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March 06, 2012, Tuesday

Gabala Radar Station: Russia’s Daryal gambit

In recent days, the Russian media, with references to anonymous sources in the Russian Defense Ministry, has published reports that Baku wants to increase the annual lease payment for Gabala Radar Station from $7 million to $300 million. Gabala Radar Station is a Daryal-type bistatic phased-array early warning radar, which Azerbaijan has leased to Russia until 2012.

After regaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan banished all Russian military facilities from its territory. Only the Gabala Radar Station remained, classified under “no status." Installed to monitor the ballistic missiles between continents, the station has the capacity to determine every such move in the southern hemisphere.

Nonetheless, Azerbaijan and Russia signed an agreement ‘On status, principles and conditions of use of the Gabala radar station (Daryal)' in Moscow on 25 January 2002, establishing the station as an information-analysis center, owned by Azerbaijan and leased to Russia for a ten year period (until December 2012), with a possible extension of the lease. Russia has been in talks with Azerbaijan since mid-2011, hoping to extend the lease on this key station in its ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS) to 2025.

Now, the interesting thing is that some Russian media outlets are claiming that Azerbaijan is dramatically increasing the cost of the lease agreement because it wants to take an anti-Iran stance. Obviously, here is no ground to use Gabala Radar Station against Iran by Azerbaijan, either Russia and US have more capable similar stations.  It seems that every little political or military development is being linked to the situation in Iran, no matter tenuous the connection, in order to dramatize the current state of affairs.  However, a more detailed analysis reveals a different story.

First of all, the increase in the rent is not a maneuver against either Russia or Iran. For starters, when Azerbaijan makes any military purchase, from Russia or any other country, it keeps details of the negotiations private until all questions have been resolved. Moreover, there are no grounds for the parallels that are being drawn between the risk of operation against Iran by US/Israel and the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh; claims that Baku is seeking concessions from Russia in this direction are baseless- over the past decade, Baku has not used Gabala as a tool to negotiate greater neutrality on Moscow's part regarding the Karabakh conflict.

Secondly, Gabala is a rapidly developing region that has invested heavily in tourism over recent years, and has changed a great deal since the Soviet era. The developing tourism facilities in Gabala are suffering because of the radar station due to a very high electro-magnetic impulse, and Azerbaijan is losing money every year. The losses have to be recouped; especially if we take into consideration that due to inflation $7 million today is not the same as in 2002. Of course, Azerbaijan has another reason to be dissatisfied with the current arrangement, which is the fact that Russia, according to official sources, is planning to spend 23 trillion rubles ($770 billion) on arms between now and 2020. In this light, the proposed rent hike seems less unreasonable.

On the other hand, the Gabala radar station is often the subject of ecological and environmental concern. The station occupies some 210 hectares of land; in addition, an adjacent area of 30 hectares was deforested in order to lay high-voltage lines to supply the station with electric power. The surrounding forests are now dying due to the decreased levels of groundwater. The objections by the Azerbaijani opposition and various environmental movements are frequently voiced in the Azerbaijani press. From the economic standpoint, without the station, Gabala would be a more popular tourist destination, and tourism would bring in money. Another key issue here is public health. Azerbaijan is not considering transferring the station to a different location, nor is it interested in building a new one. It is only logical that government is more interested in developing tourism, and so Western investment in a radar station in Azerbaijan is unlikely.

On several occasions, the media has drawn comparisons between Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan, and Gabala, arguing, given that since the start of 2011 Russia has paid Kazakhstan $56 million for a lease on Baikonur spaceport, $300 million for Gabala is unacceptable. But Baikonur spaceport is not located in an area of tourism; it is in the middle of the desert. More importantly, the health risks are greater in Gabala, which is much more densely populated. In addition, some Russian sources have suggested that Moscow has no interest in modernizing or paying more for Gabala, on the grounds that the Voronezh-class radar (in Armavir, the Black Sea area) that is currently operating in test mode is significantly more advanced than the previous generation of radars. Nonetheless, the Gabala radar station remains of interest to Russians, simply because it allows them to maintain a physical presence in Azerbaijan.

For Azerbaijan, the future of the radar remains a purely economic matter, and Baku refutes any links to partisan speculation or rumor. It is no secret that Iran is trying to turn its battle with Israel/US over to Azerbaijani territory, using fundamentalist groups and sponsoring media outlets. But interestingly, the material on Gabala has been leaked by some Russian media sources. Nevertheless, playing games with the media means taking the unethical path, i.e. leaking privileged information pertaining to bilateral negotiations. While Iran's previous behavior sought to create problems for Azerbaijan in its relations with the US and other Western countries, it is now seeking to destabilize Russia-Azerbaijan relations. The remaining question is, in whose interest are these debates on the Gabala Radar Station? On one hand it is understandable that Moscow is dissatisfied, however it seems that for Moscow this is more than a matter of economics. The situation brings to mind the Azerbaijani proverb, “Save me from my friends, I'm capable of fighting with my enemies.” The Daryal gambit represents part of a broader, long-term geopolitical strategy. 

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