Russia and CSTO. Is the «loyalty belt» cracking? Or have vassals become emboldened…

Throughout the whole wide world, there exist various intergovernmental alliances! All sorts of them… If we were to reduce all this diversity to a common denominator, we would have trade and economic, as well as military and political alliances. Although, as the classics claim, politics is a concentrated expression of economics. And no matter how you twist it, it turns out that everything revolves around His Majesty «interest» — economic, political, and military. This interest is formed by some «union-forming» entity based on circumstances that primarily determine its national security, inform Oglavnom.

Historical experience shows that all alliances are not eternal and quite situational. Arising due to certain circumstances, they eventually cease to exist under the influence of those very different circumstances, for example, the irrelevance of the problems for which the alliance was created, its contradictions among the participants, or the weakening of the same union-forming entity.

What is the point of this lengthy introduction? It’s simple — the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), sometimes referred to as the «Tashkent Pact» or «Tashkent Treaty,» is a regional international organization in the field of collective security involving several post-Soviet states.

This organization, which emerged in the post-Soviet space in the early 1990s and proclaims its goals as strengthening peace, international and regional security and stability, protecting the independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of member states on a collective basis, today demonstrates many of its contradictions and flaws through its activities! And here, the words of the proverb about the outcomes of good intentions involuntarily come to mind…

So, what allows for such bold conclusions? Let’s go through it step by step.

With the dissolution of the USSR and the «division» of its legacy, especially its military assets, among the newly independent states, Russia, as a historical empire, lost its centuries-old «security belt.» To be fair, it should be noted that at that time, questions of its own security worried not only Russia but also many post-Soviet states because their own security structures were in the process of being created and developing. Furthermore, the young states had become accustomed to the «patronage of the big brother» during their many years of «coexistence.» However, not all post-Soviet republics rushed to seek shelter under the Russian wing. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldova declared their orientation towards the West from the very beginning, thereby, of course, «exposing» Russia’s eastern frontiers.

The beginning of the CSTO was laid on May 15, 1992, with the signing of the Collective Security Treaty (CST) in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) by the leaders of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Russia was the initiator and founding member. In 1993, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia joined the CST. It is notable that Azerbaijan joined after key defeats in the Nagorno-Karabakh battles, and Georgia joined after setbacks in the war over Abkhazia. Interestingly, at that time, Russian volunteers were fighting on the side of Azerbaijan and Georgia’s opponents — the Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhaz separatists. Meanwhile, the First Chechen War was actively unfolding in Russia, soon to escalate into the Second Chechen War.

The treaty, which came into force on April 20, 1994, united nine states, was initially designed for five years, with the possibility of extension. In April 1999, the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan extended the treaty for another five-year period, but Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan declined to renew. Any CST member country has the right to leave the CSTO at any time at its discretion. Clearly, the hopes and expectations placed on the organization by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan were not met. It is understandable. Examples of Russian ineffectiveness in many foreign and domestic policy matters were quite evident, highlighted by the First Chechen War and the brewing Second Chechen War, as well as the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Already at that time, Russia’s role was more about observation, control, and the desire for total dominance over its «historical vassals.»

It’s worth noting that during the same period, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan actively began shaping their foreign policies, oriented towards cooperation with the West and the leading countries of their respective regions, such as China and Turkey.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of effectiveness in its activities, the CSTO structure existed, and with Putin coming to power in Russia, a new stage of its development began, greatly influenced by Putin’s ambitions and his cherished dreams of recreating the USSR.

At the Moscow session of the CST on May 14, 2002, a decision was made to transform the CST into a full-fledged international organization — the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The organization’s headquarters, of course, was established in Moscow. In October 2002, in Chisinau, the Charter and Agreement on the Legal Status of the CSTO were signed, ratified by all CSTO member states, and entered into force in September 2003. The CSTO Charter declares the existence of «allied relations in the field of foreign policy, military, and military-technical cooperation» among its participants, with the key goal being officially proclaimed as the «collective defense of the independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of member states,» in other words, defense against external aggression. CSTO member countries can also create joint military forces, establish shared military infrastructure, and collaborate in combating terrorism, drug trafficking, and other types of threats. However, as time has shown, the provisions of the founding documents did not prevent the organization from regularly experiencing disagreements among its members.

