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Obama Defends 'Flexibility' Comment, Hits Back At Republicans

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a bilateral meeting before the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on March 26.
U.S. President Barack Obama has defended private comments he made to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after opposition U.S. Republicans accused him of planning to give in to Russian demands if reelected.

A live microphone on March 26 caught Obama telling Medvedev at a summit in Seoul, South Korea, that he would have "more flexibility" on arms-control issues, in particular a planned U.S.-led missile defense shield in Europe that is currently opposed in Russia, after the November election in which he is seeking a second four-year term.

Obama's most likely Republican contender, Mitt Romney, accused Obama of being too ready to give concessions to Russia.

Obama responded by denying any inconsistency in his statements. He also said the pre-election atmosphere in Washington is not conducive to bipartisan discussion on sensitive foreign policy issues.

In his comments to Medvedev, Obama urged Russian leaders to give him "space" until "my election" in November.

"This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility."

Medvedev said he would relay Obama's message to outgoing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to whom he will hand over the presidency in May.

Republican candidate Romney, in a campaign speech in San Diego, described Russia as "not a friendly character on the world stage," and called Obama's comments "alarming and troubling."

"Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage, and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn't have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling, very alarming," Romney said.

U.S. and NATO plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Europe have long been a thorny issue in relations between Washington and Moscow.

The United States and its allies say the planned shield is aimed to thwart possible attacks from states such as Iran -- but Russia fears that if the system builds up strength, it could weaken Russia's nuclear deterrent.

The White House has said it is committed to deploying the shield despite Russian objections but that reaching an accommodation with Moscow will take time.

Russia wants a legally binding pledge from Washington that Russia's nuclear forces will not be targeted by the system. Moscow is also seeking joint control of how the system is used.

Addressing the issue afterward, Obama said he was "not hiding the ball" from U.S. voters ahead of the November election.

He said progress on complex arms-control issues required dealings with the Pentagon and Congress to build bipartisan support, and that 2012 is not a good year to achieve this because of U.S. electoral politics.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney was "undermining his credibility by distorting the president's words."

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters