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Russia Report: June 8, 2007

Is Putin's Azerbaijan Radar Proposal Serious?

By Victor Yasmann

The radar station in Qabala

June 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal on June 7 at the G8 summit in Germany to use the Qabala (Gabala) radar station in Azerbaijan as an element in the U.S. planned missile shield is a well-crafted diplomatic step.

Putin's offer seemed simple enough: a technical solution for a complicated strategic problem. But the question is whether the offer is strategically realistic?

The offer benefits Putin in several ways. First, it could disturb the Euro-Atlantic solidarity that was emerging with coming to power of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin is afraid that the strategic presence of the United States in Europe would cement this alliance.

Second, the offer will likely improve Russia's image in Europe, which in recent weeks seems to have reached a nadir. Putin's goal is to seize the political initiative from the United States and prevent the further deterioration of Russia's relations with the West. The Russian president will be seen, in some quarters, as a problem solver rather than a troublemaker.

"The United States is not likely to share such important elements of its national defense with another country. That is especially true for Russia given the current state of bilateral relations."

But it also looks like Putin understands, that despite Russia's real and imagined economic and political success, Russia is too weak to compete with the United States, let alone the West, in a new arms race.

Iran Card

Therefore, Putin revealed a card he has played well before -- the Iranian card.

Putin successfully used this card in March, when Russia refused to supply nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant for alleged non-payment and then halted construction work. The plant is being built by the Russian state-run company Atomstroieksport.

It was a move welcomed in the United States, although it did not bring as much improvement in bilateral relations as Moscow might have hoped. Still, Moscow perhaps noted the effect its Iranian policy had on the United States and the Middle East countries concerned that Iran will gain the status of a major regional power backed by a nuclear arsenal.

What makes Putin's proposal interesting for the countries worried by Iran's potential nuclear threat (which include Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan) is the location of the Qabala radar station.

The station, which is 180 kilometers from the Iran-Azerbaijan border, has a range of 6,000 kilometers, which means it can monitor the Middle East, China, South Asia, India, and most parts of Africa -- places the United States is concerned rogue missile attacks could originate from. (Some military experts have pointed out, however, that the radar base's proximity to Iran could reduce the system's effectiveness against missile attacks from that country.)

Problematic Proposal

But despite the radar station's wide reach, some U.S. military experts have said that the precision of the radar is lower than the one the United States has proposed to deploy in the Czech Republic .

Putin said today at the G8 in Germany that the missile interceptors, originally to be deployed in Poland, could now be sited in Turkey, Iraq, or on platforms in the Caspian Sea.

There are also a number of political difficulties associated with Putin's proposal.

The United States is not likely to share such important elements of its national defense with another country. That is especially true for Russia given the current state of bilateral relations.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, the director of the pro-Putin Politika think tank, told Channel One on June 7 that he thinks the United States will still deploy parts of the missile shield in Central Europe.

Nikonov said that while the United States can not ignore Putin's offer, Washington has already invested a lot in the European project.

He suggested that while discussing a proposed station in Azerbaijan, the United States could try to combine both projects -- in Azerbaijan and Central Europe.

However, Russia, he said, would continue to try to scupper the European project.

Russian Military Analyst Fleshes Out Radar Proposal

The Aegis-equipped cruiser "USS Shiloh" (file photo)

June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to the United States to jointly operate a radar station in Azerbaijan, as part of a missile defense shield, seems to have caught the White House off guard. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten asked Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts in Moscow what Putin is offering.

RFE/RL: President Putin seemed to suggest the radar station in Azerbaijan could be a substitute for the planned U.S. radar facility in the Czech Republic. But what about the interceptor missiles? American experts say the interceptors cannot be located too close to the potential threat -- in this case, Iran -- or they won't work, which is why they've chosen Poland as a base. Can you explain Putin's logic?

