But on June 7, Putin changed course by suggesting the system be set up at the Qabala (Gabala) military base Russia rents in Azerbaijan. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Glen Howard
, the president of Washington D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation -- a policy group that focuses on Russia and the former Soviet republics -- what might be behind Putin's offer. RFE/RL:
Did Putin make this offer in the spirit of cooperation or is it a proposal he knew the United States would reject, and in that way, this was an attempt to make the United States look uncompromising? Glen Howard:
I think that the Russian base, there in Qabala [Azerbaijan] is getting ready -- they're going to lose the base, the lease on the base is going to expire, and they've already been making plans to relocate the radar to Krasnodar [Krai, in Russia]. And so what they're trying to do here is legitimize their presence in Azerbaijan at the expense of the Azerbaijanis. And they will also permanently make the United States a target of the Iranians, and the Azeris, and it's designed to divide the United States and Azerbaijan. And it creates a Russian military presence there, if I understand the statement correctly.
"I think the U.S. was probably shocked and surprised and didn't have a response, and that the Russians have had this -- they've been planning it."
The U.S. national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, called the offer "interesting" and Bush is also quoted as saying that Putin had "made some interesting suggestions" and that the two men would discuss them further when they meet at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1-2. Do you think the United States is being cautious in its reaction because it's not interested, or do you think it was caught off guard? Howard:
I think the U.S. was probably shocked and surprised and didn't have a response, and that the Russians have had this -- they've been planning it. And I wouldn't even put it past the hand of [former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov, as well. Primakov may have a hidden role in all this. RFE/RL:
What has Russia used the Azerbaijani base for in the past? Howard:
That base in Qabala is the radar base of -- it's their eyes and ears, Russia's eyes and ears, on the Middle East. So obviously the U.S. probably wants to have an extension at that base at some point. But what it's cleverly done -- on the Russians' part -- it's created a role for them when the Azeris -- the Azeris had a bargaining card over the Russians with that, because they've allowed the Russians to have that radar base.
And you know, dating back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that base was transmitting signals of air defense in Iraq. They were transmitting and monitoring American AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System is an aircraft system designed to carry out surveillance) in the Middle East and passing that information onto Saddam Hussein.
So if they were passing it onto Saddam Hussein and they had it, there's a strong likelihood that if they had a base there, [and] after the [lease] expires, they're probably passing it onto the Iranians. So it's a very deceptive move by the Russians. And it puts them in a country that was getting ready to kick them out. Once the base agreement expired, now it could re-legitimize their presence there. RFE/RL
: Well it seems to have taken the Azerbaijanis by surprise as well. Howard:
Absolutely, it has taken a lot of people [by surprise]. But I certainly can see what they're aspiring to here. RFE/RL:
The proposal is only a few hours old. Do you think that in the weeks before the Bush-Putin meeting in Maine in July that Washington will come back with a definite answer one way or the other?
The Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan (RFE/RL)
No, no. They're probably going to wait until Maine to figure out what the heck they're talking about and look at all the angles, but I'm absolutely sure this took them by surprise. It's a very clever move. Certainly I was surprised. And it's smart. It's a very smart move. RFE/RL:
What's your opinion -- will it help or hurt the current state of U.S.-Russian relations? Howard:
I believe it's all been rhetoric and posturing. You don't invite Putin to Kennebunkport to -- you know, the first [Russian] leader to go to the Bush family compound, I mean, what an honor. So everything you've seen has been nothing but rhetoric and posturing. That's all it's been. And so they're going to be very chummy in Kennebunkport, I can guarantee you that. RFE/RL:
You don't think there's been a souring of Russian-U.S. relations in the last few weeks? Howard:
I've never bought that. Never. I'm probably one of the few people in Washington -- maybe, maybe not. But you know, Putin has been barking about this, making a big deal out of it, and he's the only one making a big deal out of it. I mean, we have repeatedly told the Russians what our position is, we've offered for them to be a part of the solution here, involve them in the project, and they've resisted every step of the way.
Even when [U.S. Secretary of State Robert] Gates went to Moscow, they did the exact same thing to Gates, they rebuffed him. And then suddenly they switch sides? Obviously this has all been part of a campaign, they had something being planned. And, you know, they were trying to divide the Czech Republic in the polls on this issue, they saw that they [the Czechs] weren't going to back down, they saw that the U.S. wasn't going to back down, so now it's on to "Plan B," and that's Azerbaijan.
And I hope what the Bush administration will do is they won't buckle on this. I think at some point this [U.S.] missile shield would probably have to be extended to Azerbaijan, and the Russians probably realize that.
But now, in one stroke on the chess board, [the Russians are] trying to get us to eliminate [plans for] Poland and the Czech Republic, where they would have permanent bases and permanent security guarantees -- in addition to what they have from NATO -- locking them in the West. And in one stroke they eliminate that, with some type of unplanned move to Azerbaijan that would put the United States at odds with the major energy producer and conduit for Caspian energy to the Western Mediterranean. RFE/RL:
If the United States turns the Russians down on this, what will happen next? Howard:
I think it will be, 'I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down' with Putin. I mean, it's all -- it's all rhetoric with Putin. I mean, what do they have to show? What can they actually do? It's like what they've been doing with Kosovo [on the issue of final status] and so a lot of it is bluff.
And they may do something. I mean, announcing they would point their missiles at Europe was a major public relations fiasco for Putin. It failed. It was very, very counterproductive. Some of the wiser people in the Kremlin have realized that now.