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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


There was, so to speak, an empty chair at the summit of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Minsk last week. Meetings of the security organisation will not register on the radar of many people outside eastern Europe and Central Asia, but the fact that this one took place without the participation of one member state, Armenia, warrants comment. It highlighted a more general feeling that Russia's large scale invasion of Ukraine has created fissures within the security bloc, with Kazakhstan also appearing to question the CSTO's value.

What is the CSTO?

Six states signed the Collective Security Treaty (CST) in 1992, with three others, including Belarus, adding their signatures the following year. It became an organisation, and hence the CSTO, in 2002 and its structure deliberately resembles NATO in certain respects. The CSTO is a formal military alliance: like NATO, the centrepiece of its founding document is a mutual defence clause. Like NATO, its decision making is through consensus, a detail which made Armenia's absence last week particularly awkward (the CSTO has said it will obtain Armenian approval for summit decisions post hoc).

The CSTO also aspires to be a broader institution: like NATO, it has civilian as well as military organs, and like NATO it has special formats for relations with third parties, in its case designated 'observer states' and 'dialogue partners'. Few people, however, have ever seen it as more than an effort by Moscow to retain influence over its neighbours. Despite some superficial similarities, it is hardly an equivalent organisation to NATO.

Ironically, not too long ago things were looking a bit rosier for the CSTO's future. In Janaury 2022 Kazkahstan's government invoked the Collective Security Treaty's mutual defence clause in response to street protests. President KassymJomart Tokayev had already given the police a 'shoot to kill' order and more than two hundred protesters lost their lives in the unrest. Tokayev had called the protesters 'terrorists' and accused them of having western backers, though domestic causes of the disorder were not difficult to spot (the price of gas had just increased considerably and popular displeasure with other government policies was plain to see).

In response, the CSTO deployed some 2,500 troops – mostly Russian, but including Armenian, Belarusian, Kryrgyz and Tajik soldiers. Perhaps the key thing to note was how quickly the CSTO was able to mobilise and deploy personnel to Kazakhstan; it did so on 6 January, the same day Tokayev called for assistance. As quick as a tiger.

Once order had been restored in Kazakhstan, Russia's president Vladimir Putin was quick to describe it as a victory over a foreignsponsored terrorist uprising. It was speculated that the real motivation of CSTO involvement was less about a security threat to Kazakhstan, however, and more about quashing a palace coup against Tokayev. Whatever the circumstances, it signalled a willingness to use the CSTO to protect incumbent regimes from domestic challenge. That was last January.

Armenia and Kazakhstan

Things looked to go wrong after Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine last February. As I noted in an article for the Minsk Dialogue last November: 'Kyrgyzstan [had] cancelled CSTO military drills on its territory; there [were] border clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over the summer [of 2022]; and at the opening session of the UN General Assembly Kazakhstan's president [made] a thinlyveiled criticism of Russia's rhetoric around nuclear weapons.' When the CSTO leaders met in May 2022 to discuss Russia's invasion, the organisation's secretarygeneral admitted there was 'no consensus' about events or potential CSTO involvement in the war (cited in my book, p.253).

Most relevantly for today, Armenia had invoked the mutual defence clause in September 2022 during clashes with Azerbaijani troops in the NagornoKarabakh enclave, which was home primarily to ethnic Armenians while being recognised in international law as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia was left disappointed by the CSTO's minimal response. Roll the clock forward to September of this year and the Azeris seized NagornoKarabakh. Once again the Armenians were left disappointed, this time by Russia's lack of response. The brief Azerbaijani military campaign displaced more than 100,000 Karabakh Armenians from their homes.

Armenia has long relied on Russia for military support and it hosts two Russian army garrisons as well as an airbase. But when Azerbaijan moved on NagornoKarabakh in September, Armenia was hosting a small number of American soldiers as part of a joint drill; its army happened to miss CSTO drills taking place in Belarus at the same time. Developments since September include Armenia's prime minister Nikol Pashinyan telling an interviewer that his country saw 'no advantage' in continuing to host Russian military bases and that the country was seeking 'to diversity [its] relationships in the security sphere.' Even more striking, an anonymous source 'close to Armenia's ruling regime' told the Eurasianet website: 'We are effectively not members of [the CSTO].' To that end, it has also recalled its permanent representative to the organisation and it has not sent representatives to CSTO ministeriallevel meetings this year. Pashinyan even reportedly called relations with Russia 'a strategic mistake'.

Kazakhstan has also put a bit of distance between itself and Russia recently. It announced that it would not follow Russia in recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics in the days before the February 2022 invasion, and since then it has snubbed Russian events and has drafted legislation that will see use of the Kazkah language increased on state television and radio. The corollary is a reduced use of Russian, something that already appears to be confusing Russian officials.

A paper tiger?

CSTO member states' distancing from Russia is certainly significant. At the same time, one should remember that snubbing Russia is an easy way to win plaudits with Washington and NATO. Armenia's actions go beyond this though. Russian officials tried to present Armenia's recent activities as western orchestrations, a claim few outside Russia will give any credence to, and the possibility of Armenia breaking from Moscow--dominated bloc is real. Armenian claims to the contrary are best interpreted, in my view, as a form of appeasement of Russia. If Armenia did leave, it would not be the first state to leave the alliance (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan left earlier), although the fracture would be deeply inconvenient for Russia at this time.

It is not all terrible news for the CSTO and Russia, however, and in a way the summit came at a good time for Putin with NATO clearly divided on continued support to Ukraine. A report in the Times last weekend claimed that Germany and the United States are both now pushing for peace talks that would leave Russia in control of the territories it presently occupies. I suspect the report does not reflect any firm policy position of either Germany or the United States, rather reflecting briefings that are being given to journalists as a way of testing the waters of public reaction, but there is undeniably a degree of 'Ukraine fatigue' within NATO. Italy's prime minister got tricked into admitting this a few weeks ago.

The summit was a missed chance for the CSTO to show unity as the rotating presidency passes from Belarus to Kazakhstan. The value of the CSTO is of paramount importance for Russia, since it is the manifestation of Moscow's effort to play a leadership role in the security sphere in Eurasia. The problem for Russia, as I argued last year, is that 'the Ukraine war is ... hastening the shift to China as a security actor [in Eurasia].' I argued that the Russia-Ukraine war is indirectly strengthening the institutional power of the Chinaled Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). How Kazakstan, a member of both organisations, handles its CSTO presidency will therefore be interesting to follow.

If the CSTO is as fearsome and adept as a tiger, then it might be a good time to show its teeth. But no one need worry because it looks to be made of papier mâché.

Image credit: Photo from the Lebanese civil war by James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A. - Checkpoint 4, Beirut, Lebanon 1982, used under creative commons licence 2.0, Tinted by me.

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