Obama and Medvedev huddle impromptu aboard AF1.

Pool Report #12:

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, leaving Lisbon

(Note: Sending this on arrival at Andrews; you have the full transcript now so check quotes though the pooler’s are from tape.)

Highlight: Obama and Medvedev held unplanned one-on-one meeting on sideline of NATO-Russia Council.

Also: Administration officials argue, re New Start, Medvedev has delivered on promises to the US; Obama has to be able to deliver on his commitments to Russia.

Soon after AF1 was aloft, Ben Rhodes and a senior administration official who declined to be identified came to the press cabin. A minute into the 22-minute exchange, Rhodes said “the only thing I’d add” to what the official would say “is that after the NATO-Russia session, President Obama had a meeting, a one-on-one meeting, with President Medvedev. They were able to go aside into a room by themselves and talk for 15 to 20 minutes. Again, it wasn’t a bilat; it was informal, it wasn’t planned. But the two leaders have developed a very strong rapport. They like each other. They like to see each other. They like to get along and consult about things so President Obama wanted to make sure that before his press conference and after the meeting, he got some time alone with President Medvedev.”

According to both administration officials, POTUS initiated the meeting because he’d had to leave the NATO-Russia Council early for his bilat with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Obama regretted that – other leaders were calling the Council meeting historic and “there was a real sense that this could be the beginning of a new chapter in Russia-NATO relations,” one said. So Obama asked his advisers to arrange a one-on-one meeting. There was no staff, only a translator.

The official said Obama described the meeting afterward. It was “very cordial” … Obama talked to Medvedev about his meeting with Saakashvili of Georgia, two years after its conflict with Russia. “He said this is not just a forum to talk about cooperation, but it has to be a forum to talk about our differences” and “that can reduce misunderstandings that can lead to unintended consequences.”

The presidents talked about New Start, the official said, just as they’d discussed it last weekend in Yokohama (though that was before the Senate Republicans blocked ratification in the first days of the lame-duck session). The official said of Medvedev’s attitude about the impasse in the Senate, “He’s confident in the president getting it done. They had a very cordial conversation about it.”

Ben Rhodes said other leaders at the Council raised the subject of Start more than Obama did. “He had other things he talked about,” Rhodes said. Rhodes added, “Our position continues to be that this can get done in the lame-duck session.”

The second administration official also said that several leaders in the NATO-Russia meeting said the ‘reset’ of relations between US and Russia made possible the re-set between NATO and Russia. The official emphasized that “some of the leaders who were saying that are some of the countries on the borders of Russia who were most worried about the reset two years ago, worrying that it was at their expense.”

At the Council, the official said, Obama said ­­“that was his philosophy about the reset with Russia from the very beginning – focus on real things that we can do together and not talk about the Cold War and ending the Cold War ad nauseum, but to really focus on things that are of interest to the United States and Russia”

— missile defense, Afghanistan, joint threat assessment, more.

“Three weeks ago we didn’t even know Medvedev was going to come to this meeting,” the official said; a week ago, when the two leaders spoke at Yokohama, “it was still unclear whether we were going to have agreement on the missile defense part of the joint statement.”

Rhodes described what the administration sees as the progress reflected at Lisbon: The allies have gone from a position where East Europeans were wary of the US-Russia reset, and Russia was “deeply suspicious” of US-Europe missile defense plans. “And today we’re talking about how to cooperate” on missile defense, while the Europeans, including those on Russia’s border, say the reset has enhanced their own security.

That, he said, is “why we feel this summit both locked in a much tighter and more aligned alliance as well as a new opportunity with the Russians.”

More on Start:

The administration official noted that “it’s been a year” since the verification process lapsed, and the administration was criticized at the time for not having a new treaty in place.

The official said POTUS, in the NATO-Russia Council meeting, recalled how he and Medvedev had made various commitments to each other. “He has to be able to deliver on his commitments” to the US — for example, by cutting arms trade with Iran as the US wanted. “It was much more costly to” the Russians, financially and geopolitically in the Middle East, to do so, the official said.

“President Medvedev then went the extra mile and unilaterally cancelled the S300 contract,“ the official said. “That would have been a highly destabilizing event for those S300s to be transferred to Iran,” the official added. “Medvedev has delivered on this and in order to continue this relationship, we have to be able to deliver on the things that the president has said.”

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