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Russian missile defense offer tests US goodwill

Published time: October 03, 2009 04:00
Edited time: October 03, 2009 04:00
The radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan

The radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan

Following the US move to scrap plans to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, Russia repeated the offer of jointly using its own missile defense facilities near the Southern border.

While the offer is unlikely to be taken, it is a good test of whether the US anti-missile plans are really directed against Iran and other rogue nations and not Russia.

On Wednesday, the Russian President’s press secretary Natalya Timakova said that all proposals to Washington concerning missile defense remained in force. The official referred to the offer Vladimir Putin made at the G8 summit in Germany in 2007. The then-leader proposed that Russia and United States cooperate in using the radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan – the Soviet-era installation that can detect missile launches on the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.

In 2007, the United States official replied that the Gabala radar cannot be incorporated in their missile defense system and refused the offer. Before that, however, a team of US military experts visited the site, as did a team of Western and Russian journalists. The journalists’ account was that the base, built in 1985, was an obsolete piece of hardware in rather poor conditions. Russian military officers agreed that the base required modernization and said that Russia was ready for it in case the US and the third party – Azerbaijan – reach a political conclusion.

In 2007 observers in Russia viewed the US refusal as a sign that the planned anti-missile system near Russia’s eastern borders was not created solely against Iran and North Korea, but directly threatened Russian interests.

The reiterated offer comes after the new US administration announces its plans to scrap the plans to build a new missile defense with ground bases in Poland and Czech Republic in favor of an old system with anti-missile components based on ships. In theory it is possible that the old system could incorporate the Gabala base, but it still required deep modernization of the facility and bringing Russian and US hardware standards to some common ground. More importantly, the joint use of the radar would mean that the sides share the information obtained by the use of the radar.

With technical details still being classified, some conclusions can be made from the very fact that the Russian side is persisting with the offer. The Russian stance on Iran, although slightly changed after the latest Iranian announcements of their successes in the nuclear sphere, is still very different from most Western nations. Russia does not see Iran as a political ally, but has deep economic ties with the Islamic Republic, including the project to build the Bushehr nuclear power plant– a belated project that is now nearing completion. Offering the US an opportunity to increase military pressure on Iran would compromise these relations.

The same is true for the nation that actually hosts the Gabala base. Azerbaijan and Iran are still very close and, apart from political consequences, stationing an anti-Iranian base would put Azerbaijan under risk of a military strike. However, when the offer was first made in 2007, the Azerbaijani authorities said they would agree to this and no moves were made to reconsider the Russian lease agreement which expires in 2012.

So far, the US authorities have not replied to the Russian offer and NATO’s press service said on Wednesday that they were not commenting on the issue. But to get this reply, Russia must possibly wait for the US to finish their plans for the new-old missile defense, which are still in development.

Kirill Bessonov, RT

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