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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thanks, But No Telescopes

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Hope has faded that Washington and Moscow will find a resolution to their conflict over U.S. plans to deploy elements of its anti-ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. This hope was first raised three months ago at the annual Group of Eight meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, when President Vladimir Putin suggested to President George W. Bush that the United States make joint use of the early warning radar station in Gabala that Russia rents from Azerbaijan.

Before the G8 meeting, Russia had always accused the United States of trying to violate global strategic balance with its ambitious missile defense projects in Eastern Europe. Then, it seemed Moscow switched gears by offering a compromise. The understanding was that in return for its Gabala offer, the Kremlin would receive Washington's support for Putin's preferred presidential candidate. Many observers felt that Putin had obtained such a guarantee during his summit with Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine, in July.

It now appears, however, that these hopes will amount to nothing. The situation was clarified by someone far removed from politics. While speaking to reporters on Saturday, Major General Alexander Yakushev, a senior Space Forces official, said the goal of a meeting between Russian, U.S. and Azeri military experts at Gabala on Tuesday will be to demonstrate to the Americans the installation's ability to track rockets launched from Iran. But at the same time, Yakushev made it clear that Russia's real goal is something entirely different: "Our job during these consultations will be to stop the deployment of anti-missile defense shields in Eastern Europe -- in the Czech Republic and Poland," the general said.

It seems to me that the only way to achieve this goal is to convince the Americans that the radar installations in Gabala and Armavir could be included in the existing U.S. global missile defense system. But this, of course, is a nonstarter. "The Americans decided to buy a double-barreled shotgun, and we offered them a telescope instead," retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin said. The general is correct: The Russian early warning systems can only identify a rocket's trajectory in its initial stages; it cannot actually intercept the incoming missiles.

As it turns out, Moscow never really intended to incorporate the Gabala and Armivir stations into the U.S. anti-missile system. Instead, Moscow is offering an entirely different option: The United States, as a precondition, should cancel its plans to deploy elements of its missile defense system in Europe, and, in return, it would receive the right to use Russia's radar stations to monitor the development of Iran's missile program.

The Kremlin says it would take Iran three to five years to develop the final deployment of a medium-range missile after it achieves its first successful test launch. Moreover, the Kremlin believes that three to five years is plenty of time for the United States and Russia to install a new global anti-missile defense shield to meet the new Iranian threat.

There's one problem, though. Washington is categorically opposed to this interpretation. U.S. Lieutenant General Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, is convinced that Iran will be able to make significant progress in its rocket program as early as the coming months. Iran, like many other authoritarian regimes, has the capability of developing advanced weapons in complete secrecy. Remember how North Korea, to everyone's surprise, launched a rocket over Japan in 1998. A single successful launch would be sufficient to inflict serious damage to either nearby or distant countries.

Thus, it is understandable why Washington could never agree with Russia's plan. The whole idea behind any missile defense system is that a country should be protected against any a missile threat well in advance -- before the actual missile is developed by the enemy state. Moscow's position, however, is that the United States should wait and see if the missile is actually developed before an extensive missile defense system is deployed in Europe.

Moreover, Moscow declared that the Russian radar tracking stations will under no circumstances be incorporated into a U.S. anti-missile system. Thus, Russia has effectively narrowed the room for compromise -- if not eliminating it entirely.

This means that Moscow has decided to divert Washington's attention away from Putin's presidential succession plan. In its place, the Kremlin has raised the stakes by opposing U.S. policy and forcing Bush to focus on military issues.

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