SEOUL, Republic of Korea — In what will almost certainly be their last presidential-level meeting, President Obama and outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had kind words for one another and the work they were able to accomplish, even as they acknowledged disagreements and tension over Syria and Missile Defense in Europe.
There seemed a genuine affection between the two men as they bid one another adieu at the conclusion of their 90-minute bilateral meeting, which lasted longer than expected. They discussed seeing each other once again, their handshake turning into an elbow-embrace/back slap — short of an embrace, but clearly with some meaning.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters that in their private meeting Medvedev told Obama that this had been “in his view the most productive three years in U.S.-Russia relations certainly since the Cold War.” Medvedev said something similar in front of the cameras, saying the “reset” of the U.S.-Russia relationship had been an “extremely useful exercise and we probably have enjoyed the best level in the relations between the United States and Russia in those three years than ever in previous decades.”
President Obama told reporters he could not have wished for “a better partner than Dmitri.”
The two men acknowledged wide disagreements on how to respond to the brutal crackdown in Syria by the government of Bashar al-Assad, though they said that the initiative headed by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to resolve that crisis might afford them opportunities for cooperation.
President Obama said both men believed “we should be supportive of Kofi Annan’s efforts to end some of the bloodshed that is taking place in Syria,” with the goal of having a “legitimate” government in Syria.
On Iran, President Obama said there needed to be a greater sense of urgency among all parties involved in the P-5+1 talks — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — to convince the Iranian regime to halt its nuclear weapons program. There remained many disagreements over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe, though both leaders urged cooperation.
Some areas of agreement they reviewed today included NATO’s use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supplies routes through Russia and other former Soviet states to bring materials to coalition troops in Afghanistan, as well as American support for Russia’s ascendancy into the World Trade Organization this Summer. The two leaders discussed attempts to allow U.S. companies greater access to Russian markets by repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which puts limits on U.S. trade in non-market-based economies that restrict human rights.
Obama and Medvedev appeared entirely on the same page when it came to North Korea’s threat to test launch a long-range rocket, which they both said would violate its United Nations Security Council agreements.
Medvedev will hand the Russian presidency back to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin before the April Camp David summit of the G-8 superpowers. Putin and his ruling United Russia Party have said they will support Medvedev becoming Prime Minister again.