

The system proposed by Obama would use lighter, shorter-range missiles, many based on ships, that could shoot down Iranian launches.

But after reaching a deal with Romania earlier this month to begin basing missiles there, the Russians renewed their complaint that the Western-controlled defense system could imperil Moscow’s arsenal and wipe out the U.S.-Russian power parity.

Obama, insist his advisers, isn’t seeking to establish U.S. nuclear superiority. In fact, he has staked a significant part of his foreign policy agenda on shrinking the U.S. arsenal.

And, like Bush before him, he has argued that the system now being contemplated would be incapable of bringing down a sophisticated Russian inter-continental missile or jeopardizing its thousands of warheads.

“It’s not just a question of intent,” said one key Obama advisor. “It’s a question of physics.”

But when Obama’s negotiators made those points in the runup to Thursday’s bilateral meeting between Obama and Medvedev, the Russians objected.

That led to Thursday’s sit-down between the two, in a place quite far removed from Ray’s Hell Burgers in Arlington, Va., site of their getaway during a visit to Washington last June by the Russian leader.


By contrast, Thursday’s session dealt with questions of worldwide threats and proliferation, and they talked about the missile system and Iran, which the West accuses of trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

“The presidents . . . had that exchange again today about why we’re doing this,” said Mike McFaul, Obama’s Russian specialist. “It’s because of that threat.”

But the Russians aren’t quite sure. They fear that, if not now, someday the Western system could endanger Russia’s nuclear weapons capability.

McFaul, in a frank description of the meeting, said Medvedev saw it this way: ‘“We don’t know what your technological capabilities will be in 2020.”’


The president’s advisor continued: “We respond to that, ‘Yes, we can’t freeze technology. ‘A,’ we’re not going to do that, and ‘B,’ that’s not in our national interest.”’

In the end, aides say that Obama and Medvedev made “some progress” on the general topic. But some journalists at the summit remarked on the unusually stiff bearing of Obama and Medvedev in each other’s presence. Little in the way of kinship, it seemed to some observers.

Still, those in the room said that’s not how it seemed to them, with one aide describing a “warm interpersonal relationship” and a “free-flowing discussion,” even if the conversations about missile defense were tough.

“This is not two guys reading each other their talking points,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor. “They had a conversation.”