Putin proposal leaves U.S. wary

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BRUSSELS — For weeks, the United States sought in vain to persuade Russia to end its campaign against a planned missile shield in Eastern Europe and join its effort to pre-empt threats from Iran and beyond.

When it finally got a reply — Thursday’s surprise proposal by President Vladimir Putin to share a 22-year-old radar in Azerbaijan — it could be excused for not jumping at the offer.

Although the proposal is at odds with much U.S. planning to date, Washington cannot be seen to dismiss it out of hand. It is also a new factor that could undermine the fragile backing of the United States‘ European allies for the existing shield plan, which it has spent months trying to shore up.

“The truth is, nobody knows if this is the Russians showing a more cooperative side or not,” said Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels-based think tank Security and Defense Agenda.

At first glance, Mr. Putin’s offer, made at a meeting of the Group of Eight major powers last week, lacks appeal.

One of the biggest radars in the world, the Qabala radar in northern Azerbaijan, scans the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and most of North Africa, and can detect missiles launched across those areas. Mr. Putin on Saturday suggested it could be used together with interceptors in southern Europe or Turkey.

But U.S. officials have stressed that they see the radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland as optimally located to pre-empt missile threats from Iran and the Middle East and do not see the Putin plan as a replacement.

“As an adjunct, it would make sense. But as an alternative, a number of issues arise, not least the geometry of intercept,” said Robert Bell, senior vice president at U.S. security technology firm Science Applications International Corp.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer agreed, telling a defense conference on Friday that the Azerbaijani site could be “a bit close to the rogue states we are discussing,” while stressing it was too early for a definitive judgment.

Even as a supplement to any future U.S. shield, Western defense analysts wonder whether the Azerbaijani radar, operated in the north of Azerbaijan since 1985 and manned by the Russian military, which leases it from the Azerbaijanis, is up to the job.

Mr. Putin has offered to share with the United States all information coming from the radar in real time. But given the frosty state of Moscow-West ties, it is not clear whether Washington would want to rely on the Russian military for such critical data.

Nevertheless, the West has responded cautiously, reflecting a desire to test whether Russia’s offer marks a real shift away from four months of corrosive attacks on the project.

President Bush made clear during a visit to Poland on Saturday that he would pursue existing talks with Warsaw while a senior U.S. diplomat acknowledged that Mr. Bush faced a delicate task in doing this while not appearing to snub the Russian offer.

Some U.S. allies have said they want Washington to at least show it is willing to study the offer.

“This suggestion deserves to be considered closely and until that has happened … everyone should refrain from premature judgments,” said a government spokesman in Germany, where leftists in the ruling coalition oppose the U.S. shield.

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