Political controversy has erupted in the United States after an open microphone at a nuclear security conference in South Korea caught U.S. President Barack Obama telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have more "flexibility" after the U.S. election in November. On Friday, the top American arms control negotiator visited Moscow and gave the American outlook for arms control and missile defense.
Rose Gottemoeller, Washington’s lead negotiator on arms control, told Russian students and reporters that the political controversy simply underlined President Obama’s point. The American election season is a time for technical meetings, not political initiatives on arms control.
"I see the possibility for homework, as I call it, not only in missile defense cooperation, but in preparing the groundwork for new nuclear reduction negotiations as well. I am also here in Moscow to work on new conventional arms control initiatives," said Gottemoeller.
Gottemoeller recalled that Americans and Russians have 40 years of experience in negotiating arms control pacts. She said she is confident that the two countries, the world’s largest nuclear powers, will find common ground on missile defense.
Russia is worried about Washington’s plan to build a missile defense system to protect Europe from missiles launched from Iran. More from Gottemoeller, who is acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security:
"The technical capabilities of the system are simply not those that would undermine Russian strategic offensive forces," Gottemoeller added.
Washington’s blueprint for missile defense calls for several land- and sea-based batteries that would knock down one or two missiles launched on a westward path from Iran. In contrast, Russia has about 3,000 rockets that are designed to hit the United States by flying north, over the North Pole.
"I consider it a very serious matter that my president has confirmed to your president - and will be willing to continue to do so - that this system is no threat to the Russian Federation or any of your military capabilities," Gottemoeller explained.
In the audience at Moscow State Institute of International Relations was Victor Mizin. Before joining the institute as deputy director, he worked on arms control as a Russian diplomat. He said that diplomats in both countries still have to work against the powerful legacy of the Cold War.
"There are still huge backlogs, I am afraid, of mutual suspicion, which still have not been overcome," said Mizin.
On May 7, Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin as president of Russia. A former KGB agent who once served in East Germany, Putin is often seen as a hardliner on relations with Washington.
But Mizin does not predict a major change in policy. He noted that Putin served for the last four years as Russia’s prime minister, closely coordinating policies with President Medvedev. Under the current plan, the two men are to switch jobs, with Medvedev becoming prime minister in May.
"Probably it will be a little bit tougher, with a little bit more accent on Russian sovereignty, self-assertiveness," said Mizin on Putin’s return to the Kremlin.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, believes that NATO will build a missile defense for Western Europe whether Moscow likes it or not.
"Any discussion about joint missile defense, which started 2010, officially still is a target. I don’t believe it is any kind of real talk, it is just cover for, empty shell for, nothing," said Lukyanov.
He agrees that it will be impossible for the two countries to negotiate common ground during the heat of an American presidential campaign.
"This year, nothing will happen in missile defense area," Lukyanov added.
So everyone interviewed in Moscow said that for any movement in negotiations on missile defense and arms control, check back one year from now.