Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Can the US take Gabala alone?

With the 10th Annual US-Azerbaijan Security Dialog recently ending in Washington signs are emerging of a troubling position for Russia amid its Gabala radar base proposal. Russia offered the base as a replacement for the planned US radar in the Czech Republic a few months ago and Russia's president confirmed the proposal at a meeting with his US colleague in Kennebunkport in early July.

Although US Secretary of State Rice turned down the offer last week, the Gabala radar base still dominated the discussion between Azeri and US officials. Despite a very neutral statement from the Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan about the Gabala base being a US-Russia issue that must be discussed with Azerbaijan once the two sides reach a consensus, the US has all reasons to take the Gabala base issue into its own hands.

The Gabala radar, built in 1986 in the USSR to monitor missile launches in the Middle East and the Indian ocean, by chance, ended up in Azeri territory and is now being leased by Russia with the lease term expiring in 2012. Russia's plans to build a similar base in its southern region of Krasnodar underlines its awareness of someone else using the radar after 2012. Azerbaijan and Georgia have for a long time been thinking of closer cooperation with NATO or the United States by itself. Why shouldn't the US then wave goodbye to Russia's offer and wait till 2012 to takeover the radar, finally establishing a solid presence in the Caucasus area and getting the opportunity to monitor its "official" foe Iran?

One reason is the growing role of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus region thanks to the rich oil resources. Unlike Georgia, with its frail economy and little hope for being a completely sovereign state, Azerbaijan has been careful in throwing itself to the mercy of either Russia or NATO/US. The Azeri government is also fearful of threats from Iran, with which it has a number of bilateral peace-aimed security agreements. For Azerbaijan, US-Russian cooperation would be the ideal scenario guaranteeing warm relations with both sides. However, the scenario of the US leasing the radar base does not seem unattractive for the Azeris either given Russia's preparation to copy the radar on its own territory.

The Gabala radar base idea was not that innovative for the Pentagon's plans for a global missile defense system. Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency at the U.S. Department of Defense, made a proposal this spring to deploy elements of a missile system in Europe and the Caucasus. The Bush administration and the Pentagon did not initially rule out locating military facilities in Azerbaijan or Georgia. In the opinion of American military experts, Azerbaijan has a major advantage over Georgia: It has the Gabala radar.

In the end, Russia's position may seem like an utter disaster if the US does establish presence in Azerbaijan and takes over the Gabala radar base, which despite being Azeri property is considered by the Russians as their own. Western presence in the Caucasus without Russian consent is one of the most feared security questions for the Kremlin. Up until now it was assumed that Georgia was on the quickest path toward NATO or US presence on its territory. Now Russia has created a similar scenario for Azerbaijan. As the topic develops talks of Putin's Gabala proposal as being aimed to prolong Russia's presence in Azerbaijan look more and more correct.

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