- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

U.S. officials yesterday got their first look at a top-secret Russian early-warning radar site in Azerbaijan that Moscow has offered as a base for a new missile-defense system against attacks from Iran and other rogue states.

But the visiting U.S. delegates gave no signs that they were ready to drop plans for shield sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move fiercely opposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This was a technical-level visit to give our experts an opportunity to get a tour of the facility and a briefing on its capabilities,” Army Brig. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told reporters after a visit to the base in Gabala, Azerbaijan, about 100 miles from the border with Iran.

“There were no formal negotiations or consultations,” the general said.

The Bush administration’s plan for a new defense shield — with a powerful new radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland — has sparked some of the sharpest exchanges between Washington and Moscow in years.

U.S. officials say the modest system is aimed primarily at a possible missile attack from Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed as “ludicrous” Russian fears that the system posed a strategic threat to Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Putin in turn accused the United States of igniting a new “arms race” and suggested Russia may retarget its nuclear missiles toward Europe to counter the new U.S. shield.

The Russian leader surprised Mr. Bush on the sidelines of this summer’s Group of Eight summit in Germany with the offer of the Gabala site, the Soviet Union’s main radar tracking station for the Middle East and Central Asia that is now leased by Moscow from Azerbaijan through the year 2012.

But in two rounds of talks so far, U.S. officials have balked at Russia’s key demand in exchange for use of the base — that the Polish and Czech sites be dropped. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said U.S. officials have made it “very explicit” to their Russian counterparts that the Gabala site could complement, but not replace, the Eastern European sites.

“I could not say there has been great progress” on a deal, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said in Paris last week after a second round of talks on the Azerbaijan proposal with lead U.S. negotiator Assistant Secretary of State John Rood.

A third round of talks is set for Moscow next month, but U.S. officials have been pursuing parallel talks with both the Polish and Czech governments.

U.S. planners say the Gabala radar could provide an early alert about a missile launch, but the Polish and Czech sites are still needed to track and shoot down any incoming missiles.

“It’s like have a car coming at you on the [highway],” Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told a conference last month. “By the time you see it, you wouldn’t be able to react to it.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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