Russian Radars and Global Politics: American Legitimization of Russian Military Presence?


2012-10-03 by Richard Weitz

According to the Russian media, the Azerbaijani government is about to renew Russia’s lease of a radar station at Gabala in Azerbaijan.

The station, built in 1985, can detect missile launches at a distance up to 6,000 kilometers, or much of the Middle East.

The became famous in 2007 when, at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised his fellow heads of state by offering to provide the United States with unprecedented access to real-time data from Gabala. Putin described the proposal as an alternative to the U.S. plans to build an entirely new ballistic missile defense (BMD) radar in the Czech Republic.

Putin’s suggestion followed months of escalating U.S.-Russian disagreements over a proposed U.S.-run BMD battle management radar in the Czech Republic as well as American plans to establish a related base in Poland for launching defensive interceptor missiles. The Gabala gambit failed to resolve the dispute since the Russian government demanded a cancellation of these deployments in return for access to the radar, something the Bush administration was unwilling to accept.

Now that the Obama administration and NATO have cancelled these planned deployments, they have confirmed that they are still considering various joint BMD architectures with Russia that might see U.S. and NATO access to the radar, which can provide early warning data for Iranian missile launches.

According to the Russian media, the Azerbaijani government is about to renew the Russian lease of a radar station at Gabala in Azerbaijan. The US Government is looking to join in with the Russians in using this facility.
But popular support for hosting a Russian base remains minimal. Credit:

The Russian government currently leases several ground-based early warning radar stations in the now independent former Soviet republics. These complexes employ obsolete technology, are costly to maintain, and were designed to identify only warheads carried on approaching ICBMs.

The Daryal radar facility in Gabala began operating as part of Russia’s early-warning network in February 1985. Its original purpose was to enable the Soviet military to detect ballistic and some cruise missiles launched from the Southern Hemisphere. These included launches from Asian and African countries as well as from U.S. strategic missile-launching submarines (SSBNs) operating in the Indian Ocean. The Gabala radar was designed to work in conjunction with the USSR’s extensive network of space-based surveillance systems, with both the ground and space-based sensors feeding data into the Soviet strategic command.

Following the USSR’s dissolution, the issue of continued Russian military use of the radar, whose territory now belonged to an independent and sovereign country of Azerbaijan, became contentious.

Though the Russian armed forces continued to operate the radar as their own military facility in Azerbaijan, the Boris Yeltsin administration pressed Azerbaijani government to agree to a long-term leasing arrangement that would regularize continued Russian military access to the complex. As leverage, Russian negotiations threatened to curtail cheap energy exports to Azerbaijan or restrict the commercial activities of the approximately two million Azerbaijan nationals working in Russia. Many of them remitted a substantial share of their earnings to family members in Azerbaijan, a process which helped sustain the Azerbaijani economy.

Despite these considerations, the protracted negotiations did not result in a deal until 2001. The lease signed on January 25, 2002, granted Russia access for a 10-year period at an annual payment of, by various estimates, $7-$14 million. Hundreds of Russian troops belonging to the Federal Space Forces work at the complex.

With a range of 6,000 kilometers, the Gabala radar can potentially monitor India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and parts of China and Africa. According to Russia sources, during the Iran-Iraq war, the station detected over 150 launches of short-range Skud missiles. The Gabala radar also detected test launchings of Shahab-3 missiles from the Iranian Hamadan target ground in January of this year.

Yet, the functionality of the radar is called into question by the fact that the Russian government has already decided to replace Gabala and other Soviet-era early-warning BMD radars with new radar complexes that provide more comprehensive coverage of all types of missile launches, including strategic and tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

The first new “Voronezh-M” radar station became operational in late December 2006 in the Leningrad Region, near St. Petersburg. It closed the gap in coverage of the sector facing northwest Russia that arose in 1999 when Moscow abandoned its obsolete Dnestr-M Skrunde radar station in Latvia. Then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov indicated that Russia plans to build additional radar stations in order to end dependence on the stations located in the other former Soviet republics. He told the Duma in February 2007 that, “We should not depend on anyone on this issue and should control everything ourselves.”

