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President Putin's Cold War Thinking With Azerbaijan

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A triumphant Vladimir Putin, Russian president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister due to term limits, has just won a third six-year term with nearly 64 percent of the vote.

Opposition claims that his presidential election victory was unfair and fraudulent are ignored by Putin. Instead, he criticized the opposition for failing to offer a constructive program and failing to become a real political force at the ballot box -- difficult to do in a country with controlled elections.

Putin's tough remarks indicate he is not going to be influenced by the massive protests that have revealed public anger over his continuing 12-year rule. He will no doubt appoint Medvedev to be Prime Minister again in the interests of stability, though his next term of office may not be as stable as he hopes. Political instability in Russia has been growing over the years and anti-Kremlin movements have grown in confidence since the December 2011 parliamentary elections, when Putin's United Russia Party lost its super-majority in the Duma.

A new growing middle class has emerged from years of relative calm and anti-Kremlin sentiment has led to a perception of a weaker Putin. At the same time, the European financial crisis affected Russia's economy because an estimated 75 percent of foreign investment in Russia comes from European Union countries. Trade has rebounded lately as demand for Russia's oil and gas continues and prices for both are at record highs. Economic uncertainties however, feed into domestic political problems and Putin will have to find a new balance to weather the volatility ahead.

Any sign of weakness in the Kremlin is likely to be welcomed by the United States and Central European countries, particularly when negotiating the missile defense issue. The emerging states of the former Soviet Union in particular are always looking for opportunities to assert their independence from Russia. But the smaller breakaway territories of the region such as the former Georgian territory of Abkhazia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan are in a more ambivalent position as they lack resources to exist as independent nation-states and must rely on Russian patronage. Russia has a strong military presence in each of the breakaway areas except for Nagorno-Karabakh which is provided with financial and military aid through neighboring Armenia.

Russia has shown that it will use its dominant position in the breakaway areas to control the "parent" states and punish them if they do something Russia does not like. For example Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 when Georgia attempted to join NATO. The breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were recognized by Russia who keeps troops stationed there as a constant threat to Georgia.

Recent elections in South Ossetia and Transdniestria, a separatist region of Moldava, saw Russia's preferred candidates both losing, suggesting that Russian influence may be waning. But the need for Russian funding still guarantees the allegiance of smaller separatist regions, and while Russia remains a relatively powerful country it will continue under Putin to assertively oversee the nations in the former Soviet sphere.

That is why the issue of the Gabala Radar Station in Azerbaijan is becoming a symbolic yet pivotal actor in the missile defense question that has preoccupied U.S. and Russian policymakers for some years. The Gabala Radar Station was built by the Soviet Union in Azerbaijan in 1985 and is now leased and operated by the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces. It has a range of 6,000 kilometers, covering Iran, Turkey, India, Iraq and the entire Middle East, and can detect and track the launch of missiles to enable a defense system to intercept offensive strikes.

The current lease expires in December 2012, and Moscow wants to extend the lease for another 25 years. Azerbaijan's response has been to raise the rent, first from the existing $7 million a year to $15 million, then to $150 million and again to $300 million.

The standoff is interesting because the Gabala station needs modernization and the Russians are building a new and more powerful station in Armavir, in neighboring Armenia which can replace the Gabala station when its second phase comes online. By increasing the rent so dramatically, Azerbaijan is asserting its independence from Russia and its ability to offer the station instead to NATO. Speculation about the reasons behind Azerbaijan's new assertiveness range from the absence of progress in talks concerning the status of Nargorno-Karabakh and the delay in finalizing the Trans-Caspian pipeline.

If Russia refuses to pay up, then it will lose the Gabala Radar Station. AZ News online reports that, "Moscow then will not only lose one of its trump cards in negotiation with Washington on missile defense, but it will also give the Americans a station that will help them conduct operations against Iran."

However, the Gabala station may not be such a trump card after all. In 2007, Putin offered the station to the United States if they would abandon their proposed deployments of missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic. The United States refused and Russia then had to appease Iran who thought that the Russians were trying to gain favor with the US at Iran's expense. The Russians explained it away by saying that the Gabala station was simply a passive surveillance system, a listening post, and had no anti-missile component. Moscow continues to this day to insist that Iran is not capable of launching ballistic missiles and that the United States has an ulterior motive of wanting to establish a European defense system to protect them against a possibly belligerent Russia.

The fate of the Gabala station then is highly symbolic of Russia's new President's attitude toward the former Soviet satellites. Putin's new Presidency could well be one of heightened tensions as he seeks to suppress internal dissent by creating external enemies. Georgia and Chechnya were hostage to his inordinate ambitions, and the tragic loss of life and the human rights abuses have gained Putin little but international disrepute. If Azerbaijan is pressured to lower the rent by an autocratic Russia, then the Gabala station would be a constant reminder that Azerbaijan is still a client state, and that the Russians have a right to maintain their last military outpost in an independent country.

If the United States were to support Azerbaijan, and perhaps reopen discussions with the Russians about Gabala and remind them of their earlier offer, perhaps this relic of the Cold War could be taken over by NATO or even demolished, decommissioned or turned into a tourist hotel as some in Azerbaijan have suggested. After all, it is in a particularly beautiful part of the country and photos of the site show it to be an especially ugly piece of brutal concrete Soviet architecture. Let us hope a pragmatic President Putin will see it as technologically outdated and too expensive to continue to maintain. Like the statues of Stalin, Gabala radar station should go -- along with Cold War symbols and Cold War thinking.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the US Army War College, Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.

More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com