The Gabala Gambit

Trading missile defense based in Poland and the Czech Republic for greater Russian cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar program.

By proposing to base an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Azerbaijan-and to have it be a joint operation between Russia and the West-Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have caught the White House off guard. And the Russian leader whose penchant for judo is well known now appears ready to flip some of Washington's own arguments and statements to strengthen the case against the deployment of any such system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Gabala radar installation covers precisely the areas of the world where the threat from rogue states (or accidental launches) is most acute-the Middle East and Indian Ocean basin. It is a bit more difficult to argue that a system based in the Czech Republic and Poland is somehow more effective at covering Iran than one located in the southern Caucasus. (Interestingly, the Gabala station was once offered by Azerbaijan, in the late 1990s, to NATO for use as a possible base.)

After weeks of talks with senior U.S. officials declaring they were perplexed by Russia's unwillingness to consider cooperation, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, commented today in Germany, "We asked the Russians to cooperate with us on missile defense, and what we got was a willingness to do so."

Sentiment in Europe about deploying the system is quite divided. No one wants to completely discount a possible threat from Iran, but many were concerned about the resurgence of tensions between Russia and the West if an East European deployment went forward. Putin's proposal now gives such critics-including those in the Czech Republic, where support for the U.S. proposal hovers at only about 30 percent-a way out. They can cite, as Putin did, that an Azerbaijan based system will cover all of Europe and that debris would not pose a risk to populated areas.

If Washington demurs from the Putin proposal, it then calls into question whether or not the United States had other "hidden" motives behind its desire to site the system in Poland and the Czech Republic-the so-called "beachhead" argument; that a small system directed against Iran could then be expanded, over time, to be directed against what is a shrinking and less effective Russian nuclear arsenal.

Putin may also be wanting to demonstrate to the government of Ilham Aliyev in Baku the "fair-weather" nature of the Americans. For years, the Azeris were quite interested in forging closer strategic ties with Washington. Putin, who claims to have discussed the Gabala proposal with Aliyev and said he received Aliyev's approval to make the offer, may also want to remind the United States that the easy distinction between "free" nations supporting the U.S. and "unfree" ones being satellites of Moscow doesn't quite work when it comes to the Caucasus.

Putin now looks a lot more reasonable on the issue of missile defense than he did even a day ago.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

One addendum: In 2004 Ian Bremmer and I argued that NATO and Russia should work together more closely on matters of joint security. Although we were thinking about Kyrgyzstan, not Azerbaijan, we wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

Creating a joint U.S.-Russia base under the aegis of a NATO-Russia partnership … could lay the basis for practical cooperation that could then be extended, both to the countries where Russia has prevailing influence (such as Armenia) and those seeking greater integration into Euro-Atlantic structures (such as Georgia, Uzbekistan or even Azerbaijan). It would send a clear message to all countries in the region that cooperation with Russia does not jeopardize their progress to full membership in the Euro-Atlantic community.

If Putin is sincere in his offer, and if the West takes him up on it, perhaps this might come to pass after all.