Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Missile defence: will the US go with the Russian suggestion?

Just before I went on holiday to the Caucasus earlier this summer, Russia made an interesting offer to the United States. Faced with the Americans' revived plans to create a missile defence shield with forward radar stations in eastern Europe, at the G8 Summit the Russians suggested that America might use a base in Azerbaijan to site its radar.

I remembered the story when I was travelling through Azerbaijan. At Qabala in the centre of the country, on a hill just south of the Caucasus chain, you can see two enormous concrete rectangular structures which the Russians originally built to warn of an American missile strike against them. Today they monitor Russian space shots. I assumed at the time that this must be the place that the Russians had in mind: and indeed it was - the BBC were there at much the same time that I was. The Azerbaijanis are, by and large, reluctant to talk about politics except obliquely, and my taxi driver (a trained lab technician who could earn more as a cabbie than in a hospital) did not directly answer my question about whether the Azeri press had covered the Russian offer, and if so, what they made of it.

An interesting snippet I have just seen would suggest that the Americans are considering the Russian suggestion, which was presumably made to bring the radar into their sphere of influence.

Azerbaijan is being tugged in different directions by the rival powers. US support for the corrupt Azeri regime is evident everywhere. Public buildings (for example in Sheki) have been renovated with the help of the Department of Defense, and the land border crossing with Georgia is smart, intimidating, and supplied with computers from the US Department of Homeland Security. It will be interesting to see if the United States investigates the option further. Its Missile Defense Agency's website gives nothing away.