How a Russian-Led Alliance Keeps a Lid on Central Asia
On Jan. 6, 2022, a military alliance that most Americans had never heard of materialized out of the sky as Russian airborne troops landed in Kazakhstan. They arrived in response to Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s call for the Collective Security Treaty Organization to aid his government in retaining control over a country that had slipped — briefly, as it turns out — into turmoil. Threatened with state-wide violent protests, Tokayev invited the members of this alliance — Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia — to “assist Kazakhstan in overcoming this terrorist threat.” This event marks the first deployment of the organization’s military forces to resolve an intrastate crisis in one of its member states.
Established in 2002 as a security component of Russia’s regional integration effort, this alliance (known by its initials, CSTO) had a limited effect on politics, shunning away from regional political crises. Thus, for a long time, the question “what is the CSTO good for?” had a rather straightforward answer: not much. In the past, experts and politicians dismissed it as a meaningless organization suffering from commitment issues, internal divisions, and the lack of joint political interests. The CSTO deployment in Kazakhstan broke a long-lasting tradition of passivity in the face of intrastate crises in its member states. This development requires the re-evaluation of previous conclusions about the organization’s impotence. It also warrants a closer examination of its utility in advancing Russia’s security interests in the region. The case of Kazakhstan indicates that the alliance could become a useful tool for fortifying CSTO governments against coups and protests, deepening Sino-Russian cooperation, and increasing Moscow’s role as a security provider in Central Asia.
What Is the CSTO?
In 2002, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan formed the CSTO based on a treaty signed back in 1992. This move from a treaty to an organization launched the development of the alliance’s military capabilities. Joint CSTO forces include the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (approximately 18,000 troops), the Peacekeeping Forces (about 3600 troops), and the Collective Air Force (numbers unspecified). Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty stipulates collective defense provisions similar to the NATO Charter’s Article 5: an act of aggression against one of the member states will be considered as aggression against all. Upon the request of the attacked, other allies will send necessary help, including military force. The treaty defines aggression as “an armed attack threatening security, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
The CSTO is a Moscow-led organization advancing the Kremlin’s security interests in Russia’s near abroad. This should come as no surprise since Russia is the only CSTO member that has security interests in all three regions where the alliance can operate — Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. This balance of interests is also reflected in financial burden-sharing within the organization — Russia covers half of the budget while other member states contribute 10 percent each. The deployment of this alliance in Kazakhstan also reflected Russia’s dominance and disproportionate commitment. According to conservative estimates, CSTO sent about 2500 troops to Kazakhstan. About 100 came from Armenia, 200 from Belarus, 150 from Kyrgyzstan, and 200 from Tajikistan. While the exact number of Russian troops is not publicly available, the above estimates suggest that Moscow sent about 1850 troops, constituting almost 75 percent of the deployed force. Overall, the CSTO is an overwhelmingly Russian project from the political, financial, and military points of view.
If the contribution of its allies to collective security is so minimal, why does Russia even need the CSTO? Some observers assume that the alliance is a Russian attempt to balance NATO. However, the alliance organization’s leadership denied this interpretation long ago, explicitly stating that allied forces are not a counterbalance to NATO since they address crises in (but not between) CSTO countries without pursuing a global role. In addition, the CSTO does not have the military capabilities or financial resources to counterbalance NATO even if it wanted to. However, the alliance has proved useful for more modest goals and tasks. From a practical standpoint, the CSTO has been instrumental in tackling current regional security threats, including smuggling, human trafficking, illegal migration, and cyber crimes. In political terms, the CSTO allows Russia to increase its influence in its near abroad at least in two ways. First, Article 1 of the treaty precludes member states from joining alliances participating in activities hostile to one of the member states. In practice this means that as long as the Kremlin considers NATO a hostile organization, CSTO countries would be prohibited from cooperating with this alliance. At the same time, engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are founding members (along with China), would be desired and supported by the CSTO. Second, article 7 of the treaty allows Russia to expand its military infrastructure into the territories of other member states. These provisions open additional avenues for Russian influence in other member states foreign policy.
Previous Limitations in Solving Regional Conflicts
Surprisingly, despite the available forces and developed legal basis, for almost twenty years the CSTO abstained from military interventions in support of its member states. On multiple occasions, CSTO leadership insisted that the definition of an “act of aggression” under the treaty should involve an external armed attack. Since no purely external threats presented themselves in the region, it rendered the organization obsolete in most political crises that its members experienced — until today.