One might wonder about external threats, especially when considering countries like Belarus or Russia, the only nuclear-armed state within the organization with the largest and modernly equipped military. Besides, Russia already had military bases or facilities on the territories of other member states. It is evident that Russia did not plan to wage war on its own territory and, by remaining an empire, expanded and solidified its influence in neighboring territories. Love for one’s own country knows no bounds.

At that time, the CSTO included six states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Today, the organization is represented by the same member countries. Russia has, at a new level, secured its presence in these regions and strengthened its own security.

Russia maintains military bases in Armenia — in Gyumri, and a military airfield near Yerevan; in Tajikistan — a military base with units in two cities, including the capital, Dushanbe. In Kyrgyzstan, Russians have a military base, a naval testing ground for torpedo testing, a communication center, and a seismic station that operates for Russian rocket troops. In Kazakhstan, Russians use space control and missile attack warning systems, several test ranges, and testing centers. Most of these facilities were inherited by Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but there is limited understanding of the functions and the forces deployed by Russians at such sites.

Belarus now plays a special role, having become a member of the Union State and a western outpost for Russia. Russian military presence is expanding in Belarus beyond the space control and missile attack warning systems; at the request of Belarusian leadership, and «to ensure security,» Russia has placed nuclear missile weapons there. This raises the question: are these actions really steps towards achieving security or an escalation of tension in the region, particularly in light of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine? This is the kind of «peacekeeping» that the CSTO demonstrates…

But that was in December 2004 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution granting the CSTO observer status in the UN General Assembly. At that moment, the organization ceased to be legally part of the legal system of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union by former Soviet republics, including the member states of the CSTO) and became a new element of the international security mechanism. But is the status de facto such? The events of the recent period, including those in August 2008 in Georgia, and especially today in Ukraine, have by no means demonstrated the peacekeeping and stabilization mission of the CSTO, especially its main member, Russia.

In this regard, Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007, became significant, in which he clearly stated that Russia would once again become a «major player» and defend its geopolitical interests to the fullest extent. Georgia was the first to feel the implementation of Russian interests in August 2008. The policy of implementing Russian interests was also evident in the activities of the CSTO. In February 2009, at a CSTO session, and of course, at the initiative of Russia, a draft decision on the creation of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CRRF) was signed. The goals of creating the CRRF were, of course, noble. The priority tasks of the CRRF were to respond to acts of military aggression and carry out special operations against international terrorism and violent manifestations of extremism. The collective forces were also intended to combat transnational organized crime, drug trafficking, and participate in the elimination of the consequences of natural and man-made emergencies. However, the most important motive for creating the CRRF was to counter NATO’s advancement in the post-Soviet space, a possibility that Russia and its allies considered after the war in Georgia. Military cooperation became more intense, with CSTO members conducting joint exercises and operations.

However, neither the declared goals and tasks nor the joint thematic exercises aimed at working on these goals and tasks contributed to the internal cohesion of CSTO member countries. And when the question arose of the need for the direct involvement of the CSTO in resolving a conflict on the territory of one of the member countries, assistance proved to be very «diplomatic.» Russia most often took a wait-and-see and observational position, especially if the incident in question did not affect its national interests.

In 2010, a revolution occurred in Kyrgyzstan, following which President Kurmanbek Bakiev fled the country. Shortly thereafter, ethnic clashes broke out in the south of the country between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Acting President Roza Otunbayeva called for the dispatch of CSTO police contingents to the southern regions of the country, but these calls were ignored by other member countries of the organization. The then President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, speaking to journalists, stated that the criterion for the use of CSTO forces was the violation by one state of the borders of another member state of that organization. As for the turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, he said that as long as there was no need for military assistance because all of Kyrgyzstan’s problems originated within, in the weakness of the previous government that did not want to address the needs of the people. Therefore, all existing problems should be resolved by the Kyrgyz authorities, and the Russian Federation would help. And they did help. They strengthened the protection of the Russian military contingent in Kyrgyzstan and sent humanitarian aid, as is usually done in such cases. It should be noted that these events significantly influenced Uzbekistan’s decision to leave the CSTO in 2012, where it had been a member since 2006.

