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Gabala: an alluring but impractical offer
14/06/07
MOSCOW. (Alexander Khramchikhin for RIA Novosti) -

Before June 7, 2007, the Kremlin's reaction to American plans for a European anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system followed the usual script, with loud but senseless hysterics
over events that did not involve Russia.

The proposal that Russia and America use the Gabala radar station in
Azerbaijan as an alternative to the United States' plans to base the system
in Poland and the Czech Republic changed the situation. Moscow has seized
the initiative and pushed Washington into a corner.

If the United States really fears Iran's missiles, a radar on the border
with Iran is a good solution. The Gabala radar is one of the latest elements
of the Russian early warning system. The experience of Operation Desert
Storm in 1991 showed that the Gabala radar can track the launches of
tactical missiles at a great distance and at a low angle to the horizon.

The proposed radar in the Czech Republic would be able to detect Iranian
missiles only after they reach a high altitude, whereas the Gabala radar can
see them during take-off.

The political aspect of the proposal is also appealing. The Russian radar in
Azerbaijan, manned by Russian specialists (even if they are diluted with
Americans), will not threaten Russia. It is technically impossible to turn
it towards Russia because it is a huge building with the antenna mounted on
one of its walls. Therefore, it can monitor only a specific sector that does
not include Russian territory.

It will be difficult for Washington to reject - or accept - that offer.

First, the U.S. ABM system is not designed with Russian participation in
mind, even if we assume that it does not threaten the country. To accept
President Vladimir Putin's proposal would amount to changing its entire
strategy.

Second, the Russian radar is technically incompatible with American
anti-missiles. It cannot be used to guide them, so therefore the United
States, if it accepts the Russian offer, will still need to build an ABM
system in Europe. The Gabala radar is an ideal early warning system, but
Washington will need anti-missiles and a radar to guide them. This calls for
an exchange of data between two technically incompatible systems.

In short, Washington can choose between three scenarios.

It can reject the offer for the above reasons, which nobody is interested in
anyway, and be viewed as a warmonger in Russia and Europe alike.

It can accept the offer but proceed with the deployment of the ABM system in
Europe, for the same reasons.

Or it can accept the offer and pledge not to build the ABM system in Europe,
which would be silly, because the Gabala radar can detect missiles but
cannot shoot them down. This looks like an implausible scenario, but
Washington's position will be silly one way or another.

We can assume that the United States will opt for a combination of the first
two scenarios, drawing out the talks until after Vladimir Putin and George
Bush leave office and the military, who do not like sharing their secrets,
do their best to spoil any cooperation. Or the next U.S. president might
silently bury the idea of a European ABM.

One way or another, Putin has made the Americans' life very difficult. He
possibly did not want this to happen, since Russian-U.S. relations have
deteriorated enough as it is for no apparent reason, unless the two
presidents are using the ABM issue to address domestic problems. If Putin's
proposal was designed to drive Bush into a corner, bilateral relations might
deteriorate beyond repair, restarting an arms race that Russia cannot win.

On the other hand, if this is a sincere proposal, it amounts to Russia's
acknowledgment of U.S. concerns over Iran's nuclear missiles. Moreover, it
could mean that Moscow now views Iran as a potential adversary.

If the Gabala radar, a huge structure that is almost entirely exposed to a
surface or air attack, becomes part of the American ballistic missile
defense system, it will also become a target for Iranian missiles. Who will
be responsible for protecting it in that case, Russia or the United States?

Alexander Khramchikhin heads the analytical department at the Institute of
Political and Military Analysis.