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U.S. and Azerbaijan discuss missile defence

Officials from Azerbaijan have wrapped up the tenth two-day Annual U.S.-Azerbaijan Security Dialogue in Washington without any progress on Russian proposals to use the Gabala radar base as an alternative site for an anti-missile shield.

The Azerbaijani delegation, led by the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Azar Azimov, met with the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon officials to discuss a wide range of issues, including Azerbaijan-NATO relations, energy security, counter-terrorism, human rights, progress of democracy, and, of course, missile defence, which topped the agenda.

Last month at the G8 Summit in Germany, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to share the use of the Azerbaijan’s Gabala early warning station with the U.S. as an alternative to the planned anti-missile defence installations in Eastern Europe.

Put into operation in 1988 by the Soviet Union to detect missile launches from the Indian Ocean, the Gabala radar station is located in Northern Azerbaijan and is leased to Russia till 2012.  

“The proposal made by President Putin is given at a certain juncture, and of course is an important one to be considered by all those who are inside the issue.  And of course Azerbaijan is becoming an interested partner because this station is a property of Azerbaijan. It is located on our territory,” Azar Azimov, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister, said.

So far, the U.S. has remained cool on the Russian proposal and will proceed with the deployment of a radar base in the Czech Republic and an interceptor site in Poland.

“What we do not accept, is that Gabala is a substitute for the plans that we are pursuing with our Czech and Polish allies. We believe that those installations are necessary for the security of our interests in Europe.  And so we do not believe that the Gabala suggestion replaces that and we are still going to go ahead with the installations on those sites,” Stephen Mull, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, stated.

Azerbaijani officials said they will continue to hold discussions with both Russia and the U.S. on the missile defence. They also added that no dividing lines should be drawn over this very controversial issue.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department officials say they need more information and more details from Russia regarding their proposal to jointly use the Gabala base.

At the end of July consultations at an expert level between the two countries are expected to take place to further develop the Russian proposal.

Azerbaijan, considered a strong ally of the U.S., supported the American-led invasion of Iraq.  The countries share a number of common strategic interests, and Azerbaijan may hold the key to resolving the U.S.-Russia standoff over missile defence.

“If we can find a way to put the right kind of hardware in Azerbaijan or some other site that is amenable to the Russian interests, that would be a great benefit to U.S.-Russian relations and advance the actual task of deploying missile defence in Europe,” Jeff Kueter, President of Marshal Institute, says.
Meanwhile Aleksey Bogaturov, political analyst from Moscow State University of International Relations, says the U.S. missile defence plans are first and foremost connected to NATO's assuming new responsibilities in Asia.

“I think it is less about Iran and almost nothing to do with the North-Korean threat. It is about some basic change in the nature of NATO, because NATO stops to be European or Euro-Atlantic organisation. It accepts more and more responsibilities in Asia, I mean security responsibilities. So, marching into the eastern areas, it is not about harming Russia’s national security. Russia’s national security is unquestionably strongly affected by all these moves, but basically, it is about power projection in Central Asia, somewhere closer to the western frontiers of China – things like that. Americans are strongly pre-occupied with unilateralism. It may be explained, it is not a big problem to explain why. But at the same time, it is clear that it is harmful for Russian-American relations, and President Putin is rather sophisticated in inventing rather tricky ways how to get Americans into co-operation. For example, his idea about the Transcaucasian station in Azerbaijan was quite a good idea, I would say. And Americans reacted to it reasonably positive, well, in a very American way. Their interpretations were American, not Russian. But at least they never said it is not suitable at all,” said Aleksey Bogaturov.

Summing it up, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Azar Azimov held a press conference and said about the outcome of the meetings with U.S. officials.

“Of course, Azerbaijan is interested in the further consideration of these matters, because, first of all, the station is located on our territory, and secondly, it is our property. We cannot be neutral or indifferent to such a matter. We are not intervening in the side of Russia’s concerns with Polish and Czech deployment, this is something different. And we expect Russia and the U.S. to discuss these matters,” he told.

He also touched upon Russian-Azerbaijani relations, especially Russia’s role in the security of the Caucasus region. He said that they don’t see any benefit of Russia’s military presence in Azerbaijan, and no need in Russian military base in Armenia.