There are growing indications that the ongoing transformation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) from a more narrowly focused collective security organization into a body capable of meeting a much wider set of modern threats is trying to fill potential voids in Central Asian security after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. As the CSTO positions itself as the main multilateral vehicle for the Central Asian states to bolster regional security it appears to focus on several key areas: border security, developing rapid reaction and peacekeeping capabilities, reforming its legal mechanisms to act across a wider range of mission types and promoting its image as a genuinely strong political-military alliance.
BACKGROUND: On June 20, 2012 the CSTO Council of Foreign Ministers agreed to offer assistance to Dushanbe in order to strengthen border security on the Tajik-Afghan border. The assistance will mostly relate to supplying equipment for Tajik border guards, but may extend to providing additional training for border personnel. Such initiatives are intended to convince CSTO members that after the withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan, the main source of security in Central Asia will be offered through the CSTO, de facto serving to boost Russia’s waning security influence in the region.
During the CSTO Summit in Moscow on May 15, 2012, President Vladimir Putin stressed that the CSTO’s role in international security will “continue to grow.” Putin’s comments echoed an earlier statement by former President Dmitry Medvedev saying in August 2011 that Moscow is “interested in increasing the CSTO’s potential.” This policy to strengthen the role of the CSTO in the context of what Moscow perceives as NATO’s declining influence in Central Asia is also calculated to boost Russia’s role in regional security, securing its near monopoly in the arms market as well as increasing its leverage in political and economic issues.
Indeed, Russian political and military officials have constantly linked the need to transform the CSTO into a much more effective regional security body to the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan and its unpredictable consequences, while also alluding to the fear of civil unrest in Central Asian countries as a knock-on impact from the Arab Spring. Moscow uses these issues to convince its CSTO allies of the need to collectively enhance the organization to meet such challenges in the future. However, Moscow overplays these anxieties due to its recognition that post-2014 the US will continue to develop its ties with the Central Asian states and retain a smaller military footprint in Afghanistan and in the region. These factors drive Russian policy makers to promote an image of the CSTO as a potential security competitor to NATO to reduce interest in western or NATO defense assistance programs.
IMPLICATIONS: Throughout 2011, Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and the Chief of the General Staff, General Nikolai Makarov, made several statements aimed at promoting precisely such an impression about CSTO transformation. In their view the process would culminate in the CSTO emerging as a “true military-political alliance.” The underlying need in transforming the CSTO is to create combat ready forces capable of acting during a regional or domestic crisis within any member state, as well as to develop a peacekeeping potential. The Collective Rapid Reaction Forces created in June 2009 stage annual military exercises and member states are ratifying amendments to the Collective Security Treaty Charter to permit the force to be used in a variety of crises situations including in response to a domestic crisis following a request from the host government. Despite such progress, Uzbekistan has chosen to avoid participating in this force and Tashkent remains opposed to what it regards as the CSTO developing any capability that might internationalize conflicts in the post-Soviet space.
Moscow also promotes the progress of this transformation process based on agreements signed during the CSTO Summit in Moscow on December 20, 2011. Among these, member states agreed to consult each other on the issue of foreign military basing, requiring consensus in the CSTO, and this has effectively provided Moscow with a veto on any future talks to open foreign bases in the region. CSTO members also agreed to coordinate their views on various foreign policy issues, which Moscow perceives as a mechanism to avoid Russia appearing to be isolated on key issues.
In order to boost its influence within CSTO member states, Moscow is also pushing to sell more weapons and military equipment at “preferential” prices. In real terms this means that Moscow offers to sell hardware at domestic prices, but few members can afford to buy from Russia on such terms; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would mostly require credit terms and the Armenian or Belarusian economies are unlikely to support major acquisitions. This leaves Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as the two main sources for Russian arms exports in the CSTO, yet both show increasing interest in diversifying their foreign arms acquisition policies. According to CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, as of January 2012, member states had purchased $500 million worth of the “very latest” weapons and military equipment from Russia, marking an almost two-fold increase in such purchases over a two years period. It is, however, possible that such figures are exaggerated, while there is scant information on the precise nature of such procurement policies among CSTO members.
Each CSTO member perceives its role and interests within the body very differently, while the organization has often been criticized for being a paper tiger. At best, Tashkent’s participation can be characterized as ambivalent, although for some members Uzbekistan is often viewed as a spoiler whenever new initiatives are discussed. However, the differences within the CSTO are most frequently in evidence during its military exercises, especially in relation to the new Collective Rapid Reaction Forces which is mainly a Russo-Kazakh force grouping with smaller-scale participation by other members and no involvement by Uzbekistan.
To bridge the gap between how members view the value of the CSTO and their actual security needs, Moscow is placing greater rhetorical emphasis on the uncertainties aroused by NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, yet paradoxically it also understands the potential risks by being seen as a security guarantor in Central Asia. The assistance trends to strengthen CSTO rapid reaction capabilities, develop regional peacekeeping forces, enhance Tajik border security or sell more Russian arms will depend on how successfully Moscow can tap into and play on the fears of a domestic crisis erupting in the future in the CSTO members’ capitals.
CONCLUSIONS: Although Moscow is pushing for a much stronger role for the CSTO in regional security, the differences among members over the development of the organization, or on the implications of post-2014 Afghanistan as well as the military imbalance among its members will serve to limit the success of such policies. For some members the CSTO remains more virtual than real, and even when Russian political and defense officials appear to talk up the future of the CSTO there are often multiple underlying issues driving their thinking and planning. However, since Moscow has long-term strategic interests in Central Asia and genuine concern about preserving regional peace, it fears having to act alone to resolve a future crisis and in this sense has to find ways of ensuring that at least some countries would join Russia in a “collective response.”AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is an Affiliated Senior Analyst with the Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen and an Advisory Scholar: Military Affairs with the Center for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations (CRCR) Georgian College Ontario, Canada.