RUSSIA WEIGHS RESPONSE TO U.S. MISSILE DEFENSE PROPOSAL FOR CAUCASUS
March 6 2007
Moscow has taken as a direct threat a recent statement by a senior
United States Pentagon official that the Caucasus could prove an
attractive location for an anti-missile defense station. The discussion
of likely responses to such a move has served to highlight Moscow’s
own uneasy relations with the former Soviet republics in the region.
Tensions between the Kremlin and the West had already long been
building over plans by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
to set up an anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe. On February
10 at a security conference in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin
charged that such a system could spark a fresh Cold War, charging
that the US "has overstepped its borders in all spheres… and has
imposed itself on other states."
A March 1 statement by US Lieutenant General Henry Obering, head of
the Missile Defense Agency, that a missile defense station in the
Caucasus could prove "useful," though is "not essential," only further
fueled the flames. Governments in the region have denied that they
have discussed such a station with the US, and American officials
have repeatedly reassured the Kremlin that any defenses in Eastern
Europe against missile attacks from countries such as Iran would not
be aimed at Russia.
But the assurances have done little to assuage Russian concerns. Air
Force Commander General Vladimir Mikhailov has asserted that, while
a U.S. anti-missile radar system in the Caucasus would not affect
Russia’s defense capabilities, the country would have to respond in
kind, news agencies reported him as saying on March 2. On March 5,
his deputy, Lieutenant General Aitech Bizhev, who oversees the
Commonwealth of Independent States’ united air defense system,
argued that the presence of missile interceptors and radar stations
in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus would effectively allow the U.S.
military to control Russia’s airspace, Interfax news agency reported.
In addition, Air Force Commander Mikhailov has stated that Russia
would need strong defense systems by 2015 to counter possible aerial
and space attacks.
While Western governments may view these comments as extreme, the
Kremlin has complained that Washington is altogether ignoring Russian
concerns on the topic. Russia has yet to receive comprehensible
answers from the U.S. on most strategic security issues, Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow on March 6.
Meanwhile, Russia has announced plans to update its strategic military
doctrine, adopted in 2000. The Russian Security Council affirmed on
March 5 that, in revising the document, it would bear in mind the
tendency by "the world’s leading nations" to "increasingly rely on
military force in their policies." The statement has been taken as
a veiled reference to the US.
Military observers see Georgia or Azerbaijan, both eager to
strengthen ties with NATO, as the most likely candidates to host such
a system. Former Russian Air Force Commander General Anatoly Kornukov
warned on March 2 that placing anti-missile stations in either of the
two countries could make them potential targets for Iranian missiles,
thereby threatening Russia’s own security, news agencies reported.
At the same time, certain efforts appear to be in the works to sweeten
the Kremlin’s ties with both states. On March 5, Russian Ambassador
to Baku Vasily Istratov stated that Russian officials have indicated
they are prepared to consider potential Azerbaijani proposals that $7
million-per-year lease payments for Russia’s rent of the Gabala radar
station in northern Azerbaijan be reviewed. The ten-year agreement
expires in 2012. Istratov added, however, that Russia could refrain
from extending the agreement, news agencies said. [For details,
see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A certain detente has also emerged recently in relations between Russia
and Georgia, though no indication exists that this is directly linked
with US consideration of anti-missile defense plans for the South
Caucasus. On March 1-4, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Iliya II
visited Moscow, arriving on the first direct flight from Tbilisi in
over five months. Russian Orthodox Church officials have indicated
that Patriarch Alexei II could consider a reciprocal visit to Georgia.
In yet another symbolic gesture, on March 5 Russian and Georgian
diplomats agreed to cooperate on the identification and reburial of
Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose body was recently
identified in a grave in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya.
Nonetheless, despite these overtures, some Russian experts have
urged caution. Any missteps by Moscow in the South Caucasus now could
eventually facilitate deployment of an American anti-missile defense
system there, they say. The pressure put on Azerbaijan in late 2006
to join Russian efforts in isolating sparring partner Georgia over a
gas price dispute only proved instrumental in alienating Baku, argued
Sergei Markedonov, head of the international relations department
at the Institute of Political and Military Studies, a Moscow-based
think-tank. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian
policies towards Georgia also adversely affected Armenia, thus pushing
Yerevan towards the West, Markedonov said, Azerbaijan’s state-run
Azertag news agency reported.
For now, though, it remains to be seen whether Moscow will prefer to
rely on sabre-rattling to try and prevent deployment of any U.S.
anti-missile system in the Caucasus, or whether the Kremlin will
consider reviewing its own policies on the region. The stability
concerns, however, are unlikely to subside soon. Commented Air Force
Deputy Commander Bizhev: "No one likes to be in the cross-hairs."
Editor’s Note: Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS