Readout by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on President Obama and President Medvedev's Bilateral Meeting
Grand Hyatt Hotel
Seoul, Republic of Korea
1:53 P.M. KST
MR. RHODES: This was President Obama's final bilateral meeting with President Medvedev in his current role as President of Russia. I think as you saw from their remarks, there was a very positive tone to it. President Medvedev and President Obama began by recounting the things that they'd been able to achieve together -- the New START Treaty, the Russian accession to the WTO, the Northern Distribution Network, and cooperation on a number of global security issues.
I think President Medvedev said the same thing in the spray that he said in the meeting, which was that in his view this was the most productive three years in U.S.-Russia relations, certainly since the end of the Cold War.
Beyond that, they discussed a number of civic issues. On the economic front, both leaders expressed their interest in taking advantage of the progress made on the WTO accession to further U.S.-Russian economic cooperation, and President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to make sure that U.S. businesses are able to gain access to Russian markets. And in that vein, of course, he is pursuing addressing the Jackson-Vanik law in a way that allows U.S. businesses to gain access to Russian markets, and said that we'd be continuing to work with Congress to move forward on that priority.
On Syria, the two leaders discussed the differences that the United States and Russia have had on the issue of Syria over the course of the last several months. However, they did agree that they could find common ground in support for the mission that Kofi Annan has undertaken as a U.N. and Arab League representative. President Obama made clear his belief that part of the transition envisioned in Kofi Annan's initiative would have to involve President Assad leaving power so that there can be a government that's responsive to the Syrian people. But the two leaders had expressed an interest in working together going forward in a way that strengthens Kofi Annan and stops the violence in Syria and enables a transition to take place that is, again, far preferable to the type of conflict that we've seen and the potential for even further civil war.
On Iran, the two leaders discussed the upcoming P5-plus-1 talks with the Iranian government that are being worked out. They both agreed that there is a window of opportunity here to pursue diplomacy and that it's essential for both the world and the Iranian government to take advantage of that opportunity. President Obama again reiterated I think many of the things he's been saying in his bilateral meetings with other leaders and that he's said publicly, which is that, again, we need to move forward with a sense of urgency as we move into these negotiations. However we do have an opportunity here for the Iranian government to take steps to build the confidence of the international community going forward.
On missile defense, I think the two leaders acknowledged that there have been differences on the issue of missile defense. However, I think as was represented in their public comments, they did agree that we should continue to be working on this issue at the technical level; that there are steps that can be taken on both sides to gain better understanding of the U.S. and Russian positions. And so they directed their respective administrations to continue that type of technical work. I think President Medvedev cited in the public comments what he said privately, which is that the New START Treaty had indicated that a lot of technical work, a lot of consultation over time at all levels of government can allow for a better understanding and allow for resolution of difficult issues, and that that experience would be relevant for continued technical consultations on missile defense.
And then finally, on North Korea, the two leaders, again, agreed that the proposed missile launch that the North Koreans have indicated they are going to pursue would be in violation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. President Obama made clear I think what he said in his speech today, which is that the new leadership in North Korea has to understand that only by abandoning this type of provocative behavior will they gain the respect of the international community and the future that their people deserve. And I think there's agreement that provocative acts like this will only increase North Korea's isolation going forward.
So those were the main topics. I'd be happy to take any questions.
Q What was the invitation and how did that go down?
MR. RHODES: Well, President Medvedev has for some time indicated to President Obama that he'd like him to visit, particularly visit his hometown of St. Petersburg. So I think he was simply reiterating that invitation. President Obama has said that he very much would like to visit St. Petersburg and go to Russia again. Obviously our travel schedule is going to be fairly light between -- over the course of the next several months, so I think it's something he looks forward to doing after November.
Q Was Medvedev referring to anything in particular from the meeting when he said something about he knows agreement would be hard in an election year?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think we -- look, we acknowledge the fact that they, too -- the Russians are going through a transition from the Medvedev government to the Putin government, just as we're going to be undergoing an election year here in the United States. However, I think their point was that that shouldn’t disrupt work that can be done at the technical level to build confidence, to gain understanding over a period of time so that we can continue to pursue some type of agreement on this in the future.
So that they very much both wanted to signal that they want to keep the door open to potential cooperation on missile defense and agree on missile defense -- I think President Obama said, for instance, in his speech today very clearly that he is interested in pursuing additional reductions in nuclear stockpiles. We would very much like those discussions about future reductions to include tactical nuclear weapons and non-deployed nuclear weapons. Whenever we have that discussion with the Russians they obviously want to talk about missile defense because they see it as related to strategic stability even though we don’t.
