Will Kazakhstan Become a Watershed Moment for the CSTO?7 min read

 In Central Asia, Editorial, Politics
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has been around for two decades, yet up until recently, you would need to look long and hard to find any mention of it in the international media. That changed when in early January the organisation successfully deployed its collective forces for the first time in its history to support the Kazakhstani authorities in regaining control after mass protests had plunged the country into disarray. According to the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the January events were a “turning point in the development of the organisation”. Were they though? 

The origins of the CSTO lie in the Collective Security Treaty (CST) signed on 15 May 1992 by Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Azerbaijan, Belarus and Georgia joining the following year. The cornerstone principles of the CST were non-use of force in interstate relations between the members, and mutual defence in the event of an “aggression” against one of them. The Treaty entered into force in 1994 and concluded its initial period of five years in 1999, following which most of the members approved its automatic extension every five years, excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan who discontinued their participation. 

In 2002, the CST was transformed into CSTO, an international regional organisation. Its Charter was registered with the United Nations (UN) Secretariat and the CSTO became an observer at the UN General Assembly in 2004. Although the organisation was based on the original principles of the CST, its remit broadened significantly. The members were to establish collective forces, military infrastructure and governing bodies, and cooperate in the area of arms supply, military equipment, and training. In addition to committing themselves to support one another in case of aggression, they also pledged to actively fight against international terrorism and extremism, drug trafficking, organised crime, and illegal migration.

Since then the CSTO has indeed been fostering cooperation in those areas, including through establishing contacts with other international organisations (e.g. the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). CSTO members also set up several types of collective armed forces, including the 18,000 troops strong Collective Rapid Reaction forces, and peacekeeping forces (3,600 troops, some of which were deployed in Kazakhstan). Dedicated military trainings (with the peacekeeping ones bearing the rather dramatic name of “Indestructible Brotherhood”) are organised every year to test the different forces’ readiness to react to a variety of scenarios in all corners of the vastly spread alliance.

Silence on all fronts

However, despite this meticulous preparation, CSTO forces have up until recently not been deployed a single time, even though one could point to more than one occasion when they could have made their military debut. Perhaps the most striking example of CSTO’s inaction came in 2010, when the then President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown, following which major ethnic violence erupted in the south of the country. CSTO’s lack of reaction was motivated, among others, by lack of support on the part of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (which rejoined the alliance in 2006, only to leave again in 2012), but also notably Russia, which was the first country to recognise the sudden regime change in Kyrgyzstan, leaving Bakiyev to seek shelter in Belarus. This prompted Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to snap at the alliance, and implicitly at Russian President Vladimir Putin himself oh, how times have changed…

The CSTO also did not intervene during the more recent crises, including all those which took place in 2020 – the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mass protests in Belarus, and the toppling of the government in Kyrgyzstan. While in the latter two cases no help was requested by the countries affected, Armenia did seek support from Russia during the 2020 war – alas, it was left empty-handed. Moreover, when it came to sending peacekeeping forces to the region once the conflict was over Russia chose to act on its own, without the CSTO getting involved.

Why intervene in Kazakhstan then? It seems that a convenient combination of circumstances could be behind the sudden show of solidarity. First, Tokayev’s clear request for support and portrayal of the crisis as an attack threatening the country’s stability and sovereignty fulfilled the legal requirements for an intervention (Art. 4 of the CST). Second, despite dramatic images circulating online, and over 200 deaths reported, the actual scale of violence was low enough that CSTO’s peacekeeping forces were sure to manage to secure key state and infrastructural assets, which they did within several days of their arrival, while the entire mission lasted just one week. It was thus a good opportunity to showcase the effectiveness of the alliance and boost its reputation at a low cost. Lastly, Putin approved of the intervention and wanted Tokayev to remain in power – likely the most important factor at play. 

One swallow doesn’t make a summer

Although the peacekeeping mission was hailed as a great success, and CSTO members’ heads of state were trading praises during their Collective Security Council meeting on 10 January, one should not automatically assume that this will radically change the way the organisation operates. The key obstacles to the CSTO achieving higher levels of integration remain, and they are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.   

One of them is Russia’s clear dominance, and its not so inconspicuous tendency to direct the organisation as it sees fit. The country’s political clout and military might imply that any operation undertaken by collective CSTO forces will require full approval of Putin, and this approval can depend on a range of factors. As can be seen when comparing Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Kazakhstan in 2022, not every head of state in the alliance can count on the same level of support, while Art. 4 of the CST leaves substantial room for interpretation. Consequently, member states’ leaders are likely to remain hesitant when it comes to surrendering more of their sovereignty in the area of security, instead preferring to stick to beneficial yet less consequential elements of cooperation, such as preferential arms trade with Russia. 

A second, and related factor is the lack of agreement among the CSTO members on what security actually means, and when they can count on each other’s support. This is particularly visible when we look at attitudes towards separatism. On the face of it, there is hardly any former USSR republic that does not count separatism among its struggles, and it should be in CSTO’s interest to resist it. However, Russia’s record in particular has been far from consistent in this domain. While it has gone to great lengths to suppress separatism within its own borders in Chechnya, it also supported separatist movements in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, including by recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and annexing Crimea – none of which was recognised by any of the other CSTO members. An alliance based on individual interests rather than values and commitment to a clear vision of security of one and all is unlikely to reach high levels of integration.  

Nevertheless, the intervention in Kazakhstan might spur a general reinvigoration of the CSTO and help it strengthen ties with other international organisations, e.g. regarding participation in UN peacekeeping operations. It might also encourage the organisation’s members to invest more resources in the training and operational capabilities of their collective forces, particularly considering the persistent danger looming on the Afghan-Tajik border. Lastly, in light of CSTO leaders’ shared outrage at the way international media portrayed the intervention, one can expect them to spare some coin on expanding the organisation’s communications department – a brand new CSTO Telegram channel was launched on 17 January.

At the end of the day, however, all these elements can but give a gentle nudge to the otherwise rather hesitant and divided alliance. Unless Tokayev is ready to suggest some serious soul-searching to his fellow leaders, the events in Kazakhstan are more likely to become a CSTO talking point, rather than its turning point. 

Featured image: CSTO / Amanda Sonesson
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