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Republicans are pouncing on President Obama for a comment he made yesterday that he thought was in private. He was talking to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev prior to a news conference. Mr. Obama leaned over to his Russian counterpart and didn't realize a microphone was open.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is my last election. And after my election, I have more flexibility.
BLOCK: That's hard to make out, we know. The president said: This is my last election. And after my last election, I have more flexibility.
SIEGEL: He is referring to efforts to reach a deal with Russia on missile defense. And Medvedev replied: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir - meaning Vladimir Putin, the incoming president.
NPR's Martha Wexler has been following this from Moscow, and she reports Russians are wondering what the flap will mean for their relationship with Washington.
MARTHA WEXLER, BYLINE: The American plan to build an antimissile shield in Europe is a major point of contention between the U.S. and Russia. The Obama administration insists the system is intended to intercept missiles from so-called rogue states like Iran. Russia sees missile defense as a threat to its nuclear arsenal. Yesterday, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, President Obama asked President Medvedev to give him more space to negotiate a solution. Within hours, the Republican National Committee released this video.
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WEXLER: After the ominous music came a clip from Fox News correspondent Ed Henry.
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ED HENRY: But if all of a sudden the president is suggesting he'll have more flexibility after the election, does that suggest he'll be giving up more to Russia if he does win re-election? That is going to be the question he's going to face after a comment like this.
WEXLER: Mitt Romney said it was alarming that President Obama was, as he put it, looking for greater flexibility where he doesn't have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia. Romney went on to describe Russia this way.
MITT ROMNEY: This is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.
WEXLER: President Obama tried to put out the fire today, addressing reporters in Seoul with a joke.
OBAMA: First of all, are the mics on?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WEXLER: He went on to say that arms control negotiations are extraordinarily complex.
OBAMA: I don't think it's any surprise that you can't start that a few months before a presidential and congressional elections in the United States.
WEXLER: And when there's just been a presidential election in Russia. President Medvedev, meantime, responded to Romney's description of Russia as America's number one geopolitical foe.
PRESIDENT DMITRI MEDVEDEV: (Foreign language spoken)
WEXLER: Medvedev didn't name Romney but said statements coming out of the U.S. election campaign smelled of Hollywood. This is 2012, he said, not the mid-'70s. The chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, was harsher. He said Romney's comments reflected those circles that wished to impose U.S. hegemony on the world and see Russia as their main obstacle. A foreign ministry briefer was more measured. We see the Romney comment in the context of a political campaign, he said. We will judge the U.S. partnership by actions, not words. Analyst Fyodor Lukyanov sees a bright side in Romney's dark assessment of Russia.
FYODOR LUKYANOV: In a way, what Romney is saying, it makes Russia feel better, because one of concerns and one of bad feelings is that Americans just ignore us. They don't count us for something serious anymore.
WEXLER: Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Politics, says it's nice to know we matter. Martha Wexler, NPR News, Moscow.
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