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The Missile Defence Shift: İmplications for the Caucasus

By Alexander Jackson,
Caucasus Update No. 48, September 22, 2009
Caucasian Review of International Affairs and APA

President Obama’s decision to scrap Bush-era plans for missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic was seen as “a huge shift in American foreign and defence policy” by many observers (BBC, September 19). Quite rightly, in many respects. The decision removes one of the biggest obstacles to US cooperation with Russia, which saw the shield not as a defence against Iranian missiles but as protection against Russia’s own nuclear arsenal. The hope of the White House is that the decision will lead to greater partnership with Moscow on critical issues: principally, imposing sanctions on Iran.

Whether or not the abandonment of the plan is the correct move depends, mainly, on one’s political viewpoint. Republicans in the US have been predictably furious, with one comparing the decision to appeasement of the Nazis (Politico.com, September 18). This reaction ignores the fact that the move was based on thorough intelligence assessments, and was backed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defence Secretary. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that the decision was taken without privately consulting Moscow and being reassured that Russia would, in fact, back stronger sanctions against Iran (although whether those reassurances are trustworthy is hard to tell). In any case, missile defence has not been scrapped, as critics claim. Indeed, missiles are still going to be deployed in Europe, as well as at sea, and will actually be deployed earlier than under the Bush-era plan.

But the dismay in pro-US eastern European states is evident. There is a sense that the new US Administration is not as committed to the expansion of NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures as the previous one. Georgia would be expected to share this disappointment, but it hopes the hunt for more effective bases for missile defence may increase its importance.

This is because the Caucasus has emerged as one of the most important possible locations for a revamped missile defence plan. Situated on a direct path between Iran and Europe, the region has been discussed as a possible host site for early-warning systems and missiles for years.

In 2007 Russia offered to share its lease of Azerbaijan’s Qabala radar station as an alternative to the eastern European sites, but the US rejected the idea. It may now be reconsidered. If Azerbaijan agrees to host US forces, Baku’s relationship with Tehran would be likely to deteriorate. This would probably be compensated for, however, by the new geostrategic significance which Azerbaijan would gain. It would extend the US military footprint firmly to the shores of the Caspian, and (depending on how quickly the lease was made) could be linked in with a more robust transport corridor through the Caucasus to Afghanistan.

Georgia has also been suggested as a possible location for the radar by some commentators (Eurasianet, September 18). Although this could be expected to provoke fury in Russia once again, the difference is that the system in the Caucasus would use an X-band radar – this would not be able to ‘see’ in all directions like the radar planned for Eastern Europe. The strategic location of the Caucasus means that it could host an X-band radar simply facing south, towards Iran, reassuring Russia that its missiles could not be monitored.

It seems unlikely that Georgia would be chosen to host the system. For one, the system already exists in Azerbaijan. Building and installing a new radar system would be unnecessary and expensive – a significant consideration in the current economic climate. Secondly, it is unlikely that the White House would wish to reward Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili with a radar system, which would tighten the relationship between Washington and Tbilisi. For the Obama Administration, Saakashvili has been something of an embarrassing remnant of the Bush era (like Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai): a leader whose rashness and irrational decisions do more harm than good to America’s foreign policy. Even if the radar could not see into Russian territory, the Kremlin would probably oppose the deployment of such a system in Georgia because of its loathing for President Saakashvili. Working alongside Russian forces in Qabala would pose no such problems.

Would Azerbaijan agree to host a US radar system, given the hostility that this would create in neighbouring Iran? It seems likely. The often tense relationship between Baku and Tehran flared up in recent months over the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Azerbaijan. It is also clear that Azerbaijan would not welcome a nuclear-armed Iran, especially given Tehran’s warm relationship with Armenia. Baku would be forced to seriously readjust its strategic thinking regarding a possible military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict if Armenia was supported by a nuclear Iran. In this sense, hosting a facility which would help to contain any possible threat from Tehran, as well as strengthening its long-term strategic relationship with the US, would be a positive step for Azerbaijan.

However, Russia may be able to work with the US directly, and in doing so curb the US influence in Azerbaijan. In late 2009, a radar station at Aramvir in southern Russia will become operational (RIA Novosti, August 6). Moscow has also expressed its willingness to work with American forces here – in doing so, it may be trying to draw Washington away from closer cooperation from Baku. It would also grant Russia powerful leverage, as it would retain the right to kick US forces out of the radar station.

Turkey’s role in the reshaped missile defence plan remains unclear. Days before the eastern Europe plan was scrapped, the US said that it was considering a sale of advanced Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey. The Washington Times reported that, although the Pentagon denies any link, siting these missiles in Turkey could replace the Polish base (Washington Times, September 17). This attempt may fail. Ankara’s policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ would be clearly contradicted by hosting missiles aimed at Iran; it would only agree to missiles under a NATO framework, according to an unnamed diplomat (Sundays Zaman, September 20). It seems that until the US can secure Turkey’s cooperation, it will be content with using ship-based missiles in the Mediterranean.

The plan to scrap missile defence in Eastern Europe could shift the geostrategic balance of power in the Caucasus. It seems likely that in case of a joint use of the Qabala radar station Azerbaijan would become firmly integrated within the US military’s global defence network, whilst Georgia could receive firm proof of its demotion from its previous status as a strong US ally. Turkey, meanwhile, must decide whether it places more value on relations with its unpredictable neighbour, or with its superpower ally. If it does so, and if Russia fulfils its side of the bargain and supports strong sanctions, Iran may conclude that it is rapidly running out of friends in Eurasia.





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