2022: the beginning of the end for the CSTO7 min read

 In Analysis, Central Asia, Politics, Russia, War in Ukraine
There is an old saying that an alliance with a powerful person is never safe. In the case of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) it is not only unsafe – but detrimental. The first-ever CSTO “peacekeeping” operation launched in Kazakhstan in January was branded as a “Russian success”. However, the array of inconsistencies and contradictions in the official narrative, and deployment, and of the intervention are indicative of the less than benign intent behind it.

The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine as of February has further proven that President Putin’s central role in the organisation remains the main obstacle to the CSTO’s credibility and integrity among its Member States and internationally. It appears the organisation is devoid of any meaningful power beyond serving Russian foreign policy goals and when it fails to do so, it becomes obsolete.

An Underwhelming Legacy

The CSTO will soon mark its 20th anniversary and has little to show for it. Rooted in the Collective Security Treaty (CST), it was meant to counter the megalith of NATO following the collapse of the USSR. However, it was also designed to serve Moscow’s policy of securing its influence in its near-abroad. Only the latter goal has materialised.

Whilst over the years the CSTO has expanded its mission to fighting drug trafficking and counter-terrorism and has held military exercises such as Center-2011, which allegedly involved more than 10,000 troops, it has been reluctant to involve itself in conflict even when member states have called for help. The crisis in Kazakhstan, spurred by a governmental removal of the price cap on Liquified Petroleum Gases, initially appeared as a breakthrough moment for the military alliance. It was finally deploying troops to resolve a conflict in a NATO-like peacekeeping fashion.

However, the intervention did little to boost the reputation of the CSTO and instead caused domestic issues for some of the Member States. The current split of those same Member States over the Russian military aggression in Ukraine suggests internal disunity and highlights that the alliance might be reaching a breaking point.

Putin’s instrumentalization of the CSTO in Kazakhstan

The different stages of the CSTO’s unprecedented involvement in the January crisis when examined and contextualised raise many questions about the organisation’s subservience to President Putin. Premeditation of the intervention between the spearheading power of the alliance and Nur-Sultan was initially hinted at by how quickly actions were implemented following the swift change in narrative, which took place to invoke the CSTO’s Article 4.

President Tokayev went from offering concessions to protestors to declaring Kazakhstan under attack from “international terrorist gangs, that have been trained abroad” within a day. The call for help was answered by the CSTO without hesitation and troops landed soon after. This has left room for suspicion as such manoeuvres usually require days of time-consuming planning and coordination. 

There seems to have been no urgent meeting between the Member States, at least not one publicly announced, which also casts a shadow on the decision-making process. The video conference on the 10th of January was meant to show the international community that the CSTO states are unanimous on the matter. However, the many lengthy exposes claiming they were helping their “brother” in need appeared as more of a PR stunt given that the intervention had already begun five days prior. 

This speedy development of events based on a largely unsubstantiated justification raises doubts about whether all Member States are on an equal footing in the CSTO. In the context of previous appeals, Kazakhstan received special treatment. In May of last year, when Armenia appealed to the alliance over Azerbaijan’s advance into its territory, which was a direct threat to its state sovereignty, it was declined. Similarly, in 2010 when violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan which included vandalism, looting, and killings, not entirely different from what happened in Kazakhstan in January, the call for help from the CSTO was also rejected. Both decisions took several weeks and an in-person meeting of the Member States. Further, the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and the President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov became subjected to domestic criticism when the news broke that the CSTO will be sending troops to Kazakhstan.

The CSTO’s decision to send specifically a peacekeeping force for a limited amount of time to Kazakhstan was also curious, given the hyperfocus on an imminent international threat, especially as the CSTO has a Collective Rapid Reaction Force. This force was set up in 2009 and consists of 18,000 troops and one of its main purposes is “participation in activities to combat international terrorism”. 

After the initial deployment of troops, the alliance was quick to declare success and pull out of Kazakhstan, within ten days of the launch of the peacekeeping operation, declaring that “the interstate interaction and coordination within the organisation were practically perfected”. They likely had to be, given that an average peacekeeping operation by the UN lasts 31 months. The choice of troops deployed and the swiftness with which operational success was declared likely has a lot to do with the Kremlin’s plans for February. Moscow had to appear “peaceful” and not spook the international community too early and Russian troops were needed elsewhere.

Ukraine: a make-it or break-it moment

Politicians, experts, and citizens alike were shocked in late February when Russian troops advanced on Ukrainian territory, where they are currently still waging what has become a war of attrition. While the focus of the international community has been on what a NATO response might look like if the conflict expands westwards of Ukraine, little has been said about the CSTO. The deployment of troops by the alliance to the state was first mentioned in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, when the then-secretary general confirmed that “peacekeeping forces can be deployed within and without the territory of member states”. While an operation never materialised, Ukrainian intelligence now suggests that President Putin might be keen to utilise a collective force. In terms of justification on the side of the Kremlin, this appears entirely possible. The official state-sponsored narrative about the conflict brands it simply a “special military operation” and could alter it to follow under Article 4 similarly to what happened in Kazakhstan.

If this comes to pass, the war in Ukraine would prove a defining moment for the alliance. Currently, the CSTO Member States appear equally split. Belarus has not only nominally shown its support for the Kremlin but is actively aiding the Russian military efforts. The state has consequently been included in the Western sanctions, which President Lukashenko has dismissed by stating that “we were always under sanctions then [under the USSR], and we lived and developed normally”. A more muted supporter of Russian aggression has been Kyrgyzstan, as President Japarov has expressed his belief that the invasion was a “necessary measure” in line with the official Kremlin narrative. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, however, was more subtle in its approach and called for a peaceful resolution

Only Belarus and Russia voted against the United Nations resolution condemning the war in Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan all abstained. The latter three states have attempted to remain neutral, solidifying the split within the CSTO. There have even been glimpses of being out of sync with the Kremlin as President Tokayev has not recognized Donetsk and Luhansk’s declaration of independence and is the only Central Asian leader to have had a phone call with President Zelensky. However, all three states could be swayed due to their close ties with Moscow. In the context of Kazakhstan, President Putin has just aided in legitimising the Tokayev regime as the crisis of early January led to an elite reshuffle and centralising more power in the hands of the President. Armenia is also reliant on the Kremlin for the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, especially as skirmishes are resurfacing, Yerevan is potentially vulnerable to manipulation.

If Russia appeals to the CSTO for assistance in Ukraine, the alliance will either have to comply and confirm that its existence is predicated on being a tool for the Kremlin’s foreign policy aims, or it will have to risk being rendered obsolete by snubbing its most powerful member. Having set a precedent of intervention, the latter option appears less likely, albeit CSTO countries not presenting an united front thus far, their vulnerabilities and dependencies will be exploited to meet the needs of their grandmaster. While the short-term dissolution of the alliance will be avoided in this way, the CSTO will continue to remain just another trick up President Putin’s sleeve when it comes to the “near abroad”. This will prevent the organisation from gaining respect internationally and inevitably would lose the support of its Member States causing it to break down in the long term. Given the current trajectory, 2022 might mark the beginning of the end for the CSTO. 

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