Aleksandr Golts: It's absolutely clear that [ground-based] interceptors are not capable, if they are deployed somewhere in Azerbaijan or nearby. We need another type of weapon. But Russian military experts with whom I discussed this problem said that THADD [Theater High-Altitude Area Defense] interceptors or even the Aegis system can be workable in this situation.

RFE/RL: Putin himself mentioned Aegis as a possibility. It's an U.S. ballistic-missile defense system. Can you describe how it works? Is it currently in use?

Golts: Aegis is deployed on American warships.

I think something like 80 warships have this Aegis system, which can be used against aircraft and cruise missiles, as well as ballistic missiles.

RFE/RL: If Aegis is a sea-based interceptor system and the goal would be protection from potential Iranian missiles, where would you base it? In the Caspian?

Golts: The Caspian will be the best place for American warships armed with the Aegis system. Why not? If we are speaking about cooperation between Azerbaijan, Russia, and the States.

RFE/RL: So to sum up, Putin's proposal has genuine technical merit, in your view. It is technically feasible?

Golts: One should understand that American missile defense is a totally, absolutely political project, which has nothing to do with real threats and answers. It's a totally political project. Putin's answer, again, is totally politically. He wants absolutely other things than what he claims now. So, the question about whether this proposal is workable or not simply depends on the political will of both sides. If [U.S. President George W.] Bush prefers some kind of calm relations with Russia over his specific relations with Poland and the Czech Republic, he will choose Putin's proposal. If not, we'll have long, long talks on this topic.

Missile Expert Assesses Azerbaijan Radar Proposal

A U.S. missile interceptor test in Hawaii in 2005

June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer jointly to operate a radar station in Azerbaijan to guard against missile attacks from rogue states has drawn a cautious response. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel asked Duncan Lennox, a missile expert with "Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems" yearbook in London, about the advantages and disadvantages of the proposal.

RFE/RL: A joint radar in Azerbaijan would be right on Iran's border -- far closer than the current U.S. proposed radar site in the Czech Republic. What are the advantages or disadvantages of that?

Duncan Lennox: If the radar is close to the launch country, then the advantage is that you will get earlier warning that a missile has been launched and that would enable you to take certain preparations.

"I believe the Russians offered several years ago to coordinate radar systems to defend all Europe, including, I guess, western Russia. This is not something that is absolutely new."

But, the missile would overfly the radar quite quickly, and if you wanted to use the radar to guide an interceptor toward that ballistic missile that had been launched, then you would like the radar placed farther away form the country, really very close to where the interceptors were located.

The problem is that if you have the radar too close to the launch point, the missile will overfly that radar and will then be going away from the radar when the interception is made. That is not good for guiding an interceptor to intercept a ballistic missile. You really want the radar behind or level with the interceptor's launch point if you want that radar to help the interceptor make the intercept with the missile.

RFE/RL: So, that means one still would need missiles and a radar stationed in Central Europe. In other words, the radar in Azerbaijan could only be an early-warning addition to -- but not a substitute for – the planned U.S. network. Why then, do you think Moscow made this offer?

Lennox: My guess is that they are simply saying why not use our capabilities as part of a single system. Why make it entirely American -- I guess that is what is behind it.

RFE/RL: Washington and its NATO partners have been interested before in putting early warning radars in the Caucasus. Have the Russians ever made a proposal like this before to Washington?

Lennox: I believe the Russians offered several years ago to coordinate radar systems to defend all Europe, including, I guess, western Russia. This is not something that is absolutely new. I believe the Russians are saying, "Look, why don't you talk to us first before deciding where to put things?" That is the sort of feeling I get from what is being said.

RFE/RL: Finally, are there any advantages to Russia itself in jointly operating such a radar with Washington? Does it add protection for Russia from missiles fired from Iran, for example?

Lennox: Russia has its own interceptor missiles around Moscow already, and so Russia is already protected from any missile attack. The anti-ballistic missile system around Moscow has been there for many, many years, for 30-plus years. It is still there; it is still operational; and has been upgraded.

