During the June 6-8 G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently surprised President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials by offering joint use of a powerful early warning radar in Gabala, Azerbaijan (see EDM, June 11).
Putin insisted that a missile-defense (MD) system that includes the Gabala radar would make redundant U.S. plans to base MD interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to defend against a possible Iranian missile attack. If Washington abandons its MD plans, Putin promised not to target Russian nuclear missiles on Europe. Putin stressed that there is no need to rush forward the actual deployment of MD against Iran, since it does not have long-range missiles or nukes. “Three to five years will be necessary from the first [Iranian] test, until the system is operational,” said Putin (www.kremlin.ru, June 8).
Bush called the proposal “interesting” and announced an agreement “to have a strategic dialogue, an opportunity to share ideas and concerns between our State Department, Defense Department, and military people.” Russian presidential foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko told journalists that the “strategic dialogue” with the United States “will be on the level of deputy ministers of defense and foreign affairs,” adding that Azerbaijan’s government, which owns the Gabala radar complex, had been consulted and “is positive” about Russia’s initiative of joint usage (Interfax, June 8).
If Putin’s proposal about Gabala indeed surprised U.S. officials, this may reflect a lack of cohesion and information sharing within the Bush administration. Russia’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Vasily Istratov, made public the proposal to give the United States access to Gabala at a May 15 press conference (www.lenta.ru, May 15). The idea to trade-off U.S. access to the Gabala radar to alter MD plans in Europe was also discussed in the Moscow press before the latest G-8 summit. The former chief of staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces, General Viktor Yesin (Ret.), was quoted as saying, “We offered the Americans [use of] the Gabala radar to monitor Iranian missiles long ago” (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, May 25).
Surprise or not, the offer to share Gabala is a politically attractive way to end the mounting confrontation between Russia and the West over Washington’s MD-Europe deployment plans. The proposal may also be seen in the Kremlin as a face-saving device that will allow the weakened Bush administration to back out of MD plans under relentless Russian pressure. Moscow is ready to sweeten America’s humiliation, but will not allow Washington to play games. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded that the U.S. “freeze” any MD negotiations with Poland and Czech Republic while the Gabala proposal is being discussed (RIA-Novosti, June 9).
The main problem with Putin’s surprise peace initiative is the fact that it is technically senseless. The Gabala radar is an early-warning station that was built in the 1980s to detect U.S. ballistic and cruise missiles attacking the Soviet Union from the Indian Ocean. The Gabala radar is a huge concrete installation (128 meters high) facing south. It cannot be moved, it cannot be retargeted. It was not intended to be used to monitor Iranian missiles. In fact, the radar does not properly cover the entire territory of Iran. Russian state TV’s Vesti Nedeli program recently showed a diagram of the Gabala radar capabilities with the northeast corner of Iranian territory, bordering Turkmenistan, clearly outside its scope (Kommersant, June 8-9; Rossiya TV, June 10).
Radars that are used to guide MD interceptors usually pick up signals from all directions or at least have the capability to change direction. The Russian Don-2N radar that serves as the nerve center of the A-135 MD system surrounding Moscow is an omni-directional radar, as is the X-Band Radar the Pentagon is planning to install in the Czech Republic.
The radar in Gabala cannot guide interceptors based in Poland. Instead, Putin has offered to place interceptors in Turkey or Iraq to hit Iranian missiles as they boost off, apparently guided by the Gabala radar. But the U.S. military does not have any interceptors that, if fired from Turkey or Iraq, could hit a ballistic missile flying from Iran to Europe or the United States. The Gabala radar is also dangerously close to Iranian territory — a big fixed target that can be hit by Iranian Scud-B missiles, bombers, or attacked by paratroopers or terrorists. Several divisions of air and missile defense troops as well as infantry with armor will be needed to guard Gabala from a possible Iranian conventional attack — without any guarantee that they will succeed.
Under a 2002 arrangement, Russia pays Azerbaijan $7 million a year for the use of Gabala. The agreement ends in 2012, but in 2006 Baku asked to double the fee to $14 million. Recently First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov publicly pronounced the Gabala radar outdated and promised that Russia would replace it with a much smaller and cheaper solution in 2007; apparently the solution is using the more modern and capable Voronezh-DM strategic radar that will be placed near Armavir in the Northern Caucasus to cover the zone that is now covered by Gabala (Itar-Tass, December 22, 2006).
Washington has officially welcomed Putin’s initiative as indicative of a desire to begin to negotiate a compromise. The United States may, in fact, agree to use and even partially finance the useless Gabala radar, if Russia stops objecting to plans to deploy MD in Europe. But the Kremlin wants a full cancellation of MD plans for Europe and seems ready to use any refusal as a propaganda ploy to expose the aggressive nature of U.S. imperialism. The entire arrangement smacks of a typical “Soviet peace initiative” that will lead to nothing good and, in fact, make the confrontation only worse.