So, again, I think the general view of both leaders was let’s keep the door open here and let’s continue to work at this problem because it’s tied to many other priorities that we have and it’s worth the effort.
Q Were there any messages either to or from Mr. Putin that were conveyed during the meeting, and what were they?
MR. RHODES: Both leaders at the beginning of the bilateral meeting underscored that the call between President Obama and President-elect Putin had gone well. President Obama said that he looked forward to continuing the type of cooperation we’ve had with Russia under President Medvedev with President-elect Putin.
And I think it is -- I’m confident saying that President Medvedev very much indicated that that was President-elect Putin’s view as well, and that Russia was committed to continuing to pursue the type of cooperation that we’ve had on areas of mutual interest, even as we’re going to have differences along the way.
So it was discussed briefly, and I think the view of both leaders was there's no reason that the cooperation we’ve had shouldn’t continue under President Putin as well.
Q And can you put any meat on the bone in terms of what the President talked about in his speech today about tactical, as well as strategic, and that that was something that he would continue pressing the Russians to do, that it would be -- that that would be something that hadn’t happened before? Is that something he and Medvedev talked about, or have they agreed to postpone that until Putin?
MR. RHODES: They’ve had some discussion about that over the course of their relationship. President Obama and President Medvedev agreed on the New START Treaty, which, again, set historic lows in terms of the deployed weapons and launchers that the United States and Russia have levels that we haven’t been at since the 1950s. However, as he said in his speech, even with those reductions, President Obama very much believes that we can go further, that --
Q The Russians don't?
MR. RHODES: Well, the Russians -- when we've have that conversation with the Russians, when we’ve had those types of preliminary discussions with them, we are very much -- in order to achieve future reductions you have to address things like non-deployed nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons, which were not part of the New START Treaty and had not been part of those negotiations over the previous couple of decades. So in terms of pursuing our interest in future nuclear stockpile reductions -- which we believe is important to U.S. national security but also to the global non-proliferation regime, because it’s a foundation of the NPT that we’d be moving in the direction, reducing our weapons -- we believe we have to get after those categories of weapons as well.
The Russians consistently raise the issue of missile defense because they believe that in the absence of a discussion on missile defense -- just to step back here -- you all know this, but basically our position to them is, our missile defense system is not aimed at you, it’s aimed at threats like North Korea and Iran. However, the Russians have been skeptical of that, and have said that if there's a missile defense system that upsets strategic stability they’re going to have a difficult time moving forward on a range of issues, including these sets of discussions.
So, inevitably, missile defense becomes a part of that discussion. But I think what the President was signaling in his speech and in his meeting today is that we want to move forward on these; we don’t want to stop where we are. We want to move forward with reductions. We want to move forward with cooperation with the Russians. And we want to move forward in discussing missile defense cooperation in a way that will allow us to continue to make progress.
Q On Iran, did they talk about a specific date for the P5-plus-1? And can you get into a little bit more into the tone? Because I think the Russians have sort of expressed concern that these talks not be viewed as a last chance that would then sort of lead to an escalation. Was there a discussion about what might follow additional sanctions?
MR. RHODES: In terms of date, I think that the P5-plus-1 and in particular Cathy Ashton has been working within the
P5-plus-1 and with the Iranians to structure talks going forward, and that would include finalizing the date and location of the first round of those talks. So that’s not done yet, but I think there’s a sense that we believe we’ll be moving into discussions with the Iranians in the near future.
In terms of the tone in the meeting, I think the point that President Obama made very clear to President Medvedev is that there are a range of factors that heighten the sense of urgency around the Iranian nuclear program right now, both in terms of the fact that they are enriching uranium up to 20 percent, that they are moving forward in going with their enrichment program. There’s obviously tensions in the region between Israel and Iran. But in particular, the fact that Iran has continued to enrich and has continued to enrich up to 20 percent, all of that adds to the sense urgency around talks.
We made clear that there is time and space for diplomacy, but people also have to understand that that time is not unlimited, and therefore this particular round of talks that we’re entering into needs to make progress. And I think the Russians understand that. And frankly, they very much want to see diplomatic resolution to this as well, and they expressed their interest in doing that.
Q Just to follow on that, did Medvedev ask about the conversations that Obama -- the President had with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Did he seek some sense of where the Israelis were on a strike?
MR. RHODES: No. I think he -- no, I think that there was an understanding, though, of Israel’s position, that the Russians certainly understand Israel’s position.
Q Oh, I did want to ask you about Syria. But I know there are still differences. Did you move the ball at all beyond the --
MR. RHODES: We think we did, because the focus has been very much on the differences, but what Annan does is it provides a framework for cooperation with the Russians.
2:09 P.M. KST