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Putin's Proposal: A Deal Too Good to Pass Up

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Message Nicolai Petro
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This comment originally appeared in the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel (June 15, 2007)

A Deal Too Good to Pass Up.

President Putin's proposal to jointly run the early warning radar site at Gabala in Azerbaijan has several advantages for the United States. Indeed, it is a deal too good to pass up.

Its 6,000 kilometer range will allow the United States to monitor the Middle East, China, South Asia, India, and much of Africa – all the places from which rogue missile attacks are likely to originate. It is a currently functioning station, with a ten year renewable lease, which means that the US can entirely side step the local hostility and legal issues that inevitably ensue with the creation of new bases in Europe.

Azerbaijan and Iran have already said that they do not see American participation in such a joint endeavor as a threat, so that collaborating with Russia will enhance American security without provoking any further anger in the region (a rare feat indeed!). Finally, even the site's closeness to the Iran, a cause of concern to some analysts, has its silver lining. Although less precise than the newest American radars, the fact that Gabala is so much closer to potential launch sites allows it to detect missiles and plot their trajectory within seconds. According to former defense minister Sergei Ivanov, it can even detect the launch of cruise missiles.

These unique advantages permit the issue of tracking to be separated from the issue of interception (as it should be), and allow for a mutually advantageous compromise: by using a Russian radar to track missiles that can then be shot down by interceptors located elsewhere, Russia is ensured that the radar is not undermining its defenses, by tracking missiles deep inside Russia, while the United States maintains complete independence in its response capability.

There are some long term benefits to consider as well. The first is that it would give the Pentagon a foothold in the region's most oil-rich state, one whose favor US officials have long curried. Another is that it would encourage much needed Confidence Building Measures in the area of missile defense. More than anything else it is lack of trust that has thwarted real cooperation on this issue, which both sides agree is of vital importance to them. A joint defense mission will, obviously, force such cooperation.

The problem: the Russians thought of it first. That suffices for Russia-haters to nix the idea, but serious analysts should ask themselves whether they really want to dismiss a proposal so advantageous to the United States just because Putin proposed it? Putin's offer to link American and Russian missile defense systems could be a win-win scenario: allowing the United States to obtain a functional system almost perfectly suited to its needs now, while at the same time making Russia a stakeholder in European security. If properly nurtured by future Russian, American, and European administrations, this proposal could become a model for future arms control initiatives that move beyond linking defense systems, to the linkage of defense strategies.

Putin's innovative proposal forces us to look at security issues anew, in a decidedly post-Cold War light, by asking: "How much is Russia's goodwill worth to us?" If, as President Bush has repeatedly said, Russia is truly welcome to participate in ABM defense, then the superiority of the Gabala option makes the choice obvious. If, however, the United States goes ahead unilaterally, despite the fact that its alternative will not be immediately effective and will raise considerable hackles, both in the Middle East and in NATO, then those who argue that those words were merely rhetoric, will see their analysis confirmed.
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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