Undecided Fate of the Gabala Radar Station

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 72

Gabala RLS (Source: contact.az)

The first week of April saw the revival of heated debates about the fate of the Radiolocation Station (RLS) located in the Azerbaijani city of Gabala (100 miles to the west of Baku). Azerbaijan leased the Gabala RLS to Russia for a 10-year period starting in 2002. The lease expires this year and the Russian side is urging Azerbaijan to prolong it for a longer period of time – 25 years. The Gabala radar station was built in 1985 and was one of the eight major stations in the Soviet Union intended to watch for the launching of ballistic missiles across the globe. The location of the Gabala station allows it to watch over a territory extending up to 6,000 kilometers, which includes the entire Middle East including Iran, Turkey and the Indian Ocean. The station is able to locate the trajectory of middle-range missiles with nuclear warheads launched from the territories of these countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the station became the property of Azerbaijan. Currently, around 1,400 Russian military experts and Azerbaijani military specialists work at the Gabala RLS. During the 33rd summit of G8 countries in Germany in June of 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the United States joint use of the Gabala-based radar as part of the US-deployed ballistic missile defense shield. Later, the US administration rejected the proposal stating that the Gabala RLS could not substitute the proposed installation in Central Europe (US plans involved an X-Band radar in the Czech Republic) (Agence France-Presse, July 12, 2007).

A new wave of negotiations between Azerbaijan and Russia over the use of the Gabala radar began in November of 2011. Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov revealed Moscow’s plans to reconstruct the Gabala RLS site and decrease the area of rented territory. Azerbaijan, then asked to increase the fee from the current $7 million to $15 million per year (Kommersant, November 19, 2011). Moscow in turn stated that the Russian government intends to substitute the old station with a new transportable module station, specifically mentioning that the new, second station would be the property of Russia. In response, Azerbaijan then increased its proposed leasing fee by 40 times, demanding $300 million from Russia instead of the current annual rate of $7 million. “This fee is too high and is not grounded in reality. We will try to significantly decrease it,” a source in the Russian Defense Ministry said. Another source was even harsher: “If Baku does not check its appetite, we will leave Gabala” (Kommersant, February 29).

Russia’s new proposal, which includes Moscow’s intention to establish its own base in Azerbaijan, is dangerous for Baku. Currently, the Gabala RLS is the property of Azerbaijan, and Russia cannot share information collected by this base with any third party. However, if a new, entirely Russian-owned radar station is deployed in Azerbaijan, then Moscow would not need to share the information collected by this non-Gabala radar with Baku. In fact, from a military perspective, Moscow does not urgently need access to the Gabala RLS. Russia has already constructed a new RLS in its Krasnodar region that is able to provide security for the southern areas of the country. Nevertheless, Moscow wants to maintain its footing in Azerbaijan by any means, especially on the eve of possible military strikes against Iran (TURAN, December 21, 2011).

For Baku, the new Russian proposal is unacceptable for several reasons. First, according to the military doctrine of Azerbaijan adopted in 2010, the country cannot host any foreign military base (Military Doctrine of the Azerbaijan Republic, Article 29, June 2010). Second, the Russian side will not guarantee that the information from the second proposed base will not be shared with Armenia, a country currently occupying Azerbaijani territories (TURAN, December 21, 2011). Last, but not least, the base would watch over Russia’s potential rivals, Pakistan and Turkey, which are among Azerbaijan’s most loyal and staunchest allies.

Experts hoped that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Azerbaijan would solve the issue. However, during his visit to Baku on April 3, Lavrov stated that the Gabala RLS leasing rights were being discussed between Baku and Moscow and he could not comment (1news.az, April 3). In the midst of negotiations between Azerbaijan and Russia, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan told journalists that Yerevan is ready to consider the possibility of leasing its territory for the construction of an alternative radar installation to the Gabala RLS (Kommersant, April 4). Azerbaijani analysts, however, judged that Armenian proposal to be nothing more than a form of blackmail from Yerevan. Elkhan Shahinoglu, the head of the Atlas Analytical Center in Baku, does not believe that Russia would construct a new RLS in Armenia since the station in Krasnodar works perfectly well for Russia’s purposes. Meanwhile, the construction of such an RLS would likely create tensions between Armenia and Turkey or possibly Iran (Zerkalo, April 7). Nevertheless, the Armenian position and statement could be beneficial for Russia since it could be used in future negotiations with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani officials, however, were also skeptical about the possibility of constructing a new RLS in Armenia. Ali Hasanov, the head of the department for public-political issues of Azerbaijan’s presidential administration stated that Azerbaijan does not have anything against Russian intentions of constructing a new RLS in Armenia. “If Armenia, besides being a foothold for Russia, also wants to be radiolocation post, then it is natural process” he said (Day.az, April 4).

It is hard to predict how negotiations will end considering the many factors evolving in the region. Yet, one thing is certain: considering Russia’s dangerous radar proposal to Azerbaijan, Baku will need to take decisive action that may shake the balance in the region such as asking Moscow to pack up and leave Gabala when the agreement runs out in at the end of December. The consequences of such an Azeri reaction may not sit well with military planners in the Kremlin.