U.S./Russia: Analyst Says 'Surprise' Missile-Shield Proposal Was Planned

Russia is proposing that its military open the doors to the Qabala radar station to Americans (file photo)

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's June 7 offer to drop objections to a planned U.S. antimissile shield if it were placed in Azerbaijan has added a new wrinkle to the standoff over the system. Putin has strongly voiced his opposition to the proposal to place parts of the shield in the Czech Republic and Poland.

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."

RFE/RL: 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.

Russian Proposal Could Upset Caucasus Balance

By Jeffrey Donovan

The Qabala (Gabala) radar base that Putin proposed as a site for a joint missile-defense base with the U.S.

June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In geopolitics, particularly in a place as strategically important as the South Caucasus, even the smallest shift can unleash major consequences.

What would the impact be on that volatile region -- a crossroads for the competing interests of Russia, the United States, and Iran -- if Washington accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to jointly use a Russian-leased radar base in Azerbaijan as part of an antimissile shield?

In a word: profound.

After all, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which fought a war in the early 1990s, are still locked in a bitter dispute. And Iran, meanwhile, is unlikely to view favorably more U.S. military moves on its border. Iranian state radio said today that Putin's proposal could have "serious regional implications in the domain of security."

Radio Farda acting Director Mosaddegh Katouzian notes that Tehran and Baku's good relations could be affected, and that the issue is likely to be discussed in two weeks during Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's scheduled visit to Baku

"Definitely Iran would be concerned about having those types of bases in Azerbaijan because of its own security," Katouzian says. "So probably in the next talks between President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Baku officials, this is going to come up as a big concern."

Frozen Conflict

Then there's Armenia and Azerbaijan, who fought a war in 1991-94 in which 25,000 died. They have since been locked in a bitter dispute over the object of that conflict: Azerbaijan's predominantly ethnic-Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ironically, Putin's offer comes as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian, himself a former Karabakh leader, are to meet in St. Petersburg on June 9 to discuss the standoff over the enclave.

International mediators have hoped that the two presidents can agree on small steps to improve life for people in Nagorno-Karabakh. But they also fear if dialogue fails, violence could resume, destabilizing an area that is emerging as a key energy producer and transport route between the Caspian Sea region and Europe.

Putin's missile-defense proposal, however, appears to risk tipping the balancing act on Nagorno-Karabakh toward Azerbaijan.

Upsetting Regional Balance

Rasim Musabekov, a political analyst based in Baku, suggests Azerbaijan could parlay any pivotal role in Washington's missile-defense shield into obtaining concessions from Armenian in the standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"The discussion of this issue alone is raising Azerbaijan's strategic importance. This is a win for Azerbaijan. If we are taken as partners of the United States of America and Russia, this would give us certain security guarantees and would lead to obligations [on the part of Russia and the United States] to settle problems that Azerbaijan is concerned about," Musabekov says.

Click image to enlarge"In the first place, this means restoring Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, which was violated by Armenian aggression against 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory," he adds.

So far, Azerbaijani authorities have refrained from offering a full reaction to Russia's proposal.

However, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that Baku is ready to negotiate "bilaterally, or we can do it in the trilateral format" with the United States and Russia, which currently leases the radar base from Azerbaijan.

Armenia, meanwhile, would appear to be concerned about that prospect.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian tells RFE/RL that both Russia and the United States should "take into account the balance of the power in the region before making such a decision."

Armenia Nervous

But for weeks now, even before Putin made his surprise proposal at the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Germany, that balance has already appeared to be tilting away from Armenia.

Yerevan is traditionally a close ally of Russia. But Harry Tamrazian, head of RFE/RL's Armenian Service, says that in recent weeks there's been a flood of Russian officials visiting Baku, including a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"Now, it appears that [the] Russians are talking to [the] Azeris. Russian high-level officials are frequently in Baku. You can see them almost every week in Baku, talking to Azeri leaders," he says. "And this makes Armenian leaders nervous. Obviously, there is a clear rapprochement between Moscow and Baku."

