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 with the Russians: "They don't believe us," he said.
At issue is Washington's plan to site missile interceptors in Central and Eastern Europe in phases through 2020. Despite repeated assurances, 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 and the leaders' body language Thursday seemed to show it. Obama's stern expression 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. The two men spoke of a strengthened personal relationship, but their body language did not match their words.
Obama's aides worked later to correct any impression, based on the leaders' cool demeanor in their few minutes of speaking in front of 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 session between the leaders, which he sat in on.
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.
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