The Russian government has spent more than a decade constructing a multilateral security structure for the former Soviet space—the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Yet, despite the occurrence this year of some of the most serious crises in Russia’s neighboring former Soviet republics, the CSTO has been notable for its absence in the Kremlin’s response.

In theory, the CSTO could have offered Russia a means to orchestrate a multinational response among its formal allies to the cascading crises that have emerged in post-Soviet Eurasia. Instead, Moscow has either ignored or bypassed the alliance in responding to the Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Kyrgyzstan situations. For example, the Kremlin-orchestrated ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has brought two thousand Russian peacekeeping troops to the South Caucasus, did not involve the CSTO at all. Indeed, since its founding more than a decade ago, the CSTO has never participated in an actual combat operation nor intervened within a member country to restore internal security --- even when invited to do so. Moscow’s plans to strengthen the CSTO this year — when Russia holds the annual rotating chair — have now been upended by the upheavals in three of its six members.

Russia has strived to assert military and economic preeminence in the former Soviet space by pursuing complementary unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral initiatives. Among the latter, the Moscow-led CSTO is Eurasia’s main mutual defense alliance for collective defense against common external security threats. The CSTO’s missions include combatting transnational threats like terrorism, WMD proliferation, organized crime, narcotics trafficking, religious extremism, illicit migration, cyber-attacks, and foreign- or terrorist-sponsored information campaigns. Membership is open to any state that commits to adhere to the organization’s charter, which also permits an existing member to leave at any time. Today, full members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia. They all commit to provide forces to various joint forces. The most active unit is the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), formed in 2009 for low-intensity missions such as peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, counternarcotic, and emergency response missions.

Diverse Members with Diverging Goals

The CSTO staff organize a series of exercises every year: “Rubezh” (“Frontier”, border security), “Nerushimoe bratstvo” (“Unbreakable Brotherhood”, peacekeeping), “Kobalt” (interior security), “Grom” (counternarcotics), “Poisk” (“Search”; reconnaissance), and “Vzainmodeystviye” (“Cooperation”; CRRF conventional capabilities). The CSTO governments also cooperate to counter illicit migration through “Operation Nelegal” and cyber threats through “Operation Proxy.” Still, the CSTO’s ability to conduct actual combat operations cannot be determined because none have occurred. For major contingencies, Russia would provide the bulk of the forces. The size of Russia’s population, GDP, defense budget, and armed forces exceeds that of all the other members combined. Only Russia has sufficient power projection capabilities to render substantial military assistance to other countries. Moscow is also the only member to have foreign military bases, including in Armenia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, justified as providing collective security for all CSTO members. As with NATO, the dominant member (in this case Russia) provides security guarantees to other member states in return for basing rights, the enhanced legitimacy of acting multilaterally, and influence over other members’ foreign policy, including means to limit cooperation with non-members like China, NATO, and the EU. To make membership attractive and to promote military interoperability, Russia offers other members subsidized training at its military institutions and the opportunity to purchase Russian-made weapons at a discount. By doing so, Russia encourages standardization among CSTO militaries in line with Russian standards. Moscow also exploits its partners’ dependence on Russian military and economic assistance to influence foreign and domestic policies. Yet, while Russia’s foreign policy decisions enjoy the backing of the other members in many instances, they have declined to support some of its more problematic actions, such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatist forces in Georgia and Ukraine. The leaders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan also resisted Russian suggestions to send peacekeepers to Syria. Furthermore, the organization has failed to make an appreciable contribution to promoting security in Afghanistan, where many of the most serious transnational threats to the CSTO’s Central Asian members originate.

Armenian national security leaders have staunchly supported the CSTO, primarily because of security concerns regarding neighboring Azerbaijan. Despite the 2018 Velvet Revolution, which saw a pro-Western coalition gain control of government, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, has remained committed to the CSTO. For Yerevan, sustaining Moscow’s support is imperative since Armenia relies heavily on Russia for economic and military assistance. For its part, the Kremlin benefits from having basing rights in the South Caucasus through its ties with Armenia. Russia is Armenia’s main arms supplier and maintains two major military bases in its territory. In a 2010 agreement, Armenia extended the lease on the military bases until 2044, in exchange for almost $800 million in new Russian weaponry. The two countries have established combined military units and a joint air defense system. What troubles Armenian authorities, however, is that Moscow supplies even more arms to Azerbaijan, whose larger economy generates a bigger defense budget. For years, moreover, Russia has been courting Azerbaijan to join the CSTO and build better ties with Moscow. The Kremlin calculates that Armenia’s multifaceted dependence on Moscow obliges Armenian acceptance of the situation. Armenian leaders have had unrealized hopes that other CSTO members would help defend Armenia against non-member Azerbaijan. To the dismay of Armenian authorities, most other members have either backed Baku or remained neutral.  

Throughout the recent fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenia strived to secure CSTO intervention against the Azerbaijani forces. Yet, the other members stubbornly sustained its stance that the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave lies outside of Armenia’s internationally recognized boundaries and therefore is not the CSTO’s responsibility. When Moscow finally brokered a ceasefire deal on November 10, the Kremlin negotiated directly with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to deploy Russian peacekeeping forces in key locations in the conflict zones for five years, with the option of multi-year extensions. Despite the many years that the CSTO has labored to build its own peacekeeping structure, neither the soldiers nor the command arrangements have any connection with the CSTO. The troops come from Russia’s 15th separate motorized rifle brigade, which was recently deployed in Syria. They will remain under Russian command but coordinate closely with Armenian and Azerbaijanian troops.  

