Why it’s time to take the Russian-led military alliance seriously
The intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan marks a change for multinational security both regionally and globally.
by John P. Ruehl
The Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), made headlines in January 2022 after 2,500 of its troops entered Kazakhstan to help restore order during the anti-government protests in the country. The troops, sent to secure vital infrastructure in Kazakhstan, have “done enough to stabilize” the government to allow it to end the unrest. For many political observers, the intervention in Kazakhstan was the first notable CSTO operation, which came after years of Russian attempts to build an international organization capable of reshaping regional and global security while trying to dilute the power of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), “an informal club of post-Soviet countries”, signed the Collective Security Treaty (CST) in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The treaty finally entered into force two years later in 1994. Consisting of Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan , the treaty was supposed to help coordinate military policies between the former Soviet states.
But the initiative failed to spur real military integration, and three of the nine members – Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan – chose to leave in 1999, when the treaty was renewed. After Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency, Russia began to take steps to modernize and strengthen the organization. This included granting the Collective Security Treaty the status of an “international regional organization”, after which it became known as the CSTO; increase military exercises and integration between member states and create the collective CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces in 2009; which is intended for “[accomplish] both military and special tasks.
Although the CSTO is often seen simply as a vehicle for Russian influence, the biggest criticism from member states has been the organization’s lack of support in times of crisis, undermining the perception of its effectiveness. The Kyrgyz government had asked for help from the CSTO in 2010, but the organization refused to help restore order following clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country. The CSTO said it was not authorized to do so and cited the organization’s “lack of mandate to intervene in the internal affairs of its members”.
Moreover, the CSTO did not condemn Turkey when it shot down a Russian bomber as it flew over Syria in 2015 – according to Russia – because member states were keen to maintain positive relations with Turkey. In 2021, Tajikistan said the CSTO was not doing enough to help it deal with instability in neighboring Afghanistan. In 2020, Armenia appealed to the CSTO for help during its conflict with Azerbaijan, but as much of the fighting was taking place on what is internationally recognized as Azeri territory, Armenia’s request was was rejected by the CSTO. However, Azeri forces also fired on the internationally recognized Armenian border, with minimal CSTO response.
But these limitations that seemed to have prevented the CSTO from acting in the past appear to have been lifted, after reviewing the organization’s action in Kazakhstan. The intervention of the CSTO in January clearly demonstrated the value of the organization to its member states. It provided integral international and domestic legitimacy to the government of Kazakhstan under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, while easing logistical constraints on Kazakh security forces by allowing them to focus their efforts on confronting protesters. The CSTO’s assistance to Kazakhstan contrasted with the lack of support from other organizations and states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has offered only half-hearted attempts to intervene during anti-government protests in Kazakhstan, and despite China’s huge investments in Kazakhstan and public support for Tokayev, Beijing’s backing s is limited to condemning the demonstrations. US calls for calm have been echoed by the European Union, with NATO expressing concern over protests in Kazakhstan.
The CSTO could benefit from reassuring the governments of its member states that they receive support from the organization when needed, especially as these countries are increasingly concerned about the threat of protests or of revolutions. Perhaps cautious to show dependence on Russia, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko failed to appeal to CSTO for help in 2020 as he faced mass protests against his re-election. But the success of the CSTO in Kazakhstan, coupled with its rapid departure from the country, has not failed Lukashenko or the leaders of other CSTO member states.
The CSTO is also likely to play a bigger role in mediating disagreements between member states in the future, having already taken some steps to help manage flare-ups related to the Tajik-Kyrgyz border dispute in 2021.
But the organization’s future actions may not be limited to the territories of its member states. The first international deployment involving two of the CSTO members has already taken place in the Middle East. In early 2019, Armenia deployed dozens of its troops to Syria for a “Russian-backed mine clearance and humanitarian mission”. The Armenian government stressed the non-military nature of the deployment, but this mission marked for the first time integrated operations between CSTO member states abroad.
The Kazakh CSTO operation in January also opens the door for other similar international organizations to launch their own military interventions to quell unrest in their member states, without UN or NATO support. NATO’s two-decade campaign in Afghanistan has revealed its own limitations, and organizations such as the Arab League or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could take their own steps in states members by following the new standard established by the CSTO.
For Russia, the advantages of the organization are clear. Its army now has unparalleled access to the territories of CSTO member states. In 2011, member states won “the right to veto the establishment of new foreign military bases in CSTO member states”, giving the Kremlin considerable reach over their sovereignty and over a significant part of Eurasia. . The Kazakh intervention succeeded in consolidating a pro-Russian government in Kazakhstan while emphasizing its dependence on Russia. And, without the formal role of the UN, EU or other international bodies, Russia has demonstrated that an organization it dominates acts as an effective crisis mediator and a responsible actor in international affairs.
Russia’s efforts to promote the CSTO as a global security alternative to NATO will likely require the organization to expand its membership. Serbia currently holds observer status in the CSTO’s parliamentary assembly, while the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was also an observer in the organization. Uzbekistan, which joined the CSTO in 2006 and left in 2012, remains the Kremlin’s top priority. In 2019, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov also said that Russia was open to the idea of granting Azerbaijan special partner status in the CSTO, to which Armenia said that it would veto it. And although Ukraine’s return to Russia’s sphere of influence is currently a long-term project, the Kremlin sees Ukraine as the centerpiece of its 21st century ambitions. Moscow will reinvigorate its efforts to integrate the country into Russian-led organizations like the CSTO when the opportunity permits.
The future operations of the CSTO abroad were also mentioned. As US forces left Afghanistan in 2021, Russian, Tajik and Uzbek military forces conducted exercises across the Tajik-Afghan border to demonstrate Russia’s commitment to Tajikistan’s border security. But the move also demonstrated Russia’s ability to help decide the fate of Afghanistan as the Taliban established control of the country. In 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry also revealed its concept of collective security in the Persian Gulf region, signaling its intention to help regulate affairs in the region.
The CSTO has proven that only Russia and the United States are willing and able to maintain viable international military alliances. As the CSTO’s profile continues to rise, Russia will need to continue to balance its geopolitical ambitions while demonstrating the benefits of the organization to other member states.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, DC He is editor of Strategic Policy and contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.