Moscow suffered a major military-diplomatic defeat recently in Kyzyl, the capital of the Siberian Russian Republic of Tuva. During the opening session of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) Defense Ministers Council, the chief of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, urged the CIS countries to participate in “the restoration of peaceful life” in Syria: “Today, it is possible to provide assistance in many spheres in Syria. There is mine clearance of the territory, joint patrolling of de-escalation zones, humanitarian assistance, restoration of infrastructure. We count on your support, which would demonstrate our unity in the fight against international terrorism and ensuring common security” (RIA Novosti, June 6).
But Shoigu’s CIS counterparts unanimously ignored his calls, and none of their governments offered any official response. This was not Russia’s first attempt to involve the republics of the former Soviet space in a military operation in Syria (see EDM, July 10, 2017). A year ago, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin stated, during a press conference, that Moscow promised to deploy the militaries of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to control “de-escalation zones” in Syria. “There was even a proposal from the Russians to send a certain number of Kyrgyz and Kazakh [servicemen]. They, too, can take their place in the framework of these efforts […] but all this requires detailed work,” he claimed (Sputnik News, June 22, 2017).
The chairperson of the Duma committee on defense and former commander of the Airborne Troops, Vladimir Shamanov, immediately echoed the statements of the Turkish representative, confirming that negotiations with Bishkek and Astana on sending troops to Syria were ongoing (RIA Novosti, June 22, 2017). However, the reactions from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were sharply negative. “Kazakhstan is not in talks with anyone on deploying its service members to Syria,” Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said, adding, “It is crucial for our country that we have a UN [United Nations] Security Council resolution and a respective UN mandate before discussing a possibility for our peacekeepers to be deployed to any hotspot in the world.” In turn, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and General Staff alleged that they had “no information” about any talks over a possible deployment to Syria (RT, June 23, 2017).
This time, the CIS countries generally responded to Shoigu’s proposal with silence. As for the reaction of analysts in these countries, it has ranged from skeptical to strongly disapproving. “Syria […] has become a battlefield for different groups of states, and then the CIS countries are added [which will further confuse the situation],” said the head of the Azerbaijani center for sustainable development studies, Nariman Agayev. “Russia’s dominance over the CIS countries has ended, and the CIS countries will not react to Shoigu’s call,” he predicted (365Info.kz, June 15, 2018).
“This is not the first time that Russia has called on Central Asian countries and Kazakhstan, in particular, to participate in dubious initiatives in the international arena,” Kazakhstani political scientist Islam Kuraev declared, continuing, “However, Kazakhstan is a sovereign state that does not owe anything to anyone. The fact that the initiative is imposed on us by an official of another country… [is] unacceptable. After all, Russia, first of all, is defending its geopolitical interests [in Syria].” Askat Dukenbayev, a political scientist from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, also argued that his country should not participate in the reconstruction of Syria as long as President Bashar al-Assad remains in power there. Meanwhile, Karimjon Akhmedov, a former deputy minister of economy of Tajikistan, said, “There is no peace in Syria yet, and there is no common understanding between Russia’s own allies,” therefore, “Is it not better for [Tajikistan] to participate in the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan [rather than Syria]?” (Karavansarayi, June 12).
Notably, most of the countries participating in the CIS defense ministerial meeting in Kyzyl are also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—in other words, formally Russia’s military allies. At such gatherings, the political and military leaders of the CIS countries ritually swear their readiness to confront common threats and to work together to ensure security throughout the world. Indeed, within the framework of the CSTO and the CIS, documents were adopted in advance that would allow these countries to participate in operation in Syria. For instance, guidelines for peacekeeping and humanitarian cooperation among CIS member states were laid down in the Alma-Ata Declaration of December 21, 1991, and in the December 24, 1993, Ashgabat Declaration. Additionally, in May 2014, the governments of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine signed an agreement on cooperation of their engineering troops in the context of humanitarian operations. Consequently, the only thing standing in the way of CIS involvement in joint operations in Syria is political will.
At the moment, however, such political will among Russia’s CIS partners is largely non-existent. The states that have undertaken obligations to participate in collective defense with Moscow appear to be interested only in obtaining various economic preferences from Russia—in particular, the purchase of Russian military equipment and its repair at domestic Russian prices. Ignoring Shoigu is, thus, emblematic of this reality. Ritual statements of unity by leaders of the CIS countries are often the only tangible recompense Moscow receives for offering them economic preferences and military support. Sometimes, it even falls short of rhetoric: for example, the Kremlin was unable to secure formal approval from any of the members of the CIS or CSTO for Russian aggressive actions in Ukraine. Russia’s partners have also avoided direct participation in Russia’s military confrontation with the West. And now, they are recoiling from participating in Russian “peacekeeping” missions.
Nevertheless, Moscow has continued to insist on the eventual participation of the CIS countries. Two reasons help explain this unwavering stance. The first is ideological. The Kremlin would like to create at least the appearance of an international coalition that is under Russian leadership. The second is rather more practical. After the cessation of large-scale hostilities, in which the use of the Air Force could provide great advantage, the presence of ground troops in the controlled territories is beginning to play an increasingly important role. In an effort to avoid mounting casualties, the Kremlin is trying to limit the participation of the Russian Ground Forces. The solution, from Moscow’s point of view, is to bring in CIS troops instead.