A CSTO Rapid-Reaction Force Created as a NATO Counterweight

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 24

On February 4 the presidents of the Russian-dominated, seven-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) gathered in Moscow to sign an agreement to create a joint rapid-reaction force. In recent years Moscow has done its best to transform the CSTO–a loose alliance that has served mostly as a forum for security consultations–into a military organization that could counter NATO. President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the new rapid-reaction force would be "adequate in size, effective, armed with the most modern weapons, and…on a par with NATO forces." According to Medvedev, Russia is ready to commit the 98th Airborne Division and the 31st Air-Assault Brigade to the force, which will provide security to all the CSTO states: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The force will defend member nations against foreign military aggression; perform special operations to counter terrorism, "extremists," and drug trafficking; and help in times of natural disasters (RIA-Novosti, February 4).

Medvedev announced that existing joint CSTO forces in Armenia, Belarus, and Central Asia "exist only on paper." Sergei Prikhdko, the president’s aide on foreign policy, announced that the new rapid-reaction force would have a permanent joint command and a permanent joint base, whereas the units of the existing collective forces were under national command and were based separately. It was announced that Kazakhstan might commit its entire elite airborne brigade to the force (Interfax, February 4).

This ambitious plan did not, however, materialize during the Moscow summit. Uzbek President Islom Karimov signed the pact with reservations, agreeing to commit Uzbek forces not permanently but on a mission-to-mission basis (Interfax, February 4). Other CSTO leaders did not seem enthusiastic. All CSTO countries have authoritarian regimes of varying severity. Permanently committing their best units to direct Russian command and basing them abroad could put these regimes at serious risk. In the end, Moscow had to settle for a continuation of the present arrangement, under which units committed to the joint force by other CSTO armies will stay under national jurisdiction and on national territory. Medvedev was able to announce only that the joint force units would "sometimes train together "(RIA-Novosti, February 4).

During the Russian invasion of Georgia last August and the consequent occupation, not a single Russian CSTO ally provided any assistance, whereas U.S. allies have committed forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. Moscow wanted to change this situation and since the invasion has been pressing its CSTO allies to commit forces for possible joint military action (Interfax, February 4). There is now an agreement on paper but, in fact, nothing tangible. The present Belarus constitution does not allow the commitment of any troops abroad. Land-locked Armenia, sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey, is in no position to send any substantial forces anywhere. There is at present no external threat to post-Soviet Central Asian CSTO nations, but there are internal threats. The Central Asian CSTO leaders could possibly welcome Russian help in the future to suppress internal security emergencies and radical Islamist threats, but they will be extremely reluctant to commit their own forces abroad. If there is any military conflict in the future in the Caucasus or on Russia’s western borders, Moscow will most likely be forced to go it alone once again.

Moscow got itself into an alliance in which it is the donor of security to fragile authoritarian regimes that take but do not give back much in return, and the price Russia pays is high. It was agreed in Moscow that a joint $10 billion fund would be created to help allies overcome the world financial crisis with Russia committing $7.5 billion. On February 3 Russia committed over $2.3 billion to press the reluctant Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to oust the United States from a military base at the Manas airport (see EDM, February 4; Kommersant, February 5).

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said that about 1,000 U.S. troops "and dozens each of French and Spanish" troops are working at the Manas base to transport 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo monthly for the Afghan campaign (AP, February 4). Russian state-controlled TV has been jeering that the United States is now in a trap: the Taliban is jamming supplies to forces in Afghanistan from the south through Pakistan, and now the northern supply line has also been compromised (www.vesti.ru, February 4).

At the same time, Medvedev sounded a conciliatory note, announcing the intent to help the United States stabilize Afghanistan, but apparently requiring political concessions in return. These involve the tacit recognition of Russia’s sphere of privileged influence in the former Soviet space, the end of U.S. support for pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine, and the canceling of plans to deploy missile defense systems in Europe (AP, February 4; Kommersant, February 5). It seems that Moscow believes that by securing the closure of Manas, it has President Barack Obama’s Afghan policy at its mercy. To fulfill his announced Afghan plans Obama (in the Kremlin’s understanding) cannot do without Russian cooperation on supply links and will be forced to meet Moscow’s terms, making major concessions, and, in effect, handing over to Russia’s CSTO alliance full control of the post-Soviet landmass.

In starting what should be a serious political dialogue by committing billions of much-needed dollars to undermine the U.S. supply route to Afghanistan, Russia is acting in exactly the same way that it did during the natural gas confrontation with Ukraine last month. The coming face-off may be the Obama’s administration’s first major foreign policy challenge.