Azerbaijan has stated that it is ready to hold bilateral and trilateral talks with Russia and the United States over the joint use of an Azerbaijani radar station as an anti-missile defense shield. The agreement comes, however, amidst strong statements by Baku that its own national interests must be taken into account by both Moscow and Washington.
"It is not possible to undertake any actions without us," stressed Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov at a June 8 press briefing in Baku, adding that joint use of the station could bring "greater stability and predictability in the region." "Both Russia and the US accept our position, and we are ready for negotiations."
During a June 7 summit meeting of the world's most industrialized powers, Russian President Vladimir Putin told US President George W. Bush that Moscow would drop its objections to a missile shield -- originally proposed for installation in North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Poland and the Czech Republic -- if the radar-based system were instead installed in Azerbaijan. If the US agreed to the proposal, Moscow would not retarget Russian missiles on Europe, the Russian leader said.
"This will create grounds for common work," news agencies reported Putin as saying after a meeting with Bush on the sidelines of the G8 summit in in the Baltic Sea resort town of Heiligendamm. Bush has stated that the two sides have agreed to "a strategic dialogue." Talks with President Putin are expected to continue July 1-2 at the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
As proposed, the system would be installed at the Soviet-era Gabala radar station, located some 250 kilometers northwest of Baku. The station, built in 1985, is designed to monitor the launch of inter-continental ballistic missiles in the southern hemisphere. Now leased by Moscow, the station makes up an important part of the Russian anti-missile defense system. The Russian lease on Gabala runs until 2012. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While Putin's proposal to install a US missile shield at Gabala came as a surprise to many, it appears that the issue has been under discussion with Azerbaijan for some time. At the G8 summit, Putin mentioned that he had already discussed the issue with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. In Baku, Foreign Minister Mammadyarov said the proposal had also been discussed during a May 21-22 visit to Azerbaijan by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov had earlier visited Moscow that month for security talks with the Russian leadership.
Talks with the American side about the proposal, however, have only been at a "rudimentary level", according to Mammadyarov. (A Russian diplomat in Baku told the Novosti-Azerbaijan news agency that the idea had been raised during US Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Moscow in late April.) Azerbaijan's discussions with the US are expected to continue during bilateral security consultations scheduled for July 9-10 in Washington.
So far, the response in Baku to the Russian president's initiative has been largely positive. Aydin Mirzazade, deputy chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, believes that joint use of the Gabala radar station will contribute to "greater stability in the world."
"It will also strengthen the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan, since the station belongs to our country. Azerbaijan will take part in the negotiations and will be able to defend its national interests," Mirzazade said. "I think this idea is a potential political dividend for Azerbaijan."
Even if the proposal does not work out as planned, it stresses Azerbaijan's strategic importance, agreed Rasim Musabekov, an independent pro-opposition political analyst. "In any case, Azerbaijan has nothing to lose here. The joint use of Gabala radar station by the Americans and Russians would mean diversification of this base and would increase the strategic weight of Azerbaijan."
One Baku-based military expert, however, terms the proposal a "bluff" by the Russian leader. "Gabala radar station is still an important component of Russia's anti-missile shield and I do not think they have a serious intention to share it with the US," said the expert, who asked not to be named. "Putin's statement is just a test to check whether the US is ready to give up their plans to create an anti-missile system in Poland and Czech Republic."
Making sure that Azerbaijan does not become a chip in a strategic power game between the US and Russia is a concern for other observers, as well. Analyst Musabekov cautioned that Baku should pay close attention to how use of the Gabala station would affect its own national security.
"If the two superpowers would guarantee Azerbaijan's security, it would be worth to have talks on the issue. Azerbaijan will have the right to demand taking its interests into account. It may touch the issue of the Karabakh conflict [with Armenia] and also security guarantees in regard to third countries," he said.
One of those third countries would most likely be Iran, Azerbaijan's neighbor to the south. In the past, Azerbaijani officials have stressed that they would not allow their country to be used for any form of military action against Iran, which contains a sizeable ethnic Azeri population. They had also strongly denied earlier speculation that the US's planned missile shield would be installed in Azerbaijan, which cooperates militarily with both NATO and the US. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Addressing the issue on June 8, however, Foreign Minister Mammadyarov downplayed the potential for acrimony with Tehran.
"It is the wrong approach," he told reporters. "Azerbaijan's foreign policy is based on its national interests. And these negotiations [with Russia and the US] will also be based on our interests."
Both Yeni Azerbaijan MP Mirzazade and analyst Musabekov also do not consider Iran's reaction a serious threat to Azerbaijan. "It is possible that Iran will not be happy with the idea. However, we should know that it [Gabala station] is a defensive system," Musabekov said.
Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.