President Obama had just finished touting the “outstanding relationship” he and Dmitry Medvedev have built between themselves and their nations – the American leader even used the “reset” button metaphor again – when the Russian president turned to the thorny issue of Washington’s plan to upgrade its missile defense shield, and uncorked a stunner.
“I have told my counterpart, Barack Obama, that this issue will be finally solved in the future,” Medvedev told reporters in Deauville, France, “like, for example, in the year 2020.”
It wasn’t merely that Medvedev had chosen a date almost comically far into the future to suggest when the two nations might come to terms; the particular date he chose carried special meaning. 2020 is the year when the State Department has estimated the U.S. will deploy the SM-3 Block IIB, a missile still on the drawing board but being designed to intercept medium- and intermediate-range missiles that might be launched from the Middle East.
Since the Russians purport to see the Block IIB as a threat to Moscow’s own ballistic missile arsenal, Medvedev’s reference to the projected date of its deployment, in an otherwise cordial photo-op with the American president on the sidelines of an international summit, sent an unmistakable signal.
“He puts that marker out there,” explained Michael McFaul, the senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, “to say that we have to have cooperation [on missile defense] before then, because if we don't, then we're going to have to think about these more dire scenarios.”
Another divisive issue the two nations – and their legislatures – will have to work out is how much sensitive technology relating to missile defense they should share. A group of 39 Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, wrote to Obama in April, demanding written assurance he would not provide to Moscow “early warning, detection, tracking, targeting, and telemetry data, sensors or common operational picture data, or American hit-to-kill missile defense technology.”
The White House never responded to the letter.