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Putin Offers Alternative To U.S. Missile Shield In Europe

HEILIGENDAMM, Germany, June 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered the United States to deploy a joint antimissile radar base in Azerbaijan.

The surprise proposal, made today on the sidelines of the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Germany, could bring some warmth to the chill in ties over Washington's plans to build a missile-defense shield in Central Europe.

Formal talks between leaders of the world's wealthiest economies kicked off today in the German coastal resort of Heiligendamm.

The deepening Russian-U.S. standoff over Washington's plans to place elements of an antimissile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic was widely expected to steal the headlines from this year's summit.

And it did -- but perhaps not in the way everyone had expected.

A New Twist

Emerging from bilateral talks with his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush, Putin unveiled Russia's proposal to deploy a joint antimissile radar base in the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan.

"We have looked carefully at the United States' suggestions," Putin said. "We have our own ideas, and I outlined these in detail. The first proposal is to use the Gabala radar station that we [Russia] lease in Azerbaijan. I spoke to the president of Azerbaijan about this yesterday, and the existing agreement allows us to do that. Azerbaijan's president stressed that he will be more than happy if his country can make a contribution toward international security."

Bush refrained from commenting on the proposal, saying only that the meeting with Putin was "very constructive" and that his Russian counterpart made "interesting suggestions."

He said both sides agreed to launch strategic consultations.

"As a result of our discussions, we both agreed to have a strategic dialogue, an opportunity to share ideas and concerns between our State Department, Defense Department, and military people," Bush said. "This will be a serious set of strategic discussions. This is a serious issue, and we want to make sure that we all understand each other's positions very clearly. As a result of these conversations, I expect there to be better understanding of the technologies involved and the opportunities to work together."

Proposal Meets Skepticism

Some security experts, however, say Putin has made an all-but-empty offer.

"I think that in Baku there's no reaction [so far], because it is very new [information] for Baku," Vafa Quluzade, a former national security adviser to former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, told RFE/RL. "But Putin proposed it to the United States knowing that the United States is not interested in establishing this kind of radar system in Azerbaijan."

Nonetheless, today's remarks mark a departure from the bitter words Moscow and Washington have been trading in recent months.

Bush has made it clear he has no intention of backing down on the system, which he says is intended as a defense against attacks by "rogue" states such as Iran and North Korea.

Rising Tensions

Putin, in turn, has threatened to retarget missiles on Europe if Washington pushes ahead with the shield, which he said would upset the "entire configuration of international security."

Washington has also added fuel to the fire by consistently criticizing Russia's democratic credentials. Bush again drew an angry response from the Kremlin this week by saying Russia "derailed" democratic reforms.

Today's meeting was the first face-to-face talks between Bush and Putin since the Russian leader in February blamed Washington for what he called "ruinous" attempts to impose its will on the world.

The two leaders may just be saving hard talk for a planned July meeting in the United States to allow the G8 summit to focus on its main agenda points -- climate change and aid to Africa.

(RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina in Heiligendamm and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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