Jake Tapper reports an overheard exchange between Obama and Medvedev:
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
Naturally, this exchange has terrified Russophobes here in the U.S., but I wouldn’t invest these remarks with much importance. Republican talking points from three years ago aside, no one on either side can believe that Obama is going to make significant concessions on missile defense. He has shown no real inclination to do so before now, and the political resistance he would encounter at home if he tried would be no less significant than it has been until now.
Obama followed the decision to scrap Bush’s plan for installations in Poland and the Czech Republic with a different plan that includes Poland and Romania. Missile defense remains one of the main irritants in the U.S.-Russian relationship because Obama has made a point of pursuing missile defense in eastern Europe over continued Russian objections. He may have been willing to scrap a plan arranged by Bush as a goodwill gesture to Moscow, but it seems unlikely that Obama will pull the plug on his own plan if he wins the election. If there is any “flexibility” to be had, it would entail some form of missile defense cooperation between NATO and Russia, but this cooperation has so far proved to be as elusive as ever. The obstacles inside NATO to any deal allowing NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense will not become any smaller a year from now. If these comments to Medvedev mean much of anything, they are probably intended to continue lowering Russian expectations for the NATO summit (and Putin’s meeting with Obama at Camp David) in May.