At the G-8 summit, Putin said that he had discussed the Gabala issue directly with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev a day before his statement. On June 14, Aliyev gave a lengthy interview to the Japanese media in which he explained his reasons for agreeing to consider Putin’s proposal. First, Azerbaijan already had good relations with both Russia and the United States, cooperating with both countries on many issues. Second, the Putin proposal would help “reduce potential danger in the world and contributes to global security” and Azerbaijan is already “participating in many programs with respect to the provision of security and predictability in our region.” Third, he observed that his nation’s rights and interests would be respected since the 2002 lease agreement “clearly states that any additional agreement by Russia with any third parties with respect to the use of the radar station must also be agreed to by Azerbaijan.”

On June 15, Aliyev cautioned that, while his government was willing to discuss joint Russian-American use of the Gabala radar, he opposed establishing additional foreign bases in Azerbaijan. He also rejected deploying “foreign military contingents” on Azerbaijani territory, a prohibition that would leave the radar’s defense up to Azerbaijan.

Other Azerbaijani leaders were more explicit in the benefits that might accrue to their country from possible joint Russian-U.S. military use of the Gabala radar.

Aydin Mirzazade, deputy chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, said that a joint Russian-American operation at Gabala would “strengthen the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan, since the station belongs to our country.”

Azerbaijanis seeking to move closer to the United States and farther from Russia endorsed Putin’s proposal because it would, in the words of opposition supporter Rasim Musabekov, “mean diversification of this base and would increase the strategic weight of Azerbaijan.”  From this perspective, inviting the U.S. military to use Gabala would have the advantage of strengthening Azerbaijani-American relations without being perceived in Moscow as an unfriendly act.

In contrast, before Putin’s G-8 statements, the American and Azerbaijani dialogue on the issue had, in the words of Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, been “rudimentary.”  Security ties between Baku and Washington are good if complex. On the one hand, U.S. policy makers have complained about government restrictions on political freedoms and corruption among government employees. Congressional legislation also constrains U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan.

On the other, they recognize the pivotal importance of having a friendly secular government in a predominately Muslim country rich in energy resources. Azerbaijani oil exports underpin the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which U.S. policy makers see as an essential element of their strategy to diversify the source and routes of energy exports from the former Soviet Union.

In terms of concrete security cooperation, Azerbaijan is one of only two Muslim countries (the other is Kazakhstan) that have contributed troops, if in small numbers, to the U.S.-led peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Azerbaijani law enforcement, military, and intelligence communities have provided useful data and other assistance to the United States in the American counterterrorist campaigns in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

The United States has spent tens of millions of dollars as part of its Caspian Guard Initiative to enhance the ability of the Azerbaijani navy and coast guard to counter regional nonproliferation and terrorist threats, including against Caspian Sea energy sources (e.g., terrorist attacks against oil platforms).

In particular, the U.S. government has helped construct radar stations in Azerbaijan that, unlike the Gabala complex, which monitors missile launches and flights, are designed to detect the potential movement of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery by sea or air.

Hosting a joint U.S.-Russian military base could also help strengthen Azerbaijan’s ties with NATO.

If the three countries agreed on trilateral or bilateral Russian-American use of the facility, however, the new arrangement could lock in a Russian military presence in Azerbaijan for a long time since now the Americans could see Russian participation as essential for legitimizing their own use of the facility.

At present, Moscow describes the radar as a core component of its air defense system.

Popular support for hosting a Russian base remains minimal.

Azerbaijani nationalists have long seen the base as an affront to the country’s sovereignty. Citizens’ groups express unease about the Russian military’s traditionally lackadaisical approach to the environmental impact of their activities on local communities.

Nevertheless, Azerbaijani policy makers seem willing to brook this popular discontent in return for the perceived advantages of hosting a now even more important strategic facility. Some people have indicated they hope that the Americans would provide jobs and other compensation for use of the facility.

Many Azerbaijanis hope to leverage the base to gain support in their dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The two countries fought a bloody war over the region during the early 1990s, which resulted in Armenian troops occupying most of the territory and the displacement of over half a million Azeris.

Despite years of talks conducted within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group (co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States), the Azerbaijani and Armenian negotiators remain divided over several fundamental issues relating the region’s future status.

Whereas Azerbaijani leaders remain adamant that Nagorno-Karabakh return to their control, Armenian representatives insist on legalizing the region’s independence. In addition, the two armed forces continue to engage in frequent firefights along the ceasefire line.