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Azerbaijan's Gabala Radar Base Examined

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Azerbaijan's Gabala Radar Base Examined

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Azerbaijan's Gabala Radar Base Examined

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet today in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the home of the first President Bush. One of the items on the agenda is Putin's offer to use a Russian radar base in Azerbaijan for the planned U.S. missile defense system.

NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled to the base.

GREGORY FEIFER: The Gabala radar base may be at the center of U.S.-Russian relations, but where it stands seems like the middle of nowhere: the top of a flat hill in parched northern Azerbaijan, a bumpy 150 miles across desert from the capital, Baku. This is the first time this base has been visited by Western journalists since it was built in the early 1980s.

Inside the concrete radar building, a large industrial elevator carries visitors 20 stories to the top under the watchful gaze of military minders.

(Soundbite of elevator doors)

FEIFER: General Alexander Yakushin, first deputy head of Russia's space forces' headquarters, said the radar is capable of tracking missile launches from the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Arabian and Indian Oceans. But he declines to answer whether the radar would be capable of functioning as part of an American missile defense shield.

General ALEXANDER YAKUSHIN (First Deputy Head, Russian Space Forces): (Through translator) That's a technical detail I'd rather not discuss. Russia has a different conception of what a missile defense system is. But this radar station is battle-ready, and can be modernized if a military and political decision is made to do so.

FEIFER: Inside, the command center looks like a dusty set from a 1960s Hollywood film.

Unidentified Man: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: It's dark and there's not a single modern computer in sight. Instead, there are rotary phones, telex machines that look like old IBM electric typewriters, and soldiers in uniforms typing on ancient-looking consoles.

(Soundbite of typing)

FEIFER: Putin publicly made his offer for Washington to use the station as part of its planned missile defense system last month as an alternative to U.S. plans to install parts of the shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow is angry about that plan, saying it threatens Russian national security.

The Kremlin says if Washington is serious that the missile shield would really be aimed against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, it would have no reason to turn down the offer to use the Gabala radar station. But most analysts agree the base would be useless for American purposes.

Military expert Alexander Galt(ph) says even that is a moot point because Washington's missile defense system is still theoretical and a long way from operational.

Mr. ALEXANDER GALT (Military Expert): The discussion can be resulted on the decision of mutual use - of absolutely useless. Gabala station for absolutely useless American missile defense system.

FEIFER: Most Azeries are largely ambivalent about Putin's offer, saying it's part of a game of politics between Moscow and Washington. But back in the town of Gabala, locals say they want the radar base shut down. Retired military officer Sahim Jafarub(ph) served at the Gabala radar station and lives in the town.

Mr. SAHIM JAFARUB: (Russian spoken)

FEIFER: This radar emits huge radiation that affects four or five regions in the south, he said. People complain of birth defects and other problems. This base is old. Why would the Americans want it?

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

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