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Last Updated: Monday, 2 July 2007, 16:05 GMT 17:05 UK
Inside Russia's missile defence base
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Gabala, Northern Azerbaijan

High on the agenda at the Kennebunkport summit between US President George W Bush and the Russian President Vladimir Putin was the US plan to install a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, close to Russia's border.

Gabala radar station
At first sight, Gabala radar station looks like an office block

Alarmed at the prospect of interceptor missiles and a sophisticated radar system being set up so close to its own territory, Moscow at first responded with threats.

It said its own missiles would be re-targeted on Europe, warning there would be a new arms race similar to that during the Cold War.

But then Mr Putin surprised the Western world by offering the US an alternative location for their missile defence system - at a Russian military base near the town of Gabala, in Azerbaijan.

The offer, made during last month's G8 summit in Germany, initially got quite a favourable response from the Bush administration, which described it as "interesting".

But, since then, the US seems to have cooled on the idea, making it increasingly obvious they do not regard the Gabala base as an alternative to their original plans for Eastern Europe.

Warning

In a bid to shape public opinion on the eve of the Kennebunkport summit, the Russian military did something they have never done before.

The operations room at Gabala radar station

They took Western journalists to the Gabala base to try to prove it is a realistic alternative, and therefore a solution, to the current missile crisis stoking tensions between Russia and the West.

We were driven from our hotel in Gabala town with a large contingent of Russian counter-intelligence officers on board our bus and a police escort out in front.

It was clear this was to be a strictly supervised visit. We would only be able to see what the military wanted us to.

The base itself, nestling in the mountains of northern Azerbaijan, is home to a huge radar station built during the Cold War as part of an early-warning system.

It was designed to detect any US missile strike against the Soviet Union.

It comprises two strange-looking concrete structures which could easily be mistaken for office blocks, until you see their sloping fronts.

Before we were allowed inside, our guide for the day, Maj Gen Alexander Yakushin from Central Command Space Troops, warned us that everything we filmed or photographed would be subject to censorship.

Indeed a team of military censors had already lined up in front of us in the midday heat.

After managing to talk him out of a diversionary visit to the school and hospital at the base, we were finally able to enter the radar station itself.

It was a step back in time to an era now almost forgotten.

The musty corridors, heavy metal doors and creaking lifts were decorated with fading Soviet military memorabilia.

Our group of foreign and Russian journalists assembled on the seventh floor and was ordered to switch off all phones and cameras.

We were about to enter the command centre.

James Bond-style

But this was no state-of-the-art, high-tech operations room.

Instead, it seemed to have been borrowed from the set of a very old James Bond film - life imitating art.

US missile defence graphic

Uniformed men sat stiffly at dimly-lit desks. In front of them ancient computers and even an old teletext machine chattering in the background.

But for all our incredulity, Gen Yakushin was adamant the radar station was effective.

At the official briefing he told us the station was in good technical condition and could be easily modernised.

With a range of 6,000km it could cover the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Middle East.

"During the Iran-Iraq war, we proved the station worked, detecting the launch of 150 Scud missiles," he said.

"And, in January this year, we detected the launch of the Shehab-3 [missile] in Iran."

Peace initiative

Later, at the equally old-style radar transmission area, we managed to corner the general and press him more about the reality of Gabala being used by the US as part of their cutting edge (and still unproven) "son of Star-Wars" missile defence system.

"This station works perfectly for the Russian missile defence system," he insisted.

"What the Americans want I don't know. But if there is the political will, we'll try to figure out how to modernise this radar station."

But independent Russian military analysts ridicule any suggestion that Gabala is a viable alternative to what the US would install in Europe.

"The radar in Azerbaijan is an early warning radar," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence specialist at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

"It was not designed to guide interceptor missiles onto their targets. It's also in the wrong place and does not fully cover all the territory of Iran because it's targeted due south.

"It was designed to monitor US bases in the Indian Ocean."

The question is whether Mr Putin was badly briefed by his military chiefs before proposing the Azeri alternative at the G8 summit or whether it was ever a serious offer.

Pavel Felgenhauer has his own theory: "It smacks of a Soviet peace initiative, put forward only to be rejected to make the Americans look like the evil ones."





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