Zaxi on the Azerbaijan Missile System Proposal

The bilingulal Zaxi blog offers the following analysis of “President” Putin’s ridiculous, offensive proposal to station a missile defense system in Azerbaijan rather than Eastern Europe. Again we ask: Who does this cretin think he is kidding?

G8 summits have long resembled 18th century royal balls. Pompously ceremonial dinners fill great palaces while mobs waving beer bottles block the horizon. Champagne flutes clink behind the barricades at the plotting of the new millennium’s course.

This year’s German court jester was to have been President Vladimir Putin – cast in goblin’s clothing for threatening to train his guns on Europe and treating home demonstrations like pesky peasant revolts.

But Putin played a cunning trick on his hosts. He went home leaving US President George W. Bush with an upset stomach and the media with no time to lament the recent state of Russian affairs.

Instead the world buzzed about Putin’s “surprise” and “stunning” offer to lend Bush a military base in Azerbaijan for the mooted US missile defense shield. It turns out the proposal was not entirely new. It was however unwelcome – the far more fitting headline word.

Putin’s pitch is simple on paper. Bush appeases Russia and abandons plans to install interceptor missiles in the Czech Republic and a radar base in Poland. Putin in return grants US access to a Soviet-era radar in Azerbaijan to jointly track missiles from North Korea and Iran. He would then presumably also quit badgering Europe and leave Bush with no arguments for expanding US missile defenses into Eastern Europe.

Russia’s media portrayed the proposal as jaw-dropping in its elegance and guile. One London daily came closest by describing Bush as getting “wrong-footed.” He would have much preferred to see Putin keep quiet about his little scheme because it was inherently unworkable and only added to Bush’s diplomatic headaches.

US intelligence reports that Putin first raised the idea by telephone on March 28. The two sides’ experts have since been discussing its merits even while Putin rattled nerves by testing new missiles and honing his rhetoric.

Bush came out of his talks with Putin on the Baltic shores Thursday with few options. He told the cameras that Russia had made “some interesting suggestions” and prayed for the best. Then Putin happily let the other shoe drop by revealing the Azeri offer.

“I noticed how Mister Bush, while still wearing his welcoming smile, shook his head slightly in irritation,” an intrepid Kommersant reporter wrote from the spot. This may have been a bit of wishful thinking – zaxi saw no shaking of the head – but the sentiment still stands. Bush was now facing a far more difficult return trip through Poland.

Indeed so many problems hound Putin’s plan that it is hard to treat it as sincere.

For starters – Azerbaijan’s Gabala-2 base sits within spitting distance of Iranian short-range missiles that Russia itself peddles to the Islamic state. One can safely presume that if Iran were willing to strike Israel or Europe it would first take a second to wipe out the Azeri site.

Another is that all Gabala has is a radio radar that went online in the mid 1980s. The base is not even able to process the information on site. All of that is sent in code to bunkered headquarters outside Moscow. And it is obviously not linked up to any potential interceptor missiles – not even Russian ones. Putin’s plan would thus require the US system to somehow receive already processed data about an ongoing attack from Russian commanders sitting in the capital of Iran’s chief ally. zaxi would love to see that go up for a Congressional vote.

But the problems do not end there – serious doubts exist about whether Gabala actually works at all. The radar is supposed to track launches stretching from the Middle East and North Africa to China and over the Indian Ocean to Australia. There have been only two important launches from that region over the past year. Moscow seems to have missed both.

Sergei Ivanov said in January when he was still defense minister that reports of a Chinese test launch against its own weather satellite were “great exaggerations” because it never came up on Russian radar. Moscow also was blind to July’s missile barrage from North Korea and eventually reported nearly double the number of launches actually made by Pyongyang.

One Russian military analyst wrote after China’s successful test that “it was already obvious last summer … that Russia’s space missile launch warning system practically does not work.”

Yet some US and NATO commanders find that too remarkable to believe and point to other “technical” hurdles. The first is the mentioned problem of Gabala only being able to read and not guide missiles. NATO also fears that the radar – if it sees anything – is farsighted and too close to spot Iranian missiles before they are high up in space. Another worry is that US interceptors would still remain too far off to react in time. Putin’s suggestion that Bush base them in Iraq since “there must be some sort of use” from the US war there hardly merits more than a snicker.

Finally there are issues with Azerbaijan itself. Russia leases the base from the autocratic regime and the contract runs out in 2012. Putin announced that the Azeris are glad to share the site with the Americans. But Azeri official have since only said they were open to negotiations – a clear hint that the landlord is about to hike up the rent.

Washington cares little about the seven million dollar a year radar lease. It cares more that its security could rest with someone as short on scruples as Azeri President Ilham Aliyev – in a country where public sympathies for its Iranian neighbor run high.

Of course what Putin actually did in Heiligendamm was try and drive a wedge between Bush and his new European friends. The Czech and Polish voters understandably fear their countries turning into Kremlin targets for shielding US interests. They want US security assurances and possibly even its missiles before Washington unfolds an umbrella in space.

Putin’s bluff has thus far failed. Poland’s president greeted Bush with open arms and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Associate Press quite frankly that “we will do what is best from the point of view of actually dealing with the problem” and continue negotiations with Warsaw and Prague.

But Putin’s offer will ratchet up anti-American sentiments at home as Washington proceeds with its shield – leaving Russian politicians feeling ever more justified to rattle off new abuses as the voting season sets in. A Kremlin full of bitter rivals needs a common enemy before the vote. Perhaps Putin was even thinking ahead to his own potential return for the presidency in 2012. [“It is theoretically possible,” Putin said of his second coming Friday.] He would certainly look like Russia’s last stand again a project that could be up and running by that point.

His Azeri card worked best however at sabotaging a summit at which the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair were unsheathing swords in preparation for “frank” private talks with Putin.

Alexander Litvinenko? Blair told the BBC he brought up Russia’s refusal to extradite his likely killer to London. But Blair – derided at the summit by a top Russian minister as “that ex-prime minister” who dared mention future business ties and human rights in one phrase – said only that none of the issue he raised with Putin “had been resolved.”

So Putin did well. And his KGB training keeps coming in handy.

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