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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

More Comfortable with a Familiar Agenda

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It shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that the lead up to the meeting between President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush beginning July 1 would be spent discussing whether the two would be able to reach agreement related to Moscow's offer for the joint use of an early warning radar station in Azerbaijan.

Skeptics about the offer argue that the Gabala station is designed to chart the path of ballistic missiles and predict their trajectories. If it is clear that a rocket is headed for Russia, the military and political leadership is informed of the fact, giving them sufficient time to order a counterstrike. The system was built in the era of mutual assured destruction, when security was guaranteed by the ability to inflict severe damage on any aggressor. This is why the Gabala station has no targeting capabilities. For this reason it is unlikely that it can be integrated into the type of anti-missile system the United States is trying to develop.

Optimists argue that the necessary upgrades would be much less expensive and effective than building a new array in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Both of these arguments seem pointless to me.

The fate of Putin's proposal has little, if anything, to do with the ability of the radar location system in Gabala to intercept Iranian rockets. The argument surrounding the station is a case of pure politics.

In a move directed at U.S. public opinion, Bush has decided to begin the deployment of a strategic missile defense system, even though its effectiveness is seriously in doubt. The Czech Republic and Poland, looking to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States, and not at all because they are afraid of Iranian rockets, expressed their willingness to allow elements of the system to be installed in their countries. Putin's stance is that the U.S. system represents a threat to Russia, and he has tried to frighten Washington with threats of an "asymmetrical" response, including retargeting Russian missiles at Europe. All of this bears only an oblique relation to any kind of serious military planning or analysis of real threats and risks.

All the same, Bush is unlikely to make the choice between the Czech and Azeri radar station options based on which is more effective from a security standpoint. He will choose based on a consideration of what is more important politically: to demonstrate strategic cooperation with Moscow or to show solidarity with "New Europe." The choice is a difficult one, and the Bush administration is likely to put off making it for as long as possible. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already said that the Gabala option might not preclude the installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. So the Russian side raised the stakes, with the chief of the General Staff, Yury Baluyevsky, quickly accusing the Pentagon of trying to undermine the Russian proposal.

In a situation like this the simplest solution is for both sides to settle down for extended negotiations. Baluyevsky said that talks between Russian and U.S. military officials could open after the two presidents meet at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, the scene for next week's talks.

That there will be talks at all has to be seen as a clear victory for Putin. Since the signing of the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions in 2001, he has been trying to bring about a renewal of talks covering nuclear weapons. This is not because Moscow sees the U.S. missiles as a serious threat to its security. It is simply because the nuclear sphere is the one area in which Russia is almost on even terms with the world's sole remaining superpower. The very fact that discussions are being held raises Russia's status, returning it to that of a great military power.

Washington has steadfastly avoided these sorts of negotiations. But now, when Putin is virtually accusing the United States of preparing for nuclear aggression, Washington can sit down to talks to demonstrate its peaceful intentions.

But that's not even the biggest victory for Putin. It appears that he has been able to change the agenda in relations between Russia and the West completely. If Putin still plans to hold on to power after his second term expires next year, contrary to constitutional stipulations, it helps to stir up Western reaction. How else can you explain his angry jibes about foreigners trying to "instruct" Russia. Abandoning all diplomacy in the days leading up to the meeting with Bush, Putin has reverted to the propaganda of the Soviet era to brand the United States: "We have never used nuclear weapons against a civilian population. We have never sprayed chemical agents over thousands of square kilometers and never poured on any small country a volume of bombs seven times greater than that dropped during all of World War II, as was the case with Vietnam. Yes, there is much to talk about in the history of every country and of every people. It is unacceptable to allow them to fix guilt upon us. What about them?"

Putin is altogether unwilling to listen to uncomfortable questions about rights and freedoms in Russia, so he has tried to shift attention to the agenda of more than 20 years ago -- the problems of conventional weapons in Europe and of strategic anti-missile defenses. In so doing, Putin is acting as if the 10 U.S. anti-missile interceptors to be installed in Poland by 2012 are a threat to Russian security. This has allowed him to set the agenda.

Western leaders, given their own inability to stop Kremlin backsliding on democracy, will gladly go along on discussing problems related to weapons and military technology.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.