WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Late last month, Russia's foreign minister confirmed that his country's forces are in the process of vacating a major radar station in Azerbaijan. The Gabala radar was a vital part of Russia's late Cold War missile tracking system, covering all of the Middle East, Iran, Pakistan and even as far as India.
Of all of Russia's post-Soviet military installations in the volatile Caucasus, it was the only one that was geared toward external threats, as opposed to security within the region. It is therefore very significant that Russia is leaving.
All the more noteworthy is that Moscow's forces were asked to leave by the Azerbaijani government and the Kremlin complied.
To put this in context, one of Russia's only influential levers against its former Soviet colonies is its continued military presence in many of them, from a major multifaceted military network centered on the Gyumri base in Armenia to a minor air base in Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan hosts 7,000 troops from Russia's 201st Motorized Division. Ukraine is home to Russia's crumbling Black Sea Fleet in and around Sebastopol. Both of these deployments are set to remain until 2042 as part of agreements in which Russian President Vladimir Putin strong-armed the leadership of both countries.
Russian forces don't leave their posts without a fight. In fact, the norm is for Moscow to push for increased presence, as it has done in Kyrgyzstan, while lobbying vociferously for the ouster of U.S. forces from the air transfer station at Manas.
The consequences of bucking Russia can be disastrous. Azerbaijan's neighbor Georgia still bears the scars of four distinct Russian-sponsored conflicts on its territory because its leadership was less than accommodating to Russian demands. The latest was a full-scale invasion in 2008.
It is therefore remarkable that Azerbaijan, a country 1-14th the size of Russia in terms of population, right next to Russia's most restive regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, could escape Putin's pressure when it quietly showed Russia the door. About 1,000 Russian military officials who were stationed at the radar complex are moving back home, some of them having been stationed in Azerbaijan for much of their careers.
The answer is straightforward but not all that simple: Azerbaijan's rapidly growing economic, diplomatic and military profile has allowed it to effectively balance Russia, at least in the Caucasus region.
This is largely due to Azerbaijan's massive oil and gas wealth, which it has channeled into a national project of building prestige. Petrodollars are, of course, not available to all of the post-Soviet states (although Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have larger reserves than Azerbaijan).
However, beyond the use of its wealth Azerbaijan has practiced a deft foreign policy for the last 15 years, including attracting major investment from Western companies to balance Russian economic dominance and forging lasting partnerships with the United States on European energy security, resupply routes for Afghanistan and regional security. But, all the while Baku has never slighted Moscow and has made a point of maintaining good working relations, even though Russian forces support Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
It is notable that Azerbaijan's leaders didn't demand Russia's departure outright. They just suggested an increase of rent for use of the radar station from $7 million per year to $300 million, knowing full well that the Russians couldn't pay.
Tajikistan tried similar tactics when renegotiating Russia's troop deployments but was quickly smacked down by a miffed Putin. This has to do with Tajikistan's lack of resources but probably more so due to its lack of international partners, despite a decade-long NATO presence next door in Afghanistan.
Azerbaijan's methods are ones that could be emulated not just by its regional neighbors that find Russia to be overly friendly, but also by neighbors that have angered Russia by rapidly integrating with Western institutions.
In the post-Soviet area, policy independence and genuine sovereignty usually require reduced Russian influence. The way to achieve that is to beat Russia at its own game.
(Alexandros Petersen is the author of "The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West." His latest research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)