Together with France, the United States and Russia are co-chairs of the Minsk Group, the body set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to seek solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

Yerevan's chief concern now, says Tamrazian, is that if Russia and U.S. interests converge in Baku, Armenia could pay the price.

Azerbaijan Locals Worry About Health Effects Of Radar

By Ilgar Rasul

The radar is part of Russia's early-warning system

QABALA, Azerbaijan; June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The locals of Qabala (Gabala) call it "the dragon." When the radar station began operating in 1985, they say it made so much noise it sounded as if it was roaring.

It is an stark anomaly amid the lush, rolling hills of northern Azerbaijan -- but one that is accepted.

Cattle graze contentedly around the radar station. And in a local cafe nearby, locals sit underneath a weeping willow tree, placidly drinking tea.

The Qabala radar station has suddenly made international headlines, after Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to share it with the United States for the proposed U.S. missile shield.

"The trees are drying up. We have many children born with abnormalities. It even affects the livestock."

The base, which has a range of 6,000 kilometers, has the power to monitor missiles launched from Asia and Africa.

But most locals were unaware of the news that, thousands of miles away in Germany, Presidents Putin and Bush were discussing Qabala's dragon.

It's an issue that suddenly puts Azerbaijan on the map. But for the locals, the issue is not their country's global status, but questions of health and safety.

Health Concerns

Many of them say that there are worrying signs the radar is having a negative impact on the local residents and nature -- even as they say that if anyone is going to use the radar, it should be Azerbaijan.

"The trees are drying up, due to this [radar]. We have many children born with abnormalities. It even effects the livestock, " one man said. "If you ask my opinion, it should be up to the leadership of my country. If you have to use it, why can't we use it ourselves. Our state is economically strong, so why don’t we buy it and use it ourselves?"

In 1991, an Azerbaijani government commission said the radar presented a risk to human health and the local ecology.

Some suggested the study was an effort by a newly independent Azerbaijan to cast criticism on Moscow, which had been responsible for its design and operation in the Soviet era.

No independent studies have been done on the effects of the radar. And in fact, many Qabala residents are sanguine about possible health risks.

"I live 500 meters away from the station. I don't see any damage. In previous years we witnessed the trees drying up, but in recent years we haven't seen so much impact. Over there, we are grazing cattle around the station. It doesn't bother us," one man said.

Early-Warning System

Construction work started on the radar station in 1976 and it has been operational since 1985. The radar was previously known as the Daryal Analytical Information Center.

Many locals hadn't heard about Putin's proposal (RFE/RL)

It forms part of Russia's early-warning system, able to track ballistic missiles which are fired from Asia and parts of Africa.

Russia has a number of these radar bases dotted around the former Soviet Union -- in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia.

Qabala is staffed mainly by 900 Russian troops, from the Federal Space Forces. The troops live in a nearby barracks.

Some locals seemed to hope that if the radar base was ever used by the Americans, it could bring jobs to this primarily agricultural community.

"Some local people are working in this station and they are paid well. But if the Americans are coming, maybe they will pay better. Maybe they will have jobs for us. And if the Americans would compensate [Azerbaijan for hosting the base], that would be even better," one man said.

Compensation Hopes

The question of compensation -- for the inconvenience of living next to the dragon -- is high on local people's minds.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians continued using the base for free, until, in 2002, a 10-year agreement was signed between the two countries.

Under the agreement, Russia leases the radar station from Azerbaijan for a reported $7 million a year. Moscow is also expected to pay a Baku compensation for lost rent from before the agreement was signed.

(Kenan Aliyev and Luke Allnutt contributed to this story.)


Read about the Azerbaijan radar proposal in Russian at the site of RFE/RL's Russian Service.