Russia's Vladimir Putin surprised President Bush--and other G-8 participants--on Thursday when he suggested that elements of a planned European missile defense shield could be deployed in Azerbaijan, instead of Eastern Europe. Both Mr. Bush and his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, described the Russian offer as "interesting," indicating that it was largely unexpected.
Putin's proposal came after weeks of escalating rhetoric from Moscow over U.S. plans to deploy an anti-missile surveillance radar and interceptor missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively. Russian officials, led by Mr. Putin, suggested that the deployments would trigger a "new arms race," and even stated that Moscow might re-target its nuclear missiles on European targets in response. As we recently noted, Mr. Putin's threat was a bit of a sham; like the U.S., Russia has never abandoned its strategic nuclear targeting program, and in this era of computer technology and satellite communications, target data can be loaded into land and sea-based missiles in a matter of minutes.
Russia's apparent reversal on the missile defense issue begs an obvious question: is Mr. Putin finally accepting a U.S. offer to join the effort, or is this just a carefully-crafted ploy, designed to undercut American plans to extend its missile shield--and NATO's tripwire--to Russia's front door?
At this point, both Washington and Moscow have agreed to form a working group to discuss potential cooperation on missile defense. That's certainly an encouraging step, given the war of words on that subject in recent months. But don't be surprised if the talks--and the Russian "proposal"--ultimately fail, for a variety of reasons.
For starters, there's the security situation in Azerbaijan. Earlier this year, relations between Moscow and Baku dipped to a new low, when the Russians stopped shipping natural gas to the Azeris, and they retaliated by halting oil shipments through the northern pipeline to the Black Sea. The latest confrontation began when Russia doubled the price of natural gas exported to Azerbaijan, while refusing to impose a similar increase on neighboring Armenia--Baku's rival and enemy.
The situation has been exacerbated by Russian pressure on Azerbaijan to support its policies against neighboring Georgia, while offering no assistance in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Armenia. As a result, Baku's foreign policy has titled decidedly toward the west in recent months. Putin's "offer" to host missile defenses in Azerbaijan represent an effort to retain influence in that country, particularly after Russia's lease on the proposed basing site expires in 2012. By using the existing radar site in Qabala, Moscow would guarantee itself a continued military presence in a strategically important region--and probably get NATO to pay the annual $7 million dollar lease payments. Call it a win/win for Mr. Putin.
And, since Azerbaijan desperately wants better relations with the U.S., it might be persuaded to go along with the deal, although it would cause political headaches for Baku. In turn, Washington would find itself further embroiled in thorny regional issues like the Karabakh region, the afore-mentioned energy disputes, and Baku's relationship with Iran. When Azeri leaders discussed possible American military bases on their soil, Tehran responded with threats of air and missile attacks. Azerbaijan's president said last year that we would not allow U.S. military installations on his soil. American security guarantees might change that thinking, but the proposed deployment remains a tough sell to the prospective host nation.
Meanwhile, Iran has tried to expand its influence in the region, offering a few carrots to Baku, along with the occasional threat. In late 2005, Tehran began transferring natural gas to the enclave of Nakhichevan, which is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by neighboring Armenia. Until the Iranian deliveries started, the region had been without natural gas for more than a decade. A U.S. missile defense presence in Azerbaijan--aimed largely at Iran--would halt deliveries of gas to Nakhichevan, and prompt to Tehran to increase its support for Armenia. That gives Baku potential reasons to reject the Putin plan.
Beyond that, there are key military considerations that will likely scuttle the deal. As the Washington Post reports, the Russian radar in Azerbaijan is a holdover from the Cold War era, designed to detect (and track) ballistic missile launches in the southern hemisphere and much of Asia. It is not an X-band radar--like the one intended for the Czech Republic--which detects enemy launches and provides guidance for interceptor missiles. Today's Washington Post also notes that the Putin proposal makes no provision for the interceptors, deeming them unnecessary in the current threat environment.
It's also a safe bet that the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic are less-than-enthusiastic about this plan, since it removes that important "tripwire" presence from their territory. Having been "sold down the river" in the past, the Poles and Czechs can only wonder if its 1938 or 1939 all over again. Both nations have demonstrated resolve and courage in agreeing to host the BMD sites. They deserve better than to be simply abandoned in a head-long rush to placate the Kremlin.
In the end, it's likely that the U.S. will ultimately reject Putin's proposal, for the reasons we've outlined. That won't be a shock for the Russian leader; he's more than familiar with the Byzantine world of the Caspian Sea Basin, and the problems inherent in basing missile defenses there, literally on Iran's doorstep. But the talks and joint analysis between Moscow and Washington will take time, and further delay deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe. That, in turn, will give the Russians more time to "sell" their proposal and generate more opposition to the BMD sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Congressional Democrats have already slashed funding for the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Give them a little more time--say, the period required for joint talks and analysis on the Putin proposal--and there won't be any money for the sites in Eastern Europe.
The Russian leader understands all of this, and that's why he launched the Azerbaijan plan. Given the difficulties associated with his basing scheme, the Putin initiative is clearly more of a ploy than a serious proposal, and ultimately, unworthy of serious consideration by the U.S. Now, it's up to the Bush Administration to recognize the plan for what it really is.
ADDENDUM: In his latest effort to be "helpful" on BMD, Mr. Putin has apparently indicated that the interceptor missiles could be located in Turkey, Iraq, or perhaps on sea-based platforms. Think about it: how difficult would it be for the U.S. (or NATO) to secure basing rights in a Muslim country for strategic interceptors aimed at another Islamic state? Additionally, the security situation in Iraq isn't exactly conducive to a BMD deployment, and probably won't be for sometime. The seaborne option is viable, although there are limits to the coverage provided by Aegis vessels with the Standard