Azerbaijan, Baku / corr Trend A.Gara / Trend's interview with Celeste Wallander, professor of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Senior Associate of Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously she was Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Question: How can we explain President Putin's offer to the US to use the radar system in Azerbaijan in order to develop a shield covering all of Europe?
Answer: We can explain Putin's proposal as an attempt to back up from more hostile statements he had been making about missile defenses in Europe. When the Russian government started complaining about the proposed missile defense systems in Poland and Czech republic several weeks ago, they hoped to split Europeans away from the US or perhaps create splits within Europe with the Western European countries resentful of Poland and Czech Republic for willing to host these defense systems and certainly resentful of the US for creating this security problem. Putin overplayed his hand and the response was not what the Kremlin hoped for. His most extreme statement that now Russia will have to find new targets in Europe did raise European criticism of the US plan, but even worse so it raised European criticisms about Russia. Russia was looking for a way to pull back from this early position. This is an attempt to be constructive, to try to show that the US is less constructive and less interested in peaceful relations with Russia. This offer is part of a diplomatic maneuver to try to improve Russia's image in Europe. It also aims to expose the US. The proposal was made with every intention or expectation that it would not work. The premise is that the US certainly will not accept this ultimately, and Russia would say see the US is not serious about solving security problems cooperatively, the planned defense systems are directed against Russia and that is why the US wants to put it in Czech Republic and Poland.
Question: How likely is it that the US would be willing to accept such a plan, given that Russia stands to win most from it?
Answer: I think neither the US nor Russia would seriously be willing to accept such a plan. The Russian military is not even willing to undertake simple exercises with Americans on any subject. The dept of integration that this proposed plan requires is something that US does not do even with its NATO allies. Being willing to do these with Russia would be really extraordinary. Russia and the US are not in that kind of place in terms of their security relations. I do not think that Russia is serious about this plan. Track record of the willingness of Russian military to participate in international military projects, integration, cooperation and transparency is quite bad.
Question: If this proposal would be something tangible what Azerbaijan would win from such cooperation?
Answer: Putting defense systems in the Caucasus makes a lot of strategic sense. The US has also talked to Georgia about missile defenses in general. If you want to establish missile defenses against Iran, then it makes sense to think about the Caucasus region.The outcome of the proposal depends on how well or poorly the Bush administration diplomatically manages this. By offering this proposal Russia has in effect agreed that Iran is a source of threat. They have never admitted this before and this in effect makes it legitimate for the US to have an interest in a military presence in the region. If it could do it in the context of cooperating with Russia, why cannot the US have bilateral strategic defense arrangement with countries in the region including Azerbaijan. Russians probably did not think about this aspect of their proposal. Now Russia has conceded that Iran is a threat and the US has an interest in strategic military cooperation presence in Azerbaijan and the region. Once you concede this sort of thing in the international stage you can not take it back. This might change Azerbaijan's role and profile in the region.
Question: If the US declines this offer and insists on building the defense systems in the central Europe, does it show that the US in fact perceives Russia as a threat?
Answer: Yes and No. It shows that the US does not view Russia as a close strategic ally but there are ways that the US could build and deploy these facilities in Poland and Czech Republic and at the same time allow presence, inspection and transparency viewing of the targeting for Russians. If Russia wants to be reassured that any system is not deployed against itself there are ways to do so other than deploying it in Azerbaijan. I see the premise of this question and this is actually what Russian analysts argue. I do not expect the US to reject this offer. It will become a topic of conversation between presidents' following meetings. There will be study groups, committees, research and discussions on it. The US will not say "we will not do it", Russians will not say "we are not going to do it" either, and once the Russian presidential election will be over in a year, the issue will be ignored. This is the cynical analysis based on the current US-Russian relations now. More hopeful interpretation would be that these would happen in the short term, but if the US-Russian relations significantly improve over the coming years, the study groups may lay the foundation for the future cooperation. However, for such improvements there is need for improving political relationship first. Military cooperation at this stage of integration can not be used as a basis to improve political relationship, you have to have the political relationship improved first in order be able to realize this kind of joint military program.