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A Bush-Putin Discussion on the Radar

Richard Weitz

While in Prague en route to the G-8 summit, President George W. Bush chided the Russian President for not cooperating with the United States and its allies to counter common missile threats, stating: “Vladimir—you shouldn’t fear a missile defense system . . . why not participate with us.”

At the G-8 summit, Putin accepted Bush’s challenge. Putin surprised his fellow heads of state by proposing the conversion of the Russian-operated Gabala early-warning radar station in Azerbaijan into a joint Russian-American ballistic missile defense (BMD) facility. The suggestion followed months of escalating disagreements over the Bush administration’s plans to deploy a BMD radar system in the Czech Republic and 10 BMD interceptor missiles in Poland to counter a possible emerging threat from Iran. Putin subsequently suggested that, if Iran ever developed long-range missiles, the interceptors could be placed in Iraq or Turkey, on Aegis-equipped warships, or even on floating platforms in the Caspian Sea.

The Russian government evidently relished catching the Bush administration off guard. Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of the Russian General Staff, boasted that U.S. officials experienced disabling “awe and shock” when Putin first presented his suggestion. One Russian analyst compared Putin’s maneuver to a swift kick in the groin.

Putin made the proposal at the summit because the increasingly confrontational strategy Russia had previously pursued on the European BMD issue had failed to derail the planned U.S. deployments. In recent months, Putin’s government had denied that a missile threat from Iran existed, ostentatiously tested new Russian ballistic missiles optimized to penetrate any BMD system, and threatened to withdraw from European arms control agreements. Most seriously, senior Russian commanders have threatened to target any U.S. BMD complexes in East Central Europe with Russia’s own missiles and warplanes. These actions had engendered concern in NATO capitals, but not paralysis. The Gabala proposal advances Russia’s offensive and defensive objectives better than the previous head-on attacks. At most, the offer might induce the United States to abandon its efforts to deploy BMD assets in Poland and the Czech Republic. At the least, it could help to stabilize relations between Russia and many NATO countries, which had deteriorated in recent months due largely to the BMD dispute.

Putin’s idea succeeded in putting the Bush administration in a difficult position. If the U.S. government accepts Putin’s version of the Gabala option, it would abandon a core element of its European security strategy — the East Central European BMD deployments. In addition, Moscow would achieve its long-standing objective of being able to participate in Europe’s emerging ballistic missile defense architecture as an equal partner with Washington.

A categorical rejection, however, could worsen relations with Europeans and sustain unfounded suspicions that the Bush administration presently plans to develop missile defenses against Russia. On its face, the proximity of the radar to Iran makes it look more suitable than the original location in the Czech Republic for covering a potential ballistic missile threat from Tehran. Rather than having to argue against the U.S. plan directly, opponents of the deployments can now plausibly cite Gabala as an alternative.

U.S. officials termed Putin’s proposal “interesting” and worthy of study. The Bush administration agreed to conduct what the president called an intense “strategic dialogue” on the proposal and other BMD-related issues. Nevertheless, the president reaffirmed interest in pursuing the Czech-Polish option when he visited Poland after the G-8 summit.

From a technical point of view, the Gabala launch detection radar would work best as a complement rather than as a substitute for the radar planned for the Czech Republic. What the Bush administration is seeking from a Czech X-band radar is a system capable of tracking and guiding defensive interceptor missiles toward Iranian offensive ballistic missiles. Even if the Gabala early warning radar were reconstructed into a battle management radar, the system’s location could still make it less useful for guiding interceptors toward Iranian missiles. Ballistic missiles launched from Iran could quickly fly past any radar in Azerbaijan.

For the moment, the Russians depict the Gabala variant as the alternative to any U.S. BMD system in East Central Europe. At the G-8 summit, Putin observed menacingly that acceptance of his proposal would mean “there would be no necessity of pointing our missiles at any sites in Europe or in the United States.” Putin and Bush plan to discuss the matter in more detail on July 1-2 at the Bush family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Despite its concerns, the Bush administration should continue to engage the Russians on a possible joint use of the Gabala radar while keeping open the possibility of deploying BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The fact that the radar is technically inadequate is less important than the potential for Russian-American dialogue over the base to limit the negative spill-over from the BMD dispute and, ideally, expand to address other important security issues. For example, the dialogue could generate creative thinking about how to address missile defense issues in the strategic arms accord that Russia and the United States have begun negotiating to replace the START and SORT agreements when they expire in a few years. It could also accelerate the two countries’ interlocking efforts to develop more secure international civilian nuclear fuel arrangements. Moscow and Washington could thereby move from what has become a zero-sum dialogue over missile defenses to a beneficial engagement over limiting third-party nuclear proliferation threats.

In return, U.S. officials should underscore to the Russians that one way to avert the deployment of BMD systems in East Central Europe would be for Moscow to pressure Tehran more strongly to curb its nuclear and missile programs. If these and other efforts fail to change Iran’s behavior, if U.S. ballistic missile technology makes much greater progress, and if the proposed host countries still want the systems, then the next U.S. administration can decide whether to deploy BMD systems in East Central Europe even at the cost of antagonizing whomever succeeds Putin as Russia’s president in 2009.

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