Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus, Robert Kocharian of Armenia, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, Imomali Rahmonov of Tajikistan, and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan met on June 23 in Minsk for a dual summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc). The two groups’ membership rosters are identical except in the case of Armenia, a member of the CSTO but not of EurAsEc.
Speaking to journalists during a break between the two meetings, Putin asserted, “Developing closer cooperation between EurAsEc and the CSTO is one of the most topical tasks, which will make it possible to protect integration processes from various threats” (NTV Mir, June 23). “Integration processes” being the classic code word for Russian policies, Putin’s statement confers a distinctly military dimension to such processes. Combining the CSTO and EurAsEc summits into a single event in Minsk underscored that idea. Trading chairs at this summit, Putin handed over the CSTO’s rotating chairmanship to Lukashenka while the latter turned the EurAsEc chairmanship over to Putin.
The CSTO summit decided to place the Collective Rapid Deployment Force under the command of a single headquarters that would operate on a permanent basis. Until now, a standing operational group based in Bishkek has been in charge of that Force under Russia’s Major-General Sergei Chernomordin, who is also deputy chief of staff of the Volga-Urals Military District. The 4,000-strong Rapid Deployment Force, earmarked for possible operations in Central Asia, presently consists — at least on paper — of 10 battalions of varying readiness levels, including: three battalions from Russia, three from Tajikistan (two of these apparently from the Russian division stationed in that country and one from Tajikistan itself), two from Kazakhstan, and two from Kyrgyzstan (the latter country has pleaded poverty asking to be excused from contributing a second battalion). These units are based in the respective countries under national control and hold joint exercises, usually at annual intervals, under joint command. Russia’s air base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan, with some 10 tactical combat aircraft and about a dozen helicopters, is designated a CSTO base and assigned to the Collective Rapid Deployment Force.
According to some Russian media reports, participants in the Minsk summit approved a decision whereby any CSTO member country wishing to accept a deployment of non-CSTO troops on its territory must first obtain the agreement of all the other CSTO countries (RTR Russia Television, June 23). If so, this implies that military exercises involving U.S. or NATO countries’ troops, their transit passage, or their use of military installations in any CSTO member country, for example on anti-terrorism missions, would necessitate Russian approval. Thus, Washington or NATO allies would have to negotiate the approval not just with possible host countries, but with Moscow, which could either withhold the approval, maneuver one or several CSTO countries into withholding it, or try to trade its approval for some geopolitical quid-pro-quo elsewhere.
Thus, if this summit decision is final, Moscow would insert itself between the Western alliance system and CSTO member countries, trying to force the latter to deal with the West through Russia, not directly. In Central Asia, such a situation would reverse the Pentagon’s historic diplomatic achievements of 2001-2002, when it negotiated basing agreements directly with Central Asian presidents, who felt encouraged to resist Moscow’s pressures at that time.
The decision in Minsk may also aim to nudge NATO into alliance-to-alliance contacts and common activities with the CSTO, thus granting the latter a form of political recognition. However, CSTO member countries are generally interested in cooperating with NATO in a national capacity, and NATO has always related to them directly, consistently avoiding the pitfall of dealing with the CSTO collectively.
At present, NATO prepares to expand its operations in Afghanistan and may request logistical support from certain Central Asian countries. Moscow apparently calculates that it could in that case arrange to refer the request formally to the CSTO for consideration, so as to press NATO into dealing with this Russia-led structure. One item in the Minsk summit declaration (such documents are Moscow-drafted as a rule) says that alliance obligations among CSTO member countries take precedence over other obligations.
Participants in the Minsk summit approved measures designed to turn the CSTO into a multifunctional organization. At Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s initiative and Lukashenka’s proposal, the summit resolved to develop joint structures of the member countries’ intelligence and law-enforcement agencies and Internal Affairs ministries, as well as strengthen the Defense Ministries’ joint structures. Beyond its military and political-military remit, the CSTO would create joint capabilities to deal with natural and technological disasters, illegal migration, and the narcotics traffic.
Contrary to some expectations, the summit did not officially announce an intent to create CSTO peacekeeping troops or a legal mechanism for rendering emergency military assistance to member countries in the event of aggression against them from outside the CSTO. Kocharian in particular expressed regret over the failure to advance on the assistance issue (Arminfo, Itar-Tass, June 23). For its part, Moscow has developed a full-fledged concept for CSTO “peacekeeping” operations within the CSTO area and collective participation in international operations beyond that area. Moscow will almost certainly call in the months ahead for adoption of this concept and a political decision on creating CSTO peacekeeping troops.
The dual summit was timed to coincide with the final phase of a Russia-Belarus military exercise, the largest-ever held in the CSTO’s framework. Forces from Russia and Belarus comprise the CSTO’s “regional group of forces” in the West, along with the Russian-Armenian group and the Russian-led Central Asian group in the respective theaters.
(Interfax, Belarus Television Channel One, June 23, 24)