DEAUVILLE, France — President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from private talks Thursday unable to show progress on the contentious issue of missile defense, underscoring an enduring mistrust underlying the U.S.-Russia relationship despite gradual thawing.
Obama’s top Russia adviser Mike McFaul put the problem plainly after the meeting. Despite U.S. efforts to convince the Russians the U.S does not want to threaten their security, he said, “they don’t believe us.”
At issue is Washington’s plan to site missile interceptors in Central and Eastern Europe in phases through 2020. Russia hasn’t let go of the fear that the U.S. would end up threatening Russia’s own missile arsenal, something U.S. officials say won’t happen.
Obama and Medvedev spoke on the sidelines of a two-day summit of industrialized nations here focused in part on bolstering emerging democracies in the Middle East and North Africa.
Obama said after the 90-minute meeting with Medvedev that they’d committed to working together on missile defense to find an approach that is “consistent with the security needs of both countries, that maintains the strategic balance, and deals with potential threats that we both share.”
Medvedev, however, suggested the problem wouldn’t be solved anytime soon.
“I have told my counterpart, Barack Obama, that this issue will be finally solved in the future, like, for example, in the year 2020, but we, at present, might lay the foundation for other politicians’ activities,” Medvedev said. “And this would be a sound foundation for cooperation between our two countries in the future.”
Medvedev has warned that failure to cooperate with Moscow on the missile shield could spark a new arms race.
Their meeting came in the context of an ongoing attempt to shore up relations between the U.S. and Russia, once icy but now significantly warming — to the point that Obama and Medvedev had a memorable bonding day, complete with a burger run, when the Russian president visited the U.S. less than a year ago.
But deep tensions remain. Obama’s stern expression as the leaders spoke to reporters following their meeting was in contrast to his relaxed and affable demeanor during earlier stops on his four-country Europe tour. Medvedev also appeared cool and leaned away from Obama as he talked.
Obama’s aides worked later to correct any impression, based on the leaders’ cool demeanor in their few minutes with the media, that there was tension between the men.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes described the relationship as warm and free-flowing, saying they even “joke around a lot.”
McFaul said it was precisely because of their much cultivated relationship that Medvedev and Obama were talking seriously about issues that have stymied their countries for decades, such as missile defense.
“It was not stern,” McFaul said of the meeting, which he sat in on. “I don’t know where that came from.”
At the same time, White House officials said that after decades of deep mistrust during the Cold War, and the chilly relationship between former presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, putting past feelings aside will take time.
“This is a very hard issue,” McFaul said. “There’s a lot of old thinking in both of our governments, frankly. This is a new challenge to think about how to do this cooperatively.”
Medvedev, according to a translator, said he was “satisfied” by his personal relationship with Obama and that it has helped advanced the one between the countries, too.
“It requires a lot of effort, and it requires continuing in the same vein, full of trust, with relations full of trust, between the two presidents,” the Russian president said. “It does not mean that we’ll have common views and coinciding views on all the issues. It’s impossible, and it’s not worth trying.”
Obama also held talks Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the first since the March earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan that sparked fears of a nuclear meltdown at the damaged Fukushima plant.
“Japan will emerge from these difficult times stronger than ever,” Obama predicted after the meeting, and Kan extended thanks for U.S. help in the wake of the disaster. The White House said after the meeting that Kan would make an official visit to Washington in early September.
Obama’s meetings with Medvedev and Kan came as leaders from the Group of Eight industrialized economies readied plans for offering financial assistance to Tunisia and Egypt.
Both North African nations are heading toward elections after their longtime leaders were pushed out of power by the uprisings that started the Arab spring. While there are still questions about whether Tunisia and Egypt can successfully transition to democracies, White House officials say that prospect will be far more likely if the U.S. and its allies help strengthen their economies.
The G-8 is not expected to reach agreement on how much money to give the two countries, only outline a framework for ways to offer financial assistance.
The International Monetary Fund, which is in the midst of a leadership crisis following the arrest and resignation of its chief, will play a leading role in assessing Tunisia and Egypt’s economic needs and providing loan packages.
The White House says it is confident the fund can still carry out these duties as it waits for a successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn to be named. The U.S. is carefully avoiding saying whether it believes a European should continue to run the fund, or whether a leader from the developing world should take over.
The G-8 comprises the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Russia and Japan. The European Union is also represented.
Obama’s appearance here comes on the heels of a sweeping address he delivered Wednesday at London’s Westminster Hall, where he cast the U.S., Britain and other allies in Europe as the world’s “greatest catalysts for global action.”
After the G-8 meeting wraps Friday he travels to Poland, the final stop on his four-country, six-day Europe trip that began Monday in Ireland.