Crisis in Eurasia: Russia’s Sphere of Privileged Inaction

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 125

Just as the worst crisis since the events in Osh in 1990 has erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan, resulting in bloodshed and large-scale internal displacement of ethnic Uzbeks, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has also faced its most severe test to date. Repeated requests from the leader of the Kyrgyz provisional government, Roza Otunbayeva, for Russian military intervention to restore order inevitably resulted in the issue being considered by the CSTO. Nevertheless, Moscow’s handling of the crisis, particularly the inaction of the CSTO in avoiding the deployment of peacekeepers and preferring instead to offer low-key support, expressing the hope that the Kyrgyz authorities might prove able in the longer term to regain control, exposed deep divisions within the CSTO.

Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, ordered the deployment of a reinforced battalion from the 31st Air Assault Brigade to protect personnel at the CSTO base in Kant. The 31st Air Assault Brigade is also assigned to the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CORF) and remains within less than an hour’s reach of Jalalabad. However, numerous Russian commentators were scathing about the decision against CSTO military intervention. Some accused Moscow of political impotence, while others questioned the justification for the CSTO’s existence. Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, regarded the Kyrgyz crisis as a test for how quickly the Russian government might act, and lamented deferring any decision to militarily intervene on a CSTO mandate as unnecessary delay. He suggested that a CSTO mandate from the UN was urgently required, in order to “stand between the warring sides” (Ekho Moskvy, June 15).

Reaction to the statement by Nikolay Bordyuzha, CSTO Secretary-General, that there was no question of sending peacekeepers to southern Kyrgyzstan, provoked speculation as to whether Russia still possesses such capabilities. In her program Kod Dostupa (Access Code) on June 19, Yuliya Latynina asserted that the Kyrgyz crisis revealed that Moscow pursues a foreign policy which creates problems for its neighbors which it is simply unable to resolve. Paradoxically, “what we used as a pretext for sending troops to South Ossetia happened for real in Kyrgyzstan,” she said, adding that she did not support sending the Russian army into Kyrgyzstan “for one simple reason –we have nobody to send” (Ekho Moskvy, June, 18-20).

On June 22, Alexander Golts, Deputy-Editor of Ezhednevny Zhurnal, portraying the CSTO as a dying organization and in essence a “paper tiger,” suggested that the crisis had exposed the hollowness of the neo-imperial Russian claims to establish a “zone of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space. He highlighted that such claims must be adequately backed-up by a willingness to assume responsibility and act decisively. Within the former Soviet Union, he argued, no state can actually rely upon Russian assistance in a real emergency. Then, unlike many observers, Golts raised the taboo of the wider implications of the CSTO’s seeming paralysis: the China factor:

“The conflict in Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated that Russia is incapable of being even a regional leader. Although the Kremlin is obsessed with US interference in the region, their real concern should be that China will fill the vacuum and become the region’s leader. The Chinese are in a much better position to pick up the ball that the Kremlin has dropped in Central Asia” (The Moscow Times, June 22).

Given the growing momentum in the rise of China, and the political and security sensitivity this arouses in Moscow, the reasons for inaction, or avoidance of immediate military intervention must be understood in order to determine how Moscow might act should the Kyrgyz provisional government fail to establish durable domestic stability.

The reticence to deploy military forces was rooted in three key interlinked factors: legality (bilateral and multilateral), the complexity of devising the parameters of the mission, and the affordability of an open-ended commitment. At a bilateral level, any deployment of Russian troops would have required evidence that Russian citizens residing in Kyrgyzstan faced imminent danger, which appeared absent. Also, there is the question of the legitimacy of Otunbayeva’s request, since it may well have been technically illegal. Laying aside the legitimacy issue faced by her provisional government, requesting the deployment of foreign troops required a written appeal by the head of state ratified or supported by parliament, as well as proof that the intervention was necessary. Yevgeniya Voyko, an expert in the Center for Current Political Conditions, used this argument to highlight the inability of the current Kyrgyz leadership to legally request such assistance from the international community: “had Kyrgyzstan legitimate institutions of power at this time, it is essential for the start of a peacekeeping military operation along UN lines to furnish proof of threats to territorial integrity or of outside attack. There has been no attack, and the threat to Kyrgyzstan’s integrity is hypothetical.” However, some Duma members said that Moscow had to act, and alleged that Otunbayeva had confirmed that ethnic Russians and Tatars were among the dead (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 17).

Azhdar Kurtov, an expert in the Russian Strategic Studies Institute, stressed that a firm bilateral agreement would need to be in place to facilitate Moscow’s deployment of peacekeepers. Such forces could not simply be sent to a hypothetical dividing line, but must actually deploy across a large swath of territory and place the border under control. Kurtov noted that Bishkek had not consented to such terms (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 17).

Legality issues were also foremost in the deliberations of the CSTO: its charter would not permit such forces to intervene in an internal conflict, which could be perceived as violating the country’s sovereignty. This was the fundamental sticking point, and efforts to convince its secretariat that the conflict was orchestrated externally did not quite fit the criteria for justifying intervention. This might elicit further discussion within the organization, though its members may prove reluctant to open up the prospect of CSTO involvement in the internal affairs of a member state. Former Russian Interior Minister, Army-General Anatoliy Kulikov, referring to the events in Kyrgyzstan, said it could compel revision of the CSTO charter to deal with internal threats. He also recommended that interior troops should feature among future CSTO peacekeepers, but admitted that both proposals faced difficulties (ITAR-TASS, June 18).

Affordability and defining the mission also dissuaded Moscow from embarking upon such a risky policy. Russian Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, recently told the Duma that Russia cannot afford additional foreign bases, despite its efforts in 2009 to open a second base in southern Kyrgyzstan which resulted in opposition from Tashkent. A base would be a cheaper option in comparison with an open-ended commitment to police complex inter-ethnic instability with a potential to spread elsewhere in the Ferghana Valley. Mission planning issues were equally present. Separating the conflicting parties demands their identification, and clear rules of engagement: should a Russian peacekeeper open fire on an ethnic Kyrgyz or Uzbek, there could be claims of taking sides. Colonel (retired) Vitaliy Shlykov, a member of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, said that Russia “has sufficient potential peacekeeping forces to settle the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan,” yet warned that its long-term success might depend on a thorough study of the Balkan experience, which scenario he believes is now unfolding in Kyrgyzstan (, June 16).

Balkanizing Kyrgyzstan is arguably the least of Moscow’s concerns, while any sense of long-term loss of prestige or the semblance of regional leadership will be calibrated in the wider strategic environment: Russian military intervention in Central Asia raises the question in Moscow as to how this might be interpreted in Beijing –which demands the utmost caution.