Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 125

Russian President Vladimir Putin, elected as the new chairman of the Council of Collective Security of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), has pledged an enhanced role for the CSTO in regional security. He held out the prospect of future cooperation with NATO at the multilateral level and once again sought to offer the prospect of CSTO forces serving as peacekeepers within trouble spots in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Putin takes over the chair of the CSTO from his Kazakhstani counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev, whom he praised for his role in strengthening collective security during the past year. It is interesting to note that in a period of frenzied pro-Western activity, as Kazakhstan sought to deepen its bilateral relations with the United States and other members of the NATO Alliance, as well as its participation within NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), Moscow has regarded favorably the handling of Nazarbayev’s period as CSTO Chairman (Interfax, June 23; RTR, Russian TV, June 23). At a more practical level, the position of combined commander of the CSTO forces has also passed to Russia: Army General Yuri Baluyevsky, Chief of the Russian General Staff, has been appointed to serve as the CSTO commander for one year, replacing Kazakhstan’s General Bulat Darbekov. Thus the CSTO has fallen under the direct stewardship of Russia for one year, and the initiatives that follow will delineate Russia’s new strategic vision for security in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Putin has already intimated his willingness to develop multilateral relations between NATO and the CSTO during meetings with Jaap de Hoop Schaeffer, NATO Secretary-General. In taking such steps, Putin is reasserting Russian influence in security matters within Central Asia and the Caucasus, clearly of strategic value to Moscow, while benefiting from further bridge-building measures with the Alliance (Itar-Tass, June 23). It is equally worth noting that he saw the future development of bilateral relations between CSTO members and NATO as realistic and desirable, as well as emphasizing the role of the CSTO in such cooperative ventures. In all these themes, Putin reclaims Russian economic and security interests that have seemed challenged since the U.S. deployment to Central Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Nonetheless, despite Putin’s overtures of future cooperation with NATO and the UN, even mentioning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), he appears to be signaling a new and enhanced role for Russia under the CSTO umbrella that will have security implications for planners in Washington. “I believe that it would be useful to consider the possibility of using the forces of our organization for peacekeeping activities,” observed Putin. The usefulness of this consideration, since it directly involves the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, and indeed many of the units benefiting from U.S. security training initiatives in Central Asia, clearly relates to Moscow’s efforts to reassert its security credentials in the region.

Putin’s assertiveness, and in fact his clear intention to mark out his period as chairman of the CSTO, denotes genuine fear at the heart of the Russian security establishment that terrorism is increasing within the region and posing a threat to Russian interests. Such concerns are emanating mainly from Putin’s most trusted former associates the Russian intelligence services: Yuri Sapunov, chief of the FSB directorate for fighting international terrorism, commented on the nature of that threat on the same day that Putin was elected to chair the CSTO: “Since the end of 2002 there has been a rapprochement between international terrorist organizations — the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir — on the basis of their shared goal of creating the so-called global Islamic caliphate” (Interfax, NTV Mir, June 23). Such movement between Islamic extremist groups and their supporters raises the threat level within Russia and makes more plausible the potential for reaching out to cooperate with NATO — but only on Russian terms.

Russian chairmanship of an essentially Russian-led and Russian-funded multilateral organization does not offer any surprises in its utterances concerning the improvement of security from within the former Soviet Union. Putin appears to be positioning himself for a possible shift in U.S. policy towards the Central Asian region, reflecting the administration’s evolving strategy in the war on terrorism and its admission that it may be involved in post-conflict Iraq for many years. Moscow detects a shift of U.S. strategy and wants to offer itself as an arbiter in helping to stabilize Central Asia and the Caucasus while avoiding some of the more ambitious U.S. aims to promote democracy in these regions — regarded as destabilizing factors in themselves by Kremlin advisors.

The CSTO, although existing as a multilateral security body, has always been under Russian control. Such control will become more obvious and signal the emerging elements of Russian security policy in these regions throughout the year ahead. Putin clearly foresees trouble within Central Asia, and he wishes to make use of the CSTO as peacekeepers, minimizing the risk of external interference. Putin’s declaration of cooperation with NATO in fact suggests that NATO will have to first deal with Moscow before deepening its relations with Central Asian CSTO members.