For instance, during the 2010 ethnic clashes in south Kyrgyzstan between Kyrgyz and Uzbek rioters, the head of the interim government, Roza Itunbayeva, asked for CSTO assistance. Despite her request, the organization decided not to intervene militarily. The CSTO secretary general claimed that the alliance could not use force to resolve an intrastate political crisis. The 2010 Kyrgyz precedent exposed the alliance’s commitment issues and cast doubt on the organization’s utility as a regional security actor. Since then, and until January 2022, no member state has requested CSTO military intervention, as most of the threats that they have faced have originated from within their state borders.
In fact, the alliance did not stand up for its members even when an external threat was present. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenia acted as a party in the conflict, introduced martial law and announced a general mobilization of troops. Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that the CSTO would not support Armenia in this war. Instead, the Kremlin preferred to serve as a broker between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. The sides reached an agreement in which Azerbaijan gained control over two-thirds of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia deployed its peacekeeping forces in the remaining third. This arrangement resulted in political crisis in Armenia, further strengthened Russia’s influence in the region, and exposed the limited utility of the CSTO once again. It happened because Russia’s commitment to the alliance contradicted its broader political interests in the region.
Political tensions and ethnic divisions within the CSTO also make the use of the alliance problematic in regional conflicts. In particular, an unresolved border dispute between two CSTO allies, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, remains a persistent source of tension in the region. In April 2021, it escalated to border troops of both states shooting at each other and at local civilians. Kyrgyzstan reported 36 dead and 189 wounded. The CSTO abstained from interfering, as its forces cannot be used to manage conflicts between its member states. To complicate the situation further, three out of the six CSTO states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — also participate in Turkish-led regional integration efforts in Central Asia through the Economic Cooperation Organization and the Organization of Turkic States. The use of force by these three states in support of their CSTO ally Armenia against Turkey-backed Azerbaijan in the case of a future war would be problematic at best. In addition, Belarus has no political interests in Central Asia, while Central Asian states have little interest in the security of Belarus. These internal divisions made galvanizing the political will to use CSTO forces a challenging task for Russia.
What Can We Learn from What Happened in Kazakhstan?
With the CSTO of the past being paralyzed by commitment issues, internal tensions, and Russia’s political preferences, what does its forces’ deployment in Kazakhstan communicate about the alliance’s potential in the face of future threats?
To understand the reasons behind the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan, it is important to look at how Russia, its core funding member, is striving to reconfigure its position in international security. The recent buildup of Russian forces on the borders of Ukraine and the subsequent unrealistic demands for security guarantees from the United States signal that Moscow is ready to take its international game to the next level. Driven by the persistent pursuit of primacy in its near abroad and the need for peer recognition as a great power entitled to a sphere of influence, Russia uses political divisions in Europe and the U.S. Afghanistan withdrawal to assert its role as a security provider in regions where it has interests. In light of these shifts, the Kremlin’s demand to have a say in European security, Russia’s further integration with Belarus, and the CSTO’s military intervention in Central Asia are all components of the same process — the expansion of Russia’s international security profile.
From this perspective, the deployment of 2,500 CSTO troops in a country as big as Kazakhstan has to be considered as a symbolic move. Practically speaking, the CSTO’s first military intervention was rather limited in its scope. Russian airborne troops assisted their Kazakh counterparts in retaking the Almaty International Airport (facing no resistance) and helped to guard government buildings. A week later, CSTO troops started to withdraw from Kazakhstan in contradiction of U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s grim observation that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.” Despite the brief and limited deployment, the long-term impact of this intervention can be found in what it communicates to local, regional, and international players.
On the regional level, the CSTO military intervention in Kazakhstan suggests that Russia is changing its security posture in Central Asia. For a long time, the alliance’s primary mission was to tackle the threats of “international terrorism and extremism, drug trafficking, illegal migration, and human trafficking,” many of which involve Afghanistan and destabilize Russia’s allies in Central Asia. Nevertheless, up until now the CSTO did not intervene militarily to advance these security priorities. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and growing instability in Central Asia, the alliance’s deployment in Kazakhstan should communicate to local powers that Russia is willing to fill the vacuum and use military force in the region if necessary.
Some might expect that the increased CSTO profile might result in Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. However, as of today the evidence suggests that the situation is more nuanced. China has an extensive economic presence in the region, with its investments in the Kazakh economy being almost $20 billion, plus $24.5 billion in infrastructure. With China taking a pragmatic approach to local politics, Beijing and Moscow have shared security interests in Central Asia, as both powers benefit from stability. Reacting to events in Kazakhstan, Chinese leader Xi Jinping commended Tokayev for taking decisive measures to restore order in the country. The Chinese Foreign Ministry praised the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan as a stabilizing measure. Overall, the deployment showed that Russia could be an effective guardian of Chinese investment in Central Asia. While strengthening Russia’s influence in the region’s security, this development also reinforces long-pursued cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, as well as between the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
On a state level, CSTO forces’ deployment in Kazakhstan shows that the organization’s intervention can deter coups, prevent security forces’ defections, and limit the success of popular protests in Russia’s sphere of influence. The fact that Russia sent some of its best-trained and most experienced military personnel to deal with the crisis in Kazakhstan could alter the cost-benefit calculations of the conspirators. The role of the security services in facilitating violent protests in Kazakhstan is still unclear. However, on Jan. 7, 2022, a former adviser of Kazakhstan’s long-term ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev called the situation a “coup attempt and armed mutiny” and claimed that the conspiracy and betrayal of top security service officials was the reason for the political crisis. In particular, he said that 40 minutes before the protestors attacked the Almaty International Airport on Jan. 5, the security forces received an order to completely remove the security cordon. The subsequent removal of key security officials in Kazakhstan and numerous suicides by members of the security forces increase the plausibility of these accusations. In the future, the prospect of fighting Russian troops with combat experience in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria could serve as a coup-proofing mechanism in other CSTO countries by undermining the local security forces’ ability and willingness to overthrow their regimes.
Moreover, existing research indicates that security force defections constitute a major component of the success of popular protests in bringing political change. Examples include the end of Slobodan Milosevic’s rule in Serbia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the toppling of Askar Akayev (2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2010) in Kyrgyzstan. The chances that CSTO joint troops, including Russian personnel, will deploy in support of the regime introduce additional costs to a decision by the military and security forces to side with the protesters. Thus, Russia’s demonstrated resolve and capability to send its airborne troops to Kazakhstan on short notice could decrease the chances that popular protests against CSTO governments will succeed if they threaten the Kremlin’s political interests. Relying on the CSTO intervention mechanism for regime reinforcement, as Tokayev did in Kazakhstan, would decrease governments’ vulnerability to pressure from their populations at the cost of increasing dependence on Russia.
From an international perspective, since the CSTO can deploy its troops only against external threats, we could expect the false externalization of domestic tensions in the member states. For instance, to justify the request for the CSTO military assistance, Tokayev had to frame the threat to his government as external. Despite the lack of evidence of any international involvement in this domestic crisis, Tokayev claimed that Kazakhstan experienced “an armed act of aggression well prepared and coordinated by perpetrators and terrorist groups trained outside the country.” This sets a dangerous precedent in which CSTO states would have to launch a geopolitical witch-hunt blaming the West, international terrorist networks, or other external actors to receive CSTO military assistance in domestic disputes. With Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia currently maintaining close relations both with Russia and the West, artificially externalizing local conflicts to receive CSTO assistance could distance these states from their western partners. Blinken’s reaction to Kazakhstan inviting CSTO intervention provides the first example of this dynamic.
The case of Kazakhstan suggests that it is time to re-evaluate the previous limitations associated with the CSTO’s role as a regional security actor. First, deploying Russian airborne troops in Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO peacekeeping force demonstrated the new level of Moscow’s commitment to the alliance. This gesture becomes even more salient given that the Kremlin is currently engaged in political-military tensions with the West over Ukraine and European security architecture. In addition, despite the lack of evidence that the Kazakh crisis was indeed externally coordinated, the CSTO deployment in Kazakhstan shows a new flexibility in the alliance’s readiness to intervene militarily. The deployment on such short notice by all member states (even in symbolic numbers) points to the Kremlin’s ability to overcome the internal divisions within the CSTO if necessary. These developments increase Russia’s influence among the CSTO states and up its game in Central Asia, especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition, the potential of CSTO interventions to deter coups and defections could increase the dependence of member states with volatile control over their security forces (e.g., Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) on the Kremlin. Overall, overcoming previous limitations and capitalizing on new opportunities to use the CSTO for regional security could advance Russian-led integration of the former Soviet space, provide Moscow with an additional mechanism to shape the political reality in the region, and contribute to Russia’s growing role in international security.
Polina Beliakova (@Beliakova_P) is a Ph.D. candidate and a research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Her research focuses on international security, governance, and civil-military relations in Russia, Ukraine, and Israel. She has published on the erosion of civilian control in democracies, insurgency and terrorism, and corruption in the Russian defense sector.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence