The Collective Security Treaty Organization, better known by its initials, CSTO—or by Moscow’s aspiration that it should be an equal counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—is now on the brink of collapse, yet another case of the collateral damage Russia has suffered in the post-Soviet space from President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous war against Ukraine. When the CSTO was created in 1992, Russia and five other post-Soviet states were members; a year later, it had grown to nine. But in the intervening years, it contracted to six. Now it is becoming more clear that, by next year, the CSTO, which Moscow had placed so much hope in, will most likely be reduced to only three: Russia, Belarus and Tajikistan. Moreover, after Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon’s attack on Putin at the Tashkent summit of regional leaders earlier this month, it is entirely possible that this much-ballyhooed military alliance will be left with only two members (Centralasia.media, October 14). Indeed, the signs of the collapse of this Russian project are now so obvious that one Moscow security analyst, Georgy Filin, argues that “the CSTO is repeating the fate of the Warsaw Pact” (Versia.ru, October 17).
Three developments support that conclusion, and the Kremlin has gone out of its way to dispute one element in particular. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, for example, has quite implausibly denied that any problems persist among the CSTO members, even though, of the current six, only two, Russia itself and Belarus, support Putin’s war against Ukraine (TASS, October 10). In this respect, the first development was when Kazakhstan suspended its cooperation with the grouping after controversy between Astana and Moscow broke out following the only CSTO military action ever: its intervention in Kazakhstan in January 2022 when protesters challenged the Kazakhstani government. Second, Armenia has done the same given the CSTO’s unwillingness to intervene on Yerevan’s side in its conflict with Azerbaijan. Armenian politicians have even go so far as to demand that Armenia leave the Moscow-led grouping altogether. Third and perhaps most important, and from Moscow’s perspective unexpected and worrisome, Kyrgyzstan at the last moment and without warning cancelled the CSTO military exercise scheduled to be held on its territory in early October (Interfax, October 9).
Bishkek, to be sure, had an entirely understandable reason for taking this action: it remains locked in a border conflict with Dushanbe and could hardly welcome Tajikistani troops on its territory even if they were part of a CSTO exercise. But Moscow views what the Kyrgyzstani government did, not in the context of increasing conflicts between the CSTO countries, but rather as the result of Western efforts to peel away Russia’s neighbors. These efforts include decoupling Russia from its allies by means of military exercises, such as the Regional Cooperation-22 command staff exercise involving the United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, which took place at the same time as the CSTO’s Indestructible Brotherhood-2022 were meant to be held in Kyrgyzstani territory (Ia-center.ru, October 11). The much-reduced CSTO exercise was then hastily renamed—speaking on an “indestructible brotherhood” was too much even for Moscow in this case—and relocated to Tajikistan (Ia-centr.ru, October 17).
When the CSTO was established, many in Moscow and some in the West viewed it as a potential counterweight to NATO. But it has never been that. Moscow celebrated it but never invested enough money in it to allow for more than brief exercises each year. Moreover, while NATO is not without its divisions, including serious ones such as the conflict between Greece and Turkey, from the beginning, the CSTO has been the site of violent clashes and even wars between its members in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, despite its promise to be a regional peacekeeper, the organization has not responded to requests from members to fulfill that role. Except for the case of Kazakhstan, in which the CSTO merely provided cover for what was largely a Russian operation, the organization has been unwilling to provide help, not only to Armenia but also to Kyrgyzstan, which has requested assistance on three occasions in 1999, 2010, and 2021, only to be flat-out turned down in each case.
Aynur Kurmanov, a pro-Moscow Kazakhstani politician and analyst, would like to see the CSTO revived and even expanded. But both his description of the current situation and his calls for changes that many consider impossible make his discussion of the situation anything but optimistic from the Kremlin’s point of view (Politnavigator.net, October 10) On the one hand, Kurmanov says that “many CSTO members constantly violate their obligations as members of the alliance but at the same time constantly demand that Russia maintain peace and stability—without giving it anything in return except for formal assurances of friendship.” And on the other, he argues, the only way out of the current situation toward a future in which the CSTO can counter what he calls “the aggressive plans of NATO” is for members to agree not to attack one another, not to cooperate at all with NATO and agree only to work with Moscow, Beijing and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is something none of the current members, except for Belarus and Russia itself, are ever likely to agree to or even live by.
It is thus difficult not to accept the conclusions offered by two independent Russian analysts, Anatoly Nesmiyan, who blogs under the screen name “El Murid,” and Filin, who was cited earlier. Nesmiyan says that the situation Moscow finds itself in now with the CSTO in Central Asia and the South Caucasus “very much recalls [a similar situation] before the demise of the USSR,” with Russia pulling out and others moving in, however unwelcome that may be for the Kremlin (Bbc.com/Russian, October 10). And Filin, even more pessimistically, suggests that, today, as the CSTO situation demonstrates, “Russia does not have too many friends, even fewer partners and almost no remaining allies” (Versia.ru, October 17).