In the same year, 2010, many politicians assessed the prospects of the CSTO very ambiguously. For example, Alexander Lukashenko called the further activities of the CSTO unpromising, as the organization did not respond to a «state coup in one of the member countries» (referring to events in Kyrgyzstan). Belarus also did not forget the results of the «milk war» in 2009, which caused damage to its economy due to its «friendship» with Russia.

In October 2020, Russia refused to help Armenia during the war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh. The Russian Foreign Ministry explained that the CSTO provides assistance to its member states in certain situations if there is clear aggression, and at that moment, the issue was about Nagorno-Karabakh, which is not recognized by Armenians themselves as part of their territory, and therefore, it would be incorrect to speak about involving the CSTO’s defense potential. Russia, as the main founding member, once again preferred the role of an external observer in the emerging conflict. Nevertheless, through military bases in Armenia and a peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia ensured its presence in the strategically important South Caucasus region.

In September 2022, the organization again refused to help Armenia following its request during armed clashes along the undemarcated border with Azerbaijan. The CSTO’s reaction, which should be understood as Russia’s response, to Nikol Pashinyan’s call for assistance was cautious. Such an approach to calls for assistance led to disappointments in Armenia’s allies. Some citizens of Armenia appealed to their government to withdraw or suspend Armenia’s membership in the CSTO.

However, there is a positive example of using the CSTO’s peacekeeping forces, if it can be called that since, as mentioned earlier, everything is determined by interests.

In early 2022, amid protests and turmoil in Kazakhstan caused by rising liquefied gas prices, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for the introduction of CSTO peacekeepers into the country to overcome the «terrorist threat,» which the organization’s leadership quickly agreed to. Thus, in Kazakhstan, for the first time in history, CSTO peacekeeping forces were used, as they had previously only conducted military exercises. Naturally, Russia took the lead in providing assistance, sending the largest number of servicemen, about 3,000 paratroopers. In the end, the situation in Kazakhstan was stabilized, and the Russian contingent left the country. At the same time, some experts, not without reason, based on Russia’s historical imperialistic experience, expressed concerns that the decision to introduce Russian peacekeepers would lead to Kazakhstan losing its sovereignty and a prolonged occupation of the country. In their opinion, Tokayev, by requesting military assistance from CSTO members to restore order in the country, took the first step towards losing sovereignty. Although the CSTO was created to combat external military aggression, everyone understands that it is primarily Russia, and Putin will act solely in Russia’s geopolitical interests.

Well, even though Russian troops have left Kazakhstan, the process itself and the time it took for their redeployment to a distant location left an impression on military experts, including those in the West. We can’t judge how effective such a maneuver was in the conditions of real combat, but Western military experts gave it a high rating.

This «success,» so to speak, may have emboldened the Russian military and political leadership to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine. In just a month, on February 24, 2022, Russian military forces and a large military contingent invaded the territory of a neighboring independent sovereign state without an invitation from Ukraine, and no one was expecting such «guests.» The Russians encountered worthy resistance, and this military operation, initially scheduled for three weeks, escalated into a full-scale and bloody war in the heart of Europe, the largest in the last 80 years, a war that, in terms of its scale and the number of participants, approaches the Second World War, and once again demonstrated Russia’s «peacefulness» and its desire for stability. However, this is a topic that requires separate consideration in the context of Russia’s foreign policy and economic activities.

At the same time, the war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine provided a good reason for a reassessment of the relations between the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Moscow. According to experts, after Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, the countries of Central Asia are trying to distance themselves from Moscow. The leaders of these countries do not support Russia’s aggression, but they also do not openly condemn its actions. Observers believe that the Central Asian republics are maneuvering cautiously, trying to maintain their relations with Moscow and other international players, while understanding that Russia, sinking into isolation and facing sanctions pressure, needs its neighbors.

However, Russian foreign policy still remains on the «elder brother» stance towards the CSTO member states. In particular, besides the fact that Russian military bases are stationed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the economies of both countries depend on remittances from labor migrants who primarily go to Russia, where they are not considered as «first-class» citizens. Russian leaders also adopt a similar attitude towards their foreign counterparts. In this regard, the statement of the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, at the «Central Asia — Russia» summit held in Astana on October 14, 2022, is indicative. He called on Russian leader Vladimir Putin to treat his partners with respect. Rahmon said in Astana that Dushanbe was safeguarding Moscow’s interests but was not receiving a similar treatment in return. Addressing Putin, Rahmon asked him not to pursue a policy of treating Central Asian countries «as if they were part of the former Soviet Union.» Ultimately, Russian imperial ambitions do not disappear, even though Russia’s opportunities for influence abroad are diminishing, and its economy is heading towards recession under the impact of sanctions imposed by the collective West.

As of today, Russia’s desire to control the military and political activities of member countries and to present the CSTO’s activities as an alternative to NATO further exacerbates confusion and disagreements among its participants. In particular, recent events involving Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh over the past two weeks have once again demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the CSTO, and the leadership of Armenia, recognizing this, questions the advisability of its continued membership in the CSTO and considers pursuing a course towards NATO. Have the vassals become audacious? Should they be punished? Well, they could handle Ukraine first!

In general, all official meetings conducted by CSTO member countries at various levels (presidential, foreign ministers, defense ministers) clearly demonstrate a lack of common understanding in using the armed forces of member countries to resolve military conflicts. However, the so-called special military operation (SVO) in Ukraine has demonstrated the weakness of the alliance’s core member and its ineffectiveness in the political, military, and economic spheres, showing that it cannot conduct modern military operations effectively or withstand them.

The current situation is likely to force the leadership of CSTO member countries to seriously reconsider the effectiveness of Russia’s «high patronage» and the potential consequences, as well as to seek more reliable «patrons.» The world is changing, and seemingly established relationships are starting to shake. New alliances are forming to achieve mutually beneficial and stable relations. Recently, at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York on the evening of September 19, the first summit of Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States, known as C5+1, took place.

Before the war in Ukraine, this organization (the C5+1 format as a regional diplomatic platform at the government level) did not stand out significantly compared to organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), CSTO, or the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). However, Russian armed aggression against Ukraine has changed many things, including Central Asia’s attitude toward Russia.

During the summit, various directions of joint activities were discussed and agreed upon in the form of treaties and agreements, including issues related to counterterrorism and regional security, which are also declared in the CSTO’s charter. The fact that this summit is another blow to Putin’s ambitions regarding countries that were once part of the USSR is already obvious to everyone. There are consultants and grants for all matters. Russia cannot offer anything similar to Central Asia—neither money, nor new technologies, nor military potential now or in the future—and Central Asian countries understand this. They also understand that Moscow cannot compete in any sphere in a multipolar world in Central Asia.

However, as of today, there is no question of a complete dissolution of the CSTO. Recently, President Tokayev confirmed this regarding Kazakhstan, but at the same time stated that his country would adhere to sanctions against Russia. Except for Armenia, which is currently at a political crossroads due to the events in Nagorno-Karabakh. Other member countries do not currently raise the question of the advisability of their membership. Not yet.

As mentioned above, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are seeking closer ties with the United States and regional leader China. In the context of forming a multipolar world and preserving their national interests, points of interaction will likely be found. Belarus, on the other hand, remains the only country that clearly follows Russia’s political course as a member of the Union State. However, it seems unlikely that Russia will release it from its «union embrace» since it serves as both a corridor to the West and a buffer and an instrument of influence in the region.

Reflecting on history, particularly the history of imperial states, their decline, reduction, and the cessation of external influence usually began with internal unrest within the metropolis. It seems that in the near future, we may once again witness such events. Alongside external challenges, Russia is currently facing internal social problems caused by a wide range of negative processes generated by the war unleashed in Ukraine and, as a result, economic isolation. Uprisings are not far off…

Now is the time for the same CSTO member countries, given the theme of this article, to contemplate their prospects for membership in an organization that does not bring any dividends, but rather is used as an instrument of Russia’s influence on member countries. The prospect of remaining in the wake of Russia’s political ship threatens that very soon, they may follow it to the bottom and be buried under its wreckage.