Thursday, June 21, 2007

Come share our rusty, resented radar

June 19, 2007
Putin's provocation
By Thomas Goltz

President Vladimir Putin's suggestion to President George W. Bush at the G-8 summit that the United States relocate its missile defense system from Eastern Europe took many by surprise, not only because of Putin's apparent (and sudden) acquiescence to the neo-Star Wars program, but also because of the alternative site he proposed: Azerbaijan.

Actually, the idea is not so strange.

Azerbaijan is in many ways the most logical place to set up an early warning system, if Bush's concerns are really about the future nuclear capabilities of Iran or terrorists in the larger Middle East.

Indeed, it was in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan - outside the town of Gabala on the southern slopes of the eastern Caucasus Mountains - that the Soviet Union erected its own massive early-warning radar system.

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The Soviet goal then was to interdict possible nefarious action by states such as Iran, then perceived as an American proxy under the late Shah Reza Pahlavi, as well as NATO-member Turkey and, more distantly, Israel.

Although antiquated now, Gabala continues to function as Russia's eyes and ears on the Middle East, picking up spy signals, it is said, from as far away as Cairo, Oman and the Indian Ocean.

More to the point, the station is a bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Russia, as it represents the last piece of Russian military presence in Azerbaijan. Another source of friction over the station is the claim, often repeated by local media, that the radar emits radiation that causes everything from infertility to cancer.

All Russian combat units left Azerbaijan in 1993 as part of a complex deal that may or may not have been part of a coup d'├ętat in progress at the time.

The Russian generals apparently believed they would soon be back to re-establish their traditional zone of influence, only to be resisted by the very leader they were backing.

Heidar Aliyev, a former Politburo member and KGB general, saw Azerbaijan's future with the West and declined to let the Russian military back in.

Only the Gabala radar station remained.

After Baku agreed in 2006 to extend the lease on Gabala for another decade, the Azerbaijani deputy foreign minister, Araz Azimov, almost scoffed at the notion that Moscow's military was somehow sneaking back into the country. The technology at Gabala was already antiquated, he said, and he doubted the station would still be functional in five years.

So it was less surprising that Putin offered Bush the use of Gabala, than that he invited the Americans to set up shop in Azerbaijan at all.

After breaking out of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan fell almost immediately into internal political chaos and a losing war with neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Appeals to the United States for support, including an offer to let the Americans use Azerbaijan as a forward base in its tense relationship with Iran, fell largely on deaf ears in Washington.

But a massive infusion of oil wealth over the past few years, and a strong-handed sort of stability established by Aliyev and carried on since his death by his son Ilham Aliyev has made Azerbaijan quite a different place than it was when the Soviet military left in 1993.

So, what is Putin's gambit all about? One explanation is that he wants to put American radar where it would be looking out of Russia, rather than in.

Another is that in "ceding" the last piece of Russian military presence in Azerbaijan to the United States, Putin means to shift the onus of a foreign presence to the Americans, and then wait for resentment to well up among the population at large.

Another is that by bringing in the Americans into a joint military installation in Gabala, Russia will have gained a binding legal presence in Azerbaijan for the first time in almost 15 years - at least until the Americans leave (or are asked to leave, as in Uzbekistan).

Thomas Goltz, a visiting scholar on Caucasus affairs at the University of Montana's Central and Southwest Asia Studies Program, is the author of "Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic."

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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