Two wrongs rarely make a right, but sometimes they just might. According to the reports from the G8 summit in Germany, Russia proposed using the radar site in Gabala, Azerbaijan to deploy missile defense radars and interceptors that the United States are currently planning to deploy in Eastern Europe. This potentially opens a possibility to turn two wrongs - the U.S. missile defense and the Russian unreasonably loud opposition to it - into something of a right - a concrete joint U.S.-Russian program that would allow the two countries to establish close contacts between their militaries, which eventually is the only way to dispel all kind of suspicions and misunderstandings.
I was hoping for just this kind of an outcome of the current missile defense debate when I wrote about this issue about two months ago and I'm glad to see that Russia and the United States are getting closer to it. We are not there yet, though - although the Missile Defense Agency was thinking about a radar in the Caucasus, I don't think it would be ready to abandon it's Eastern European plans. But it's a reasonably good start.
Now, the site is question, Gabala (here it is on Google Maps), is the host of a Daryal early-warning radar, which is still nominally part of the Russian early-warning network. As I understand it, Russia is leasing the site from Azerbaijan, paying about $7.5 million a year. The current lease agreement was signed in 2002 and will expire in 2012.
The radar will probably reach the end of its operational life by then - it has been in operation since 1985. Some Russian commentators suggested that the radar could be included into the U.S. missile defense system, but this kind of use is highly unlikely - the radar probably does not have the resolution that would be necessary for anything but early warning. But the location is quite good - as the map on the left shows, one can cover most of the Middle East from there. In fact, if I remember correctly, Ted Postol and Richard Garwin, when they advocated a joint U.S.-Russian missile defense in 1999, looked into the possibility of having a radar some place in the Caspian Sea region. A more recent APS study "Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense" also looked into that possibility.
But technical details are not really important today - it is unlikely that anything useful would come out of missile defense anyway. My hope is that the Russian proposal would remove the missile defense controversy from the political spotlight, helping the whole missile defense program die a natural death.