Boston: The frenzy of indignation surrounding President Obama’s open-mike chat with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has yet to subside, as his political opponents think they finally have a sliver of evidence that he is, indeed, the Manchurian president. The Republican National Committee already has a fundraising ad: “What Obama tells world leaders when he thinks you aren’t listening.” From what we could hear when the leaders met privately at a nuclear safety summit in Seoul this week, Obama asked for “space” and “flexibility” in resolving dramatic differences over missile defense systems. The reason for his request, if it wasn’t obvious, was because we are in the midst of an election.
The more surprising line in the public tete-a-tete was actually what came after. For those who view a continuing detente between Russia and the United States as a relatively helpful goal for world order, Medvedev’s response to Obama (a WikiLeaks moment without the wiki or the leak) was heartening.
“I understand,” Medvedev told Obama, who had asked if his microphone was still on, but didn’t wait for the answer. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Vladimir, of course, is the once and future President Vladimir Putin. Medvedev is both a lame duck and Putin’s puppet: a lame puppet. Obama’s statements were not intended for Medvedev but explicitly for Putin, who spent most of the year rallying support in Russia’s presidential election by berating the United States and Western imperialism.
The issue at the center of Putin’s anti-American platform is a missile defense system that could protect Europe from attacks by countries such as Iran. To the Russians, the so-called shield — which would fire guided missiles at incoming missiles — is anything but a defensive measure, as they fear it could be used to fire missiles at them. The Russians are not paranoid. It’s reasonable to be distrustful of a missile system near their border. We would have the same objections; indeed, we did when they were heading toward Cuba.
Medvedev’s “I will transmit” statement is, admittedly, a little odd for a head of state. Medvedev is the president, after all, but even he knows he’s just there to deliver messages to Putin. The Russians are now having fun with their president, as the Twitter @Vladimiru is trending there. It means “to Vladimir.” Putin takes office, again, in May.
More notably, Medvedev did not contradict or counter Obama, understanding that with the Russian election over, a middle ground might be emerging. Medvedev, who is clearly speaking for “Vladimir,” is uncharacteristically supportive of the United States in this little flare up. In retort to Mitt Romney, who used the moment to declare that Russia is the pre-eminent national security threat of our times, Medvedev reminded the presidential candidate that the Cold War is over.
For the last year, the administration had been repeatedly assured by Russian diplomats that Putin’s heavy-handed election language was not indicative of his policies towards the United States. The cornerstone of Putin’s anti-America stance was his criticism of the missile system. But Putin will soon have a country to run, and so compromise is in the air.
The potential flexibility that Obama is promising may amount to sharing classified information with the Russians to show how the shield system would not be a threat to Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. A compromise may also require limiting some of our commitments to the defense system. Now that Russia’s election is over, the parties are only one election away from figuring it out.
Whatever the resolution that is being envisioned by the parties is, for now, lost in the sideshow over Obama’s failure to heed the cardinal rule for political leaders: The microphone is always on. As we now know, the important message that both countries may be willing to compromise was transmitted quite publicly, so publicly that the progress on missile systems is getting lost in the political drama.
This is exactly what Obama said would happen. But we weren’t supposed to hear it.
Kayyem is a Boston Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org