Kazakhstan has hosted the first Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) peacekeeping exercise on October 8–17, as the organization positions itself to play a more active role in defense and security among its members. The size of the forces, scenario for the exercise, as well as efforts by Russian officials to downplay speculation that the CSTO could send peacekeepers to Afghanistan following the end of NATO combat operations in 2014 highlight the numerous problems facing the CSTO as it takes initial steps to further expand its theoretical range of missions (Kazinform, October 9).
Nerushimoe Bratstvo (Enduring Brotherhood) 2012 began at the Iliskiy training range in Almaty Oblast on October 8, and later included the Shoshkala and Bereg training ranges. Representatives of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations were invited as observers to monitor the active phase of the exercise. They were joined by representatives of the International Organization for Migration, the CIS Executive Committee, and defense attaches accredited in Astana. Although the CSTO can muster a total of 4,000 personnel for peacekeeping operations, including 500 from non-defense ministry units, the exercise in Kazakhstan was relatively small. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia sent a combined total of 950 servicemen to Nerushimoe Bratstvo 2012, with the bulk of these being contributed by the host nation (535) (Interfax, October 8).
On October 8, a unified command was formed, tasked with preparing the peacekeeping operation. During the active phase of the exercise one week later, the joint force rehearsed protecting humanitarian convoys, dealing with mass riots, providing first aid, detecting and disabling improvised explosive devices, as well as patrolling and conducting a search operation in a populated area. The Russian defense ministry’s official paper, Krasnaya Zvezda, reported details on the exercise scenario, which appeared to draw on the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, with adjustment made to include “international extremist and terrorist organizations” as part of the hypothetical events. Moreover, the scenario concentrated on a crisis in a Central Asian state resulting from inter-ethnic conflict and a decision to send CSTO peacekeepers to separate the conflicting sides. Other sources suggest the scenario involved enemy forces attacking a military base and then seizing a village, while the CSTO response was essentially a containment of the conflict (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 11; Central Asia Online, October 6).
Almost serving as a distraction from the exercise, a press conference in Almaty on October 9 triggered media speculation that the CSTO is considering sending such forces to post-2014 Afghanistan. The media hype stemmed from remarks taken out of context by Valeriy Semerikov, the CSTO Deputy Secretary-General. Semerikov commented that the post-2014 security situation in Afghanistan has been on the minds of the organization’s officials and is under discussion at various levels. He then stated that a “possible” use of the CSTO peacekeeping forces would be made by the Collective Security Council, adding that much depends on the situation in Afghanistan. Senior Russian officials very rapidly sought to dispel such wild ideas concerning the possible use of the new peacekeeping forces, ranging from the CSTO Secretary-General, Nikolai Bordyuzha, to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The latter was strongest in the terms in which he denounced the idea, stating, “This information is absolutely wrong. Such a possibility is ruled out in principle” (Interfax, October 9).
Nevertheless, the misunderstanding over the possible destination for these CSTO peacekeepers was inadvertently moved center stage as a result. The question became: Where might CSTO peacekeeping forces actually be deployed, and what level of capability do they possess? Judging by the nature of the discussion about the exercises in Krasnaya Zvezda, the level of exercise participation and training may have been more symbolic than anything else. The 950 personnel participating in Nerushimoe Bratstvo 2012 also rehearsed defending columns of vehicles from attacks by “bandit formations,” protecting key facilities, mine clearing, and preventing the illegal movement of arms in the conflict zone. Very little firepower featured in the exercises, with reports referring to just 70 armored vehicles and four helicopters. The exercise aimed at testing what has been achieved over the past three years since the creation of CSTO peacekeeping forces, essentially meaning that the planning has moved from paper to conducting a showcase exercise (Interfax, October 10).
This exercise was staged shortly after the same training range in Kazakhstan, at Iliskiy, had hosted the NATO-linked exercise Steppe Eagle, and it may well have been intended to convey a message to the Alliance that the CSTO members are willing to sort out their own security crises, without outside assistance. However, another no less important political issue was at play; this force is the only component of the CSTO that can be deployed beyond the territory of member states, under a UN peacekeeping banner. Yet, it is unclear how consensus might be achieved to form and send such a forces, regardless of resolving the thorny issue of where (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 11; Interfax, October 10).
Given that the CSTO is potentially shrinking in size—with the secretariat facing the prospect of clarifying the status of Uzbekistan in December, following its membership suspension in June 2012—and the small numbers of personnel on offer from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, there is an issue of force size. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia constitute the bulk of the overall force provision. Nonetheless, the small numbers involved raise questions about deploying a force to conduct an operation and then rotate personnel and sustain that operation over time; by its very nature, this complex type of mission is likely to experience protracted timescales and test the level of political commitment among all contributing members. In this sense, although the CSTO has made a remarkable achievement in taking the joint peacekeeping idea from paper to an actual exercise stage, it remains in its infancy and will face further challenges and tests. But the leadership of the CSTO seems to regard Nerushimoe Bratstvo 2012 as a first step, calling for more regular exercises (Interfax, October 11).