CSTO member Belarus is also heavily dependent on Russian military assistance. Belarus merged with Russia to form the Union State of Russia and Belarus, though most of the planned integration remains unimplemented. At any time, hundreds of Russian troops are deployed at major military facilities leased by Moscow in Belarus, including several important air bases and radar stations. Belarus’s current national security officials have warned of threats from NATO’s military buildup in neighboring countries, the strengthening of ties between the alliance and non-NATO states like Ukraine, and the potential spillover of terrorism or mass protests from other former Soviet republics. In this regard, the Belarusian government has been one of the strongest advocates of employing the CSTO as a tool to counter internal threats, such as democratic revolutions against existing regimes.  

Russia considers Belarus, unlike other CSTO members, a critical front-line state for its defenses against NATO. Belarus is situated between the Kaliningrad Oblast, a part of Russian territory with a major Russian air and naval base, and the rest of the Russian Federation. In a war with NATO, the Russian military would strive to secure the 100km strip of land dividing Kaliningrad and Belarus which runs through Poland and Lithuania. Belarus also shares a lengthy border with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine—which would provide the Russian military staging points for offensive operations. Despite close security ties with Russia, the Belarusian leadership has fought hard to maintain its autonomy. President Alexander Lukashenko has expressed unease about potential Russian interference in Belarusian domestic affairs, especially after Moscow’s occupation of Georgian territory in 2008, and has strived to limit the Russian military presence in his country. He has also tried to improve economic, energy, and security ties with non-CSTO states such as Azerbaijan, China, and certain Western countries in a bid to reduce its dependence on Moscow. 

In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan’s debilitated economy severely constrains its defense budget. Political, regional, and ethnic strife has also generated perennial instability. Islamic terrorist groups have exploited its porous borders and recruited many fighters. During the past decade, Russian and Chinese influence has grown while that of Western countries has declined. The U.S. military opened a base in Kyrgyzstan in 2001, only to close it in 2014. Russia and China are also Kyrgyzstan’s leading economic partners. Russia has recently been deploying more helicopters to its base in Kant, which is integrated into the CRRF's air component, and plans to station unmanned arial vehicles there. The two countries have also been discussing the establishment of a second large Russian base in southern Kyrgyzstan closer to Afghanistan. The Russian military also has access to several smaller facilities in Kyrgyzstan.

To Intervene or Not?

The CSTO has suffered major setbacks this year. Last November, President Vladimir Putin outlined Russia’s goals for its 2020 presidency of the organization. These included collective efforts to strengthen counterterrorism and counternarcotics, streamline CSTO organizational mechanisms, enhance border security with Afghanistan, expand foreign policy coordination, and boost collective combat training and peacekeeping readiness. Ironically, given how the advent of the current crises regarding Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan caught Moscow by surprise, Putin also called for measures “to improve the effectiveness of analyzing and forecasting the military-political situation within the CSTO responsibility zone.” This year’s chaos in the member states has upended most of these plans. Of note, the COVID-19 pandemic, complicated by internal political and social crises in several member states, has led to an abrupt curtailment in this year’s exercise series.

The CSTO has been largely paralyzed this year notwithstanding the crises confronting three of its member governments. A recurring debate is whether the CSTO should, like the Soviet-era Warsaw Treaty Organization, have authority to render emergency assistance in the event that a member government is threatened by political coups, popular unrest, or some other internal challenge. The past dozen years have seen several jarring instances when the CSTO failed to address major conflicts within or among the member governments, including the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, the mass ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, and the current crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Lukashenko has been a leading advocate of legitimizing CSTO use for internal regime security. Kyrgyz officials have pressed for the organization to mediate border conflicts among the member states, specifically Kyrgyzstan’s territorial conflict with Tajikistan. Landlocked and surrounded by enemies, Armenian officials have wanted the CSTO to protect its members from external aggression from all non-members, specifically Azerbaijan and Turkey. In principle, a multilateral intervention under the organization’s auspices would enjoy more legitimacy than a unilateral one, but the issue has been controversial due to concerns about legitimizing interference in members internal affairs and the absence of a provision in the CSTO Charter authorizing such actions. Still, the member governments could, as they have done in the past, blame an internal crisis in a neighboring country on foreign actors, such as transnational terrorists or Western governments, and then deploy their collective internal security forces as “peacekeepers.”

Since the CSTO has not acted to resolve these crises, Russia has had to bear the burden of responding largely on its own and employ other tools, with limited effectiveness. In Belarus, a Kremlin spokesperson stated that both the Belarusian and Russian leaderships agreed that CSTO intervention was unnecessary since, "We consider that Belarusians will iron out their own problems in the framework of dialogue, within the legal framework and without any foreign meddling." But Russia’s doubling down on Lukashenko has simply postponed the day of reckoning when a new national political leadership will emerge, with a more European orientation. In Kyrgyzstan, CSTO spokesperson Vladimir Zaynetdinov at first described the events as the country's domestic affair, and we are sure that Kyrgyzstan can solve the problems on its own. When CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas later offered to play a mediating role he was ignored. Instead, Moscow has had to rely on special envoys, manipulating various political factions, and Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on Russian economic and security assistance. The unstable situation there will likely lead many in Beijing to question Russia’s ability to secure the China’s important economic and security stakes in Kyrgyzstan. Finally, the CSTO has had opportunities to intervene in the South Caucasus given how Armenian and Azerbaijani weapons have attacked each other’s national territories with missile strikes. Russian foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin even expressed concern that the influx of Islamist militants into Nagorno-Karabakh could transform the region into a launch pad against Russia. Yet, Moscow has employed other tools to manage these crises. The CSTO has simply backed the Russian position that Turkey, not being a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, should not serve as a mediator in the conflict. When the Kremlin made the decision to deploy thousands of peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian leadership acted without any evident consultations or consideration of the other CSTO allies, further weakening the institution’s claim to be Eurasia’s premier